The Clark, Lee and Heights Freeways
By Marian Morton
Plans for a federal highway system were already underway by 1944, but not until 1956 and the passage of the Federal Highway Act did they receive adequate political support and funding to materialize. Cold War fears then legitimized spending money on highways that would efficiently transport military personnel and equipment in case of an attack by the Soviet Union. In early 1956, alarmed Cleveland Heights residents first got wind of plans for a federal highway that would run from Euclid Avenue through the Forest Hill development and east to South Euclid, Lyndhurst, and Highland Heights. They were reassured that this “Heights Freeway” was 25 years away.
In December 1963, however, County Engineer Albert Porter made public his proposals for the Clark Freeway (I-290) that would run east and west along the Shaker Lakes to I-271 in Pepper Pike, with a north-south interchange at Lee. The “Sun Press” immediately reported that the eight-lane highway would eliminate 80 homes and five commercial properties in Shaker Heights. Despite assurances that the freeway was in the distant future, Shaker Heights residents, led by Mayor Paul K. Jones, mobilized immediately in opposition to what they interpreted as a reckless destruction of fine homes and priceless parkland. In response to 1962 federal legislation, the Cleveland/Seven County Transportation/Land Use Study (SCOTS) was established in 1963 and an early task was to assess Porter’s proposal. At this stage, Shaker Heights officials and residents played key roles in opposing this imminent freeway since it posed the most threat to their suburb.
Cleveland Heights officials followed Shaker’s lead. In 1963, County Engineer’s maps showed Cleveland Heights would be on the paths of three future freeways: the Heights Freeway through East Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid, and Lyndhurst; the Central Freeway along Cedar through the center of Cleveland Heights, and the north-south Lee Freeway that would connect the proposed Clark Freeway to Interstate 90. The Clark Freeway would also endanger Cleveland Heights since the northern boundaries of the Shaker Lakes are in Cleveland Heights, and the freeway would take some homes on North Park Boulevard. In January and February 1964, Mayor Kenneth Nash pointed out that the freeways would carve Cleveland Heights into segments. The proposed elevated Lee Freeway, he said, would create “a Chinese wall dividing our suburb from the north to south.” He promised to join forces with Shaker Heights against both the Clark and the Lee Freeways. Cleveland Heights residents organized and attended community forums such as one entitled “Blight and Freeways” in January 1965, at which future Councilman Philmore Hart told the audience that the Clark and Lee Freeways would cost the suburb 1,000 homes. In summer 1965, Cleveland Heights City Council passed a resolution against the Lee Freeway.
In the fall of 1965, women’s organizations proposed a nature center on the lower Shaker Lake that would serve the schools of both suburbs. The proposal allowed freeway opponents to capitalize on the negative impact of freeways on the lakes and watersheds, thus avoiding what might otherwise have been interpreted as a rather crass battle over the destruction of expensive property in wealthy suburbs. Supporters of the nature center, including the mayors of both suburbs, hoped that it would block both the Clark and Lee Freeways.
While SCOTS staff studied the situation over the next two years, the battle continued. In 1966, Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights maintained their vigilance, both appointing transportation advisory committees. The State Highway Department also released a detailed panoramic picture of the intersection of the proposed Lee and Central Freeways that would have eliminated everything at the Cedar-Lee intersection except for the High School. Despite assurances from the State Highway Director that no final plans would be made until the SCOTS study was completed, Mayor Nash again blasted the proposal publicly. So did the School Board and the Heights Chamber of Commerce. (The manager of Severance Center supported it.) In February 1967, Shaker mayor Jones assured an audience that Governor James Rhodes had promised that the Clark Freeway would not be built. Two weeks later, Porter assured an audience that the Clark Freeway would be built—Shaker Lakes or no Shaker Lakes. Rhodes himself, anxious to get the freeway route clarified before federal dollars disappeared, appointed a local task force to study the matter in hopes of reaching some agreement. Members included Richard S. Stoddart, chairman of the Cleveland Heights Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Transportation. (Stoddart became Councilman in June 1968 when Nash resigned to become a Judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court. Fred P. Stashower replaced Nash as Mayor.)
In summer 1968, a preliminary SCOTS report suggested a northern route for the Clark Freeway that would have touched only the northeast section of Cleveland Heights. This route spared the Shaker Lakes, but it angered officials and residents of Richmond Heights and Highland Heights. Cleveland Heights Council initially adopted a wait-and-see position until the precise route was determined, but in June, Council joined with the other affected suburbs to call for a moratorium on all freeway building.
Suburban opponents of the freeways were joined by Cleveland Mayor Carl B. Stokes. Cleveland had already experienced the destructive impact of highways that not only drained residents away from the city but destroyed the neighborhoods in the highways’ paths. Cleveland’s population dropped from 914,808 in 1950 to 876,336 a decade later; freeways were one of the reasons.
In December 1969, Porter won a major victory when he persuaded the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Committee (NOACA), which had succeeded SCOTS as a planning agency, to include in a “Recommended Highway System” the southern route through Shaker Heights. Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights immediately hired a law firm to help them block freeway plans and joined Cleveland in withholding dues from NOACA and condemning its decision. Residents formed still another committee, Citizens for Sane Transportation and Environmental Politics (CSTEP), headed by Cleveland Heights resident Worth Loomis. “STOP FREEWAY STUPIDITY,” exclaimed CSTEP’s advertising; “The Highwaymen are at it again! They want to make the Heights Area into an asphalt jungle. Once more we must stop these destroyers of our homes, parks, lakes, and neighborhoods.” A crowd of 2,000 citizens jammed CSTEP’s public meeting in January 1970 to hear the proposal blasted by clergymen, State legislators, and members of the Stokes administration.
And suddenly it was all over. In February 1970, Rhodes at a breakfast meeting with suburban officials scrapped the plans for I-290 (both the Clark and Lee Freeways). Rhodes was no particular friend of historic preservation or the environment; he had earlier proposed an alternate freeway route that would have eliminated most of the homes on Shaker Boulevard. But he was running for the United States Senate and certainly needed friends in these traditionally Republican suburbs. Rhodes lost his contest, but the suburbs had won theirs.
A key player in this battle was the editor and publisher of the weekly “Sun Press,” Harry Volk. A former reporter for the “Cleveland News” and a much-decorated veteran of World War II, Volk founded the “Shaker Sun” in 1946 and merged it with the “Heights Press” in 1948 to create the “Heights” and “Sun Press,” later the “Sun Press.” Volk generally sided with the forces for progress and development. He had little sympathy for the former mansions of the Cleveland Heights elite, referring to them once as “outmoded mausoleums,” but he instantly recognized the devastating impact of freeways, and from the time that Porter revealed his plans in 1963 to February 1970, Volk kept the issue alive and Heights citizens informed. Freeways were front-page headlines every week, and there was little pretense of journalistic objectivity when, for instance, the proposed freeway was described as a “concrete and steel monster.” In spring 1964, “Sun Press”headlines prematurely shouted that, according to a reliable source, “CLARK FREEWAY IS DEAD ISSUE.” When Rhodes finally killed the freeway, he revealed that he had been Volk’s source and gave the editor much of the credit for the freeway’s demise. Rhodes did not say why he allowed the battle to continue for another six years. Volk himself applauded the “angry, concerned citizens, acting with intelligence [who] make our democracy work. This is people power.” Volk was also a champion of racial integration and the preservation of the environment and an opponent of the war in Vietnam. The death of the Clark Freeway, however, was Volk’s most successful crusade.