'That's Just How It Is'

Public meeting on I-75 reconstruction project leaves city residents feeling resigned to their fate

Richard Lambert dropped by the St. Bernard Municipal Building Feb. 10 and studied the huge exhibit boards displaying aerial photos of an eight-mile stretch of I- 75 reaching from the Western Hills Viaduct in the south to the Paddock Road interchange to the north.

The images fanned out from the interstate and the ramps to eight neighborhoods of Cincinnati, the city of St. Bernard, the village of Elmwood Place, businesses, cemeteries, parks, railroad tracks, pedestrian bridges and historic architecture.

Somewhere in that mass of images was Lambert’s home on Colerain Avenue in Northside, which he’s lived in for 31 years. He says he understands the house will be taken down to improve the Colerain/Beekman interchange.

His home will be a casualty of the interstate project to widen and improve safety and ease congestion along this stretch of I-75.

“I’m not upset, that’s just how it is,” said Lambert, who said his was one of about eight homes in his neighborhood that will be demolished in about a year. “I hate to give up my home, but it’s for the best. They need to fix that mess. That intersection is a nightmare.”

Lambert was one of about 170 people who came to St. Bernard to review the plans for the I-75 Mill Creek Expressway project, a project that will begin in spring 2010 and is expected to be completed in 2020 and cost approximately $642 million.

The project has been in the works since 2004 when the OKI Regional Council of Governments studied and identified this corridor as needing improvements. The work will involve adding an additional lane in each direction on I-75, improving interchanges at six locations and eliminating the partial interchange at Towne Street in Elmwood Place.

“The goal is to address the congestion, improve the safety in the corridor,” said Stefan Spinosa, project manager for the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). “Those are the primary goals of the project.”

The Feb. 10 public hearing lasted from 4 to 7 p.m. It was the latest in a series of public meetings that allow people to both comment on the project and learn about it.

It was actually more of an “open house” — there were no formal presentations — with officials from ODOT and TranSystems Corp., which conducted the environmental assessment study of the project (released just two months ago), mingling with visitors and encouraging them to ask questions.

The project will involve eight phases of construction and will impact some residences — both owner-occupied and rental — and businesses, with minimal impact on some parks.

It will include closing a small motel and a city garage in St. Bernard and actually relocating some habitat for an Ohio threatened species of snake at the Camp Washington Recreation Center.

According to the report, 67 households (in 22 buildings) will be relocated, most in the city of Cincinnati. Fifteen commercial properties will need to be relocated.

Noise walls will be erected in those areas where increased traffic noise is predicted. Landscaping and the planting of trees will take place in several parks that will be affected. Massachusetts Avenue Park in Camp Washington will have its playground equipment relocated to a vacant area just south of where the park now sits.

“We worked with the Cincinnati Recreation Commission on that,” Spinosa said.

There will be no adverse effects on historic architecture, including the underground subway portals at the Western Hills Viaduct.

There has been some concern about the I-75 project, but it apparently has been minimal, according to ODOT officials. Elmwood Place Mayor Richard Ellison, for instance, is not happy with the closing of the partial interchange at Towne Street, a gateway into the village.

“The (residents) being impacted are right next to the interstate,” Spinosa said. “For the most part, the feedback has been pretty positive. It’s more of a question of when we’re coming, because they want to get away from the interstate as far as living next to it.

“On the business side, there’s been some concern from businesses. Some of them would have to move. There’s probably been more discussion from businesses, but we’ve tried to mitigate and work through it. There’s financial assistance, they get paid for relocation. That’s all laid out in federal and state law.”

In the city of Cincinnati, the concern centers around the I-74 interchange near Northside and Cincinnati State Community and Technical College, located near Ludlow Avenue and Central Parkway. City Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls, chair of the city’s subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, attended the Feb. 10 meeting.

“We are not hearing from the Mill Creek segment a lot,” Qualls said. “But there are some concerns. We are hearing from Cincinnati State about concerns about access. We’re working with them to see if there are other resolutions and to what extent. Another thing was the proposed design to the Hopple Street interchange. We spent a significant amount of time this summer and fall with ODOT re-designing that interchange. So the final design is significantly improved over what was originally suggested.

“The city considers the Hopple Street interchange incredibly important because it’s a gateway to the Uptown area as well as to the West Side.”

The city of St. Bernard is losing a city garage, but it’s unclear as yet whether its fire house will be affected.

“It is possible that the Fire Department will not need to be relocated, but additional design detail will be needed to make a final determination,” according to the environmental assessment report.

St. Bernard Mayor Bill Burkhardt said he’s comfortable in finding another location for the city service garage. The city will be paid for the move of the garage, and he’s confident of keeping the fire house. A new noise wall will help, he said.

“I don’t think it means a lot of change,” Burkhardt said. “When construction starts, we’ll see a lot more traffic on Vine, which could benefits us. We’re trying to revitalize Vine Street. Hopefully, more traffic will be better. But I feel really good about the way they did it. They worked well with us.”

‘There’s nothing we can do’

The assessment report also notes further that the displacement and relocation of residents by the project doesn’t disproportionately affect the poor or minorities along the corridor. Even with the loss and relocation of properties in all three communities — Cincinnati, St. Bernard and Elmwood Place — the report states that “no substantial impacts to the tax base of the area are anticipated as a result of the project.”

Steve Brinker, district director of the Cincinnati office of new U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus, attended the Feb. 10 hearing. He wanted to familiarize himself with the major highway project in the district.

“I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly review it,” Brinker said, noting that Driehaus took office just six weeks ago. “I have not received any feedback, nor to my knowledge has the Washington office (about the project). But for some people I think it was the first time they had a chance to really look at the project and see the scope of it.”

Elmwood Place’s Ellison didn’t attend the public hearing.

“I have quit going because basically they’ve phased us out,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do. We’ve met with ODOT. They went through the whole nine yards, the printouts, the documentation.”

The whole nine yards had to do with how the closure of the Towne Street interchange, just north of the Norwood Lateral, along with making improvements to the Norwood Lateral would improve traffic flow and cut down on traffic accidents.

Ellison said a couple of businesses in the village use over-the-road trucks, which will be inconvenienced by having to choose alternate routes to get back into Elmwood Place. Residents coming from downtown would have to exit at Seymour Avenue to the north and then head back south to the village along Paddock Road. Ellison suspects that will in turn exacerbate traffic on Paddock at rush hours.

The Towne Street ramp closing might also have an effect on attracting new business to the village, the mayor believes.

“The detriment to the community could be from a commercial standpoint,” Ellison said. “There may be businesses who are wanting to go on Vine Street (in the village), but when they see they have no access except by the Norwood Lateral or up to Seymour Avenue they might have second thoughts. We’re tearing down some buildings now and we’re trying to renovate to get some interest from maybe niche businesses who would be interested in coming to Elmwood. One of the assets has always been the ramps at Towne Street.

“I haven’t gone to the last several meetings because I just got tired of listening. There was nothing new they could tell me. And I had no new arguments.”

Next steps

Jerry Carrico lives in Spring Grove Village — formerly Winton Place — and is a member of its community council. He attended the Feb. 10 meeting to bring news of the project back to other council members. He wasn’t thrilled with the I-75 interchange allowing access to Northside.

The way he sees it, access to Northside’s commercial district will be compromised.

“They’ve cut off Northside,” Carrico said, using a pen as a pointer on the large aerial exhibit board. “You’ll be able to move along here really fast as long as you’re not getting on or off (at the interchange). You can quickly bypass the small neighborhoods.”

The comment period will last just until Feb. 26. More meetings will probably take place with municipal and village communities, but no further public hearings.

“Once that’s done, we’ll address the comments and then provide a summary to the Federal Highway Administration, who will then issue what will hopefully be a finding of no significant impacts,” ODOT’s Spinosa said. “That means basically they will sign off and we will start moving forward with acquiring right-of-way and design. Then building the project.”

Tony Walsh, a resident of the Cincinnati neighborhood of Fairview, was curious enough about the I-75 project to attend the Feb. 10 meeting.

“I wanted to see what they’re planning,” he said.

While his home on McMicken Avenue isn’t in harm’s way, he wonders what “more traffic, more lanes, more noise” will mean to his neighborhood, which lies at the base of the hill that leads up from I-75 to the rest of Fairview, Clifton Heights and the University of Cincinnati. And while this phase of construction might not affect him, he wonders what the future will bring when work will one day begin down the road south at the Brent Spence Bridge.

“I hope it works out for the best,” Walsh said. “I wish the town would get going on public transportation. If you want people to live in this town, you need to make it more pleasant.”

Get details of the I-75 reconstruction project, including maps and public comments, at www.i75millcreekexpressway.com.

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