August 20, 2014

Elyria
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Move along, move along — nothing to see, hear

CLEVELAND — The church choir will have to sing loud to be heard through these soundproofing walls.

In a twist to the brooding look of sound walls that increasingly line highways, especially in densely populated areas, U.S. transportation planners are turning to another tool to make the freeway corridor more livable: see-through sound walls. The idea is common in Europe.

See-though sound walls will give the new home of St. Paul AME Church, located on the south side of Interstate 71 in a blue-collar Cleveland neighborhood, a window on the 90,000 vehicles passing daily.

The church and local leaders lobbied for the see-through exemption to raise the church’s profile. Federal guidelines allow the see-through sound walls for churches, historic locations, parks, hospitals and schools.

See-through sound walls are relatively new, with more states looking into the option.

“They are not that common at this point in time,” said Doug Hecox, a spokesman with the Federal Highway Administration, which encourages states to consider aesthetics in highway planning.

“The states at the end of the day are making the decisions on how they go about it.”

Crews were already preparing the highway shoulder along I-71 for sound wall installation when the Rev. Gena Thornton, pastor of St. Paul, realized the view of her new church from the highway would be blocked by the hulking walls.

“Our concern was that we would be hidden behind the wall. We wanted people to be able to see,” Thornton said.

“We felt that was a valid concern,” said Mark Carpenter, an environmental engineer with the Ohio Department of Transportation. The agency will pay $5.8 million for the overall project.

Thornton believes having the church visible to passing motorists helps promote its work. “It’s a means of evangelism. A lot of people passing that spot will know that we are here,” she said.

The clear panels, made of heavy-duty acrylic, cost more: about $32 per square foot compared with $20 per square foot for the traditional concrete walls. Still, the see-through panels can reduce the imposing, tunnel-effect that a walled highway might create.

The see-through panels will soften that effect, said city Council President Martin Sweeney. He got an earful from members of the St. Paul congregation when they realized they were about to be walled off from the high-profile freeway view that they valued when they purchased the land for a new church building.

“We talked with them and begged and pleaded,” Thornton said.

Next year Virginia will install see-through sounds walls on the replacement Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Alexandria, Va., giving motorists a view of the Potomac River south of the Capitol and protecting a riverfront park from traffic noise.

In Dayton, homeowners wanted sound walls but the Dayton Art Institute didn’t want to block Interstate 75 views of its Italian Renaissance-style facade, so the state offered the see-through compromise, ODOT’s Barbara Elliston said. The project begins this fall.

In Akron, which got one of Ohio’s first see-through sound wall installations in early summer, highway engineers used clear panels on the top quarter of the 16-foot high walls, providing privacy to nearby homes but allowing more sunlight into backyards.
Mike Madonio, Akron’s design division manager, said it remains to be seen whether the panels will get dirty and scuffed in winter weather with blowing snow and highway salt along Interstate 77.

Most people like the sound walls to create a quieter neighborhood, Madonio said, but the see-through option might not appeal to some because of the perception that if you don’t see the traffic, it’s not as loud. “It’s kind of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy,” he said.

Kimberly Wood, 41, of Cleveland, lives one block from I-71 and takes family outings to a park next to the highway. She said she’s noticed a big improvement, noise-wise, since the sound walls were installed — perhaps a 50 percent cut in the park noise, especially truck horns.As for the see-through variety that went up at the corner of the park, “Anything they do to reduce the noise and improve the appearance is a plus,” she said.