Discussions about redeveloping Akron Innerbelt area must involve Black community

·4 min read

More thought may be going into replacing the Akron Innerbelt than building it.

Ever since then-Mayor Don Plusquellic proposed tearing down the highway 22 years ago, many ideas have been floated as to how the city should proceed. Whether the Innerbelt becomes the site of business and residential development or a park, many people are excited to see what’s next.

For now, just 30 acres of the abandoned highway are decommissioned downtown. The future of overbuilt lanes still in use to the south is also unclear, but could provide even more land for worthwhile efforts.

The city last year formed the Innerbelt Advisory Committee, which is meeting monthly to discuss the past and future of the area. In March, the city plans to begin holding meetings where residents can offer input on redevelopment.

This public engagement process will be crucial for Akron in a number of important ways. For one, Akron has a chance to repair the damage it did to Black residents when the highway was being built 50 years ago, as the Rev. Gregory Harrison emphasized in an interview with the Beacon Journal.

More than 100 businesses were shuttered and more than 700 households (the exact number is not known) were displaced by demolition needed for the highway. Livelihoods were ruined and the wealth built through homeownership was lost for many.

Photo gallery: Akron Innerbelt drives racial disparity

One former director of a nonprofit housing agency estimates that only about one-quarter of the people he assisted ended up in first-time homeownership or otherwise improved conditions.

We agree with Pastor Joey Johnson that the city should strive to raise homeownership rates among Black residents and offer new affordable housing or rehabilitation in the Innerbelt area and other neighborhoods. Johnson serves as chairman of the city’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Task Force and is co-chair of its housing subcommittee.

As a taxpayer project, the Akron Innerbelt never lived up to its promises. It was designed to accommodate 120,000 cars daily, but in later years carried just 18,000. It was promoted in the early 1960s as a way to bring suburban residents downtown for shopping and working, but may have instead made it easy for workers and dollars to head to the suburbs.

The highway, built in segments in the 1970s and ’80s, never connected to state Route 8 because money had dried up. The downtown intersection after the highway’s abrupt end was ranked as the worst for accidents in the Akron metro area.

We relied on experts of the time to build the highway. The disuse of the highway shows the experts got some things wrong.

And as the Beacon Journal’s reporting details, the experts — those working in government — were also wrong to ignore Black voices.

As city officials consider what to do with the highway site, it will be important to reach deep into the city for input. Holding meetings in neighborhood venues and on evenings and weekends might be key to drawing a more economically diverse crowd. Sending invitations through the mail and allowing sign-ups through the mail or over the phone, in addition to the internet, might also draw people of all ages and economic backgrounds.

In this Black History Month, it’s sobering to learn how Akron families were uprooted by a highway project. It’s also unfortunate that homes and businesses slated for demolition were labeled "blighted" largely because majority Black areas were deemed inferior to white areas.

Harrison, a pastor and a retired police officer, recalls that in the Wooster Avenue area of his youth, people took care of their homes. Children walked to school and relatives kept an eye on them.

It’s worth noting that Summit County Council declared racism a public health crisis in June 2020, a month after a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The Summit County resolution noted disparities between Black and white residents and blamed racism for disproportionately high rates of homelessness, economic hardship and other issues.

Akron can lead in trying to close this gap. It has a unique opportunity to listen carefully to residents with long memories who are still waiting for the city to make things right.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Akron leaders must avoid same mistakes in Innerbelt plans