Originally published by Signal Akron - Kassi Filkins, December 6, 2023

“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,” Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said in a press release about the Akron Innerbelt project and its long-term effects.

Reconnecting Our Community initiative, a report looking at ways to move forward, was released Monday and acknowledges the problematic history of the Innerbelt project, summarizes the community engagement efforts of the initiative in the last two years, and gives recommendations for short- and long-term actions. The city also released a condensed executive summary of the report.

“As Mayor of Akron, I want to acknowledge the lasting harm that the Innerbelt project caused to generations of Akronites,” Horrigan said. “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.”

The Innerbelt project

Innerbelt construction began in 1970. The 4-mile-long, six-lane highway – also known as state Route 59 – cuts through central Akron and runs north along the western edge of downtown. Before the Innerbelt, the area was a vibrant community that was home to families of color – primarily Black residents.

The development “was driven by federal funding and urban renewal which often aimed to expand the interstate highway system and redevelop areas designated as ‘slums’ around the country,” the report stated.

The original goal of the project was to “rejuvenate” downtown, but instead, the project led to the displacement of people, homes and businesses. As of today, only around 11.2 acres of the roughly 40 acres is in use, leaving about 28.8 acres lying desolate and awaiting redevelopment.

More than 700 homes, more than 100 businesses and several houses of worship were displaced when the City of Akron exercised eminent domain – a power held by governments to force owners to accept payment for their private property and turn it into a public space.

“It’s clear from conversations with Akron residents impacted by the Innerbelt’s original construction that its creation left not only physical scars but also economic, social, and emotional ones, from insufficient compensation to disrupted social networks,” the report states.

The Reconnecting Our Community initiative

In late 2020, the City of Akron hired Liz Ogbu, a spatial justice activist and founder of Studio O, to help spearhead community engagement efforts. The goal was to talk to residents and community members about the future they wanted to see for the site. These efforts helped to center the voices of those affected by the razing of the neighborhood.

“At this critical juncture, Akron is at an inflection point in its efforts to heal the wounds of the past and reimagine the future of the Innerbelt,” Ogbu said in the report.

“With two years of conversation and engagement behind us and the potential short-term actions and long-term visioning ahead, it’s a good time to take stock of what community members have shared, what opportunities exist, and what challenges should be understood.”

The executive summary highlights 10 key takeaways from the full report. Among the takeaways are acknowledging and supporting grief of the loss of the neighborhood, holding accountability of the Innerbelt’s past, recognizing that harm and healing are generational, and calling on the City of Akron to have more active and clear communication on its intentions, commitments and activities.

City Council members, nonprofit leaders, business representatives and individuals affected by the neighborhoods displaced by the Innerbelt formed an Innerbelt Advisory Group that helped do the work of the initiative.

“My process is rooted in the concept of spatial justice. It’s a term that means that justice has a geography and requires equitable access to resources, opportunities and outcomes,” Ogbu said.

Engagement of the Reconnecting Our Community initiative

The Reconnecting Our Community Phase 1 Innerbelt Report highlights how community members have been engaged over the last two years, including a historical archive, a reunion event for former residents of the neighborhood, “engagement stations” at events, and focus groups.

Additionally, the report notes that, “Not including the website visitors, over 1,000 people were directly engaged through the initiative’s engagement efforts.”

The report states  about 70% of the individuals the initiative engaged with lived in Akron. West Akron had the highest engagement rate, and South Akron and High Hampton had the lowest engagement rates.

The initiative recommends some short- and long-term steps.

To help keep the conversations about the future of the Innerbelt area moving over the next one to three years, the initiative recommended working within five categories: 1) Healing + Repair, 2) Process + Engagement, 3) Interim Use, 4) Physical Site, and 5) Future Planning Support.

These recommendations include efforts such as providing tools to the communities affected by the grief of the displacement and loss, having better communication strategies, developing a strategy for interim use, leveraging the site to tell the history, and releasing a request for qualifications (RFQ) for a master plan team.

The report laid out similar recommendations for the six-year milestone and beyond.

Converting parts of the city-owned land to a community land trust, exploring the creation of a community restoration fund, and creating a long-term accountability structure surrounding Innerbelt re-development are just a few of the recommendations.

Additionally, honoring the site, cultivating an inclusive neighborhood and re-evaluating the physical site and how to use it best are also on the list of long-term recommendations.

The next steps include the release of a national request for qualifications (RFQ) to identify a consulting team to lead the master planning process.

“For some Akron residents, this story might feel like part of a distant past. But for others – especially within Akron’s Black community – it remains an open wound,” Ogbu said in the report.

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