Originally published by News 5 Cleveland - John Kosich, December 4, 2023

AKRON, Ohio — Like many cities across the country in the 1960s, Akron took advantage of federal funds to expand the nation's highway system. The intent was to spur urban renewal in what were seen as blighted areas. But building the 4-mile, 6-lane highway spur that would come to be known as Route 59 came at a cost, destroying a predominantly Black neighborhood and displacing many residents and businesses.

On Monday, the city released the Reconnecting Our Community Phase 1 Innerbelt Report compiled over the last two years by spatial justice activist and city contractor Liz Ogbu. This report documents the history of the Innerbelt, the community engagement work of the Reconnecting Our Community initiative over the last two years, and recommendations for short and long-term opportunities.

“As Mayor of Akron, I want to acknowledge the lasting harm that the Innerbelt project caused to generations of Akronites,” said Mayor Dan Horrigan in a news release. “It destroyed the possibility of passing on generational wealth for some, and it left emotional scars on many others who still carry the weight of that burden to this day," he said.

The report recommends an apology from the city to help advance the healing process, something Horrigan himself offered.

"On behalf of the City of Akron, we apologize for the city's past implementation of policies and practices from multiple levels of state and federal agencies which have caused this lasting harm to our community. My administration has been committed to reckoning with the mistakes of the past as we look to a new and reconnected future, and I thank all those who have both led the engagement effort and those who have shared their stories," Horrigan said.

It now falls to incoming Mayor Shammas Mahlik to see it realized.

"What we want to do is figure out how we activate the space," Shammas told News 5 this fall. "So there are ways that people can kind of envision them using it and actually use it."

The report sets a framework to develop a master plan moving forward that includes short and long-term uses for this massive blank canvas in the shadow of downtown.

"It's a highway that people can use and so let's figure out safe ways that we can activate it," said Malik. "And then over time, we can figure out okay, how do we really build essentially a new neighborhood."

The report states this is no way a conclusion but merely an early milestone in this process. A process that the new mayor admits will take time. That's why young voices will be required in the shaping of their city's future.

"I've pushed over the last few years that let's get as many young voices into this conversation as possible because this is a 50-year conversation. Not a five-year conversation."

In 2016, the Ohio Department of Transportation vacated a portion of the highway between Market and Exchange Streets and returned it to the city for public use. The area consists of 30 acres adjacent to downtown Akron.

In late 2020, the city hired Ogbu to spearhead a community engagement process in which community preferences for the site’s future could be identified to inform a future master planning process. As part of Ogbu’s extensive process, an Innerbelt advisory group was convened in 2021 to gain a community perspective and historical background. This group brought together a diverse range of community members and has helped frame the context for the engagement work. This group has included City council representation, nonprofit leaders, downtown and business community representatives, and most importantly, persons who have either lived in or have strong family ties to the neighborhoods displaced by the Innerbelt.

The engagement work has included 18 engagement stations at events around Akron, 25 virtual panels to discuss the oral history and stories of the old neighborhood, 13 focus groups, two events on the Innerbelt itself, a reunion event for former residents of the neighborhood, a citywide survey with over 600 responses, and over 8,000 visitors to the Innerbelt website.

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