Cleveland’s Thorofare Plan preceded federal legislation to build a national network of highways by more than a decade. The engineers and politicians who crafted the plan set out to create efficient highway traffic into, out of, and around the city's downtown area. When the construction dust settled, traffic was much improved, but new roadways sliced up the urban landscape, and, in the process, dramatically redefined neighborhood and community borders.
The concept of moving unimpeded traffic through and around urban areas evolved in concert with federal initiatives that predated the U.S.’s entry into World War II. In April 1941, President Roosevelt created the Interregional Highway Committee, which went on to propose a 32,000-mile highway network. Wartime industrial mobilization brought increased demands upon existing roads as men and materiel had to be moved quickly and efficiently throughout the country. The Committee worked through the war, calibrating its efforts to use highways to provide jobs, improve urban areas, and encourage the transition to peacetime economic growth. The Committee issued a final report in January 1944 which recommended development of efficient roads to support urban revitalization. That December, the Federal Highway Act endorsed the plan with the financial support of a tax base to underwrite the project. With federal support, state and local agencies and transportation industry associations began planning their contributions to the transportation program.
The recently reorganized Cleveland City Planning Commission was one such entity in step with the plan. In 1943, while the Interregional Highway Committee was still formulating its national plan, the City Planning Commission proposed a three and a quarter mile “innerbelt” of uninterrupted traffic that would narrowly skirt downtown Cleveland. That route was later described using a series of names from its east approach or terminus to the west terminus. Motorists traveling west on the Shoreway (along Lake Erie near East 30th Street) would make a ninety-degree turn to the south at what was referred to as the Inner Belt Curve, later to be popularly dubbed “Dead Man’s Curve.” The southbound mile stretching to Carnegie Avenue was called “The Trench” as it passed beneath railroad tracks and Lakeside, Hamilton, Saint Clair, Superior, Payne, Chester, Euclid, and Prospect Avenues. Next the freeway sliced under Carnegie Avenue at the “Carnegie Curve” before turning to the west to the “Central Interchange.” The Inner Belt then mounted the “Central Viaduct” (which took its name from an earlier bridge in the same location) to span Cleveland’s Flats and the Cuyahoga River, finally joining the Jennings and Airport Freeways. A look at the city’s pre- and early postwar street maps illustrates a congested patchwork of industrial, commercial, and residential properties with railroads and thoroughfares stretching radially from downtown. Some 1,250 property parcels lay in the proposed Inner Belt path, requiring legal acquisition for the right-of-way.
The 1943 Commission report introduces the urban revitalization orientation of the plan: “The Commission sees planning to facilitate long term post-war full employment as even more important than planning for temporary employment on public works. A very promising way to accomplish this objective is to prepare to rebuild our city completely reconstructing the blighted central areas, rehabilitating and remodeling the obsolescent districts through the cooperative effort of private initiative and public enterprise… and to extend and improve Chester Avenue and to engage with other agencies—County, Regional, and State highway engineers to provide for a network over Greater Cleveland of seven radial and two belt freeways.”
By 1945, the plan, now called the Thorofare Plan, was modified and expanded to cover the whole city including surface roadways in addition to the freeways. Specifications for improvements to the Newburgh Freeway and the Shoreway (soon to be renamed the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway) were approved and specified. Momentum however was slowed when President Truman’s administration prioritized wider economic development initiatives and, by 1950, the Korean conflict over transportation. Nonetheless, Cleveland planners continued to support the Thorofare Plan during this period. By 1948, “real evidence … began to show” with work underway on the Chester Avenue extension, the Willow Freeway development, the Memorial Shoreway interchanges, the Lakeland Freeway interchanges, and the creation of the Inner Belt Planning Office. To complete the planning, the proposals needed to be detailed, agreed, and approved. How did a freeway pierce through the heart of a large city? Highway development gained momentum in the mid 1950s with federal policy promoting interstate links to the nation’s urban centers. Those policies also addressed the deteriorating conditions of many central cities with aging and emptied residences left behind in the suburban exodus. Also left behind were the economically deprived class without the resources to maintain or upgrade their properties. Policy makers sought to address these issues with plans to route freeways through the blighted urban areas and revitalize surrounding neighborhoods with public housing and redeveloped neighborhoods. The strategies had disadvantages as well. Long standing neighborhoods were lost or split by roadways and the dislocated residents were primarily low income, low resource individuals and families. The Cleveland Inner Belt provides a prime example.
Land acquisition for the Inner Belt followed the general plan and pathway identified earlier to connect the Memorial Shoreway with the Medina/Airport Freeway. With terminus points near East 30th Street and the Memorial Shoreway and West 14th Street in Tremont, the route would wind south and west around the southeast quadrant of downtown. The right-of-way acquisition involved the mixed strategies of negotiating ‘fair’ property value with the landowner and relying on court ‘seizure’ via the process of eminent domain. The vicinity of the northern terminus was an area of abandoned industrial sites. During the war, Otis Steel/Jones and Laughlin had gradually expanded and modernized its facilities in the Flats to empty its Lakeside facility. In 1948, the city negotiated the purchase of land and rights between East 26th and East 30th Streets, Lakeside Avenue parcels, and space between the Shoreway and the North Central Railroad tracks to facilitate the development of the planned Inner Belt. The closure of the J&L facility and surrounding affiliated businesses further depleted residential population in the area just south of Saint Clair, in turn impacting businesses and churches. Further south, Saint Columbkille Church and School occupied the northeast and southeast corners of Superior and East 26th Street. In 1956 the Diocese of Cleveland and Bishop Schrembs announced plans to build a new parish in suburban Seven Hills and sell the downtown properties to the state for the Inner Belt right-of-way. The final mass was celebrated on September 26, 1957. Moving along the pathway to Euclid Avenue, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History had occupied two houses of the Leonard Hanna estate since 1922. The combined need of more space and the impending eviction for Inner Belt construction led CMNH to build a facility at University Circle where it remains today. A block south, the Lutheran High School campus at 2648 Prospect was also in the roadway’s path. When notified of the state’s plan to acquire the property by eminent domain, the Cleveland Lutheran High School Association immediately began planning for east and west campuses for new Lutheran High Schools. These were among more than a thousand commercial and residential properties that needed to be acquired by the State of Ohio to make way for the road and its access points. The pathway through the “blighted central areas, rehabilitating and remodeling the obsolescent districts” was well under way by 1956-57.
Following the land settlements for the right-of-way, contracts were extensioned for demolition, clearing, and construction of the roadway, infrastructure, 16 bridges, and 31 entrance and exit access ramps between the Shoreway and the west end of the Central Viaduct bridge. Construction was launched and completed in phases between 1955 and 1962. The first phase construction was initiated in December, 1954 with the Central Viaduct Bridge later to be known as the Inner Belt Bridge. This segment connected West 14th/Abbey Avenue in the Tremont neighborhood over the Flats and Cuyahoga River with East 9th Street and East 22nd Street/Central areas downtown. Following construction that required 27 million pounds of structural steel, the competed bridge opened to traffic on August 18, 1959, as the world’s second eight-lane bridge. Meanwhile, phase two of the construction involved the ‘Trench’ roadway between the Memorial Shoreway and Chester Avenue. Construction began in April 1957, and the road was opened on December 16, 1959, after some pauses to settle land acquisition disputes with some residents. The east and west ends of the belt were complete by 1959. The third phase, the Central Interchange, began construction in early 1960 and opened to through traffic, completing travel east to west on December 5, 1961. Work yet remained to connect the Willow Freeway at the Central Interchange ramps and connectors by mid-1962.
Sixty years later, Inner Belt interchanges with intersecting interstate highways have been in service while other improvements remain in progress. The westbound Memorial Shoreway, including the Inner Belt, continues west at West 25th street and is known as Interstate 90 crossing the northern tier of the nation. The northbound Airport/Medina Freeway is now the northern end of Interstate 71, ending where it intercepts I-90. A recent adjacent connection also sends traffic due south to Parma on Route 176 (Jennings Freeway). To the east, the north/south Willow Freeway is now Interstate 77, terminating at the Central Interchange with I-90. The Central Viaduct (Inner Belt Bridge) was evaluated for replacement in 2008. Two bridges were designed to replace the structure with added lane capacity and staged construction commenced in 2011. In 2016 the final phase of the eastbound George V. Voinovich Bridge completed the $287 million dollar project doubling its capacity. Work continues on Interstate 490 to connect east and west neighborhoods from the Inner Belt across the industrial flats via the new Opportunity Corridor eastward to the Cleveland Clinic and University Circle. The spiderweb growth of the 1956 downtown highway plan has supported millions of vehicles passing into, through, and out of the central urban area to carry Cleveland’s notably efficient auto traffic and supporting the city’s commercial and industrial economy.