Major projects to transform MLK Drive through Uptown over next 20 years

Three projects planned for MLK promise a dramatic reconfiguration of the three-mile cross-town roadway by 2020. The Ohio Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) Millcreek Expressway (I-75) reconstruction and the City of Cincinnati’s West MLK Drive Access Improvement have been funded and will commence construction in 2013. A third project – construction of an interchange at Interstate 71 – is still in preliminary planning stages and is scheduled to be built sometime after 2015.

Eminent domain proceedings are already underway which will see 30 homes and apartment buildings between McMicken Street and Good Samaritan Hospital demolished in 2012 or 2013. A wider and straighter West Martin Luther King Drive is planned to take their place, along with a bike path along the road’s northern edge.

The much larger I-71 interchange project at East Martin Luther King Drive will see many more residential properties taken – possibly more than 100 – in order to build the project’s ramps. Drawings shown at the February 15, 2011 meeting of Cincinnati City Council’s Sub Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure showed the entire shallow valley between Reading Road and Gilbert Avenue north of East Martin Luther King Drive redeveloped by automobile-oriented commercial buildings.

History of Martin Luther King Drive
What is now known as Martin Luther King Drive was created by connecting three existing streets: Dixmyth Ave, St. Clair and Melish Avenue. The St. Clair extension, a six-lane stretch of Martin Luther King Drive between Clifton Avenue and Jefferson Avenue, was built in the early 1960’s. The Melish Avenue Extension between Reading Road and Victory Parkway was built in two phases: a bridge over I-71 built in 1970 and a half-mile stretch between Gilbert Avenue and Victory Parkway mid-decade. The final link – the climb between Dixmyth Avenue near Good Samaritan Hospital – opened in the early 1980’s.

In 1987, Cincinnati city councilman Tyrone Yates led an effort to rename Reading Road after Martin Luther King, Jr. This proposal was rejected on technical grounds and attention was shifted to a 16-mile cross-town path that would have seen the entirety of Westwood Northern Boulevard, Hopple Street, the Hopple Street Viaduct, Dixmyth, St. Clair, Melish, and Madison Rd. to Madisonville renamed for the Civil Rights leader.

This grandiose proposal was scuttled by the great-great grandson of either Casper or James Hopple (reports do not specify), the brothers who came to Cincinnati in 1802 for whom Hopple Street and the viaduct are named.

Plans for a Martin Luther King street were downscaled to the present three-mile stretch between Central Parkway and Victory Parkway, but met more resistance from those who objected to the renaming of St. Clair. An offer was made to rename Central Parkway after General Arthur St. Clair, but no substitute St. Clair designation was made after Martin Luther King Drive came into existence that summer.

The Future of Martin Luther King Drive
The two projects in planning at either end of Martin Luther King Drive do not address the horrendous appearance of the road’s central segment between Jefferson Avenue and Reading Road. Here, no design guidelines were ever put in place, and the quaint residential character of Corryville has been replaced by a confusion of fast food restaurants, gas stations, parking lots, parking garages, telephone poles, and faux-urban apartment complexes.

The burying of utilities is the obvious starting point for any improvement of the area. But a comprehensive plan is needed for properties bordering MLK between Jefferson and Reading in order to assure that the increased traffic introduced by the I-71 interchange motivates higher quality construction.

The if-Houston-had-hills character of Martin Luther King Drive has no doubt negatively affected the ability of the University of Cincinnati to recruit top students and faculty. It is a prime reason why many suburban Cincinnatians prefer trips to new suburban hospitals over the old ones. This situation is the legacy of the WWII and Baby Boomer generations. It might be too late to wish for Martin Luther King Drive to become a showpiece, but young people who profess to care for this city’s future must be vigilant in demanding something better than what we have had handed to them.

Photographs by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

  • Mike

    Nice history and update on projects regarding MLK Dr. I live and work in the Uptown area. Suburbanites go to suburban hospitals because they are closer, more convenient and more familiar, not because of the “horrendous appearance of the road’s central segment”. Second, if there was ever a need for a new interchange on I-71, it’s at MLK. Why is it so difficult for people to get to one of the region’s major economic areas? I see a lot of things in Avondale and Corryville moving in a positive direction. There’s a lot more that can be done. Let’s back off the hyperbole and look for the facts.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    I’ve heard suburbanites complain about the “hassle” of visiting UC and these hospitals countless times. They perceive that “Clifton” is a high crime area and is the source of the city’s bed bug epidemic. These ideas could be reversed by a remaking of the MLK streetscape. The preference for suburban hospitals is of course laughably fleeting, but consumers rarely make anything other than impulsive decisions.

  • Martin Luther King Drive presents a real opportunity for Uptown due to its large width. A stately tree-lined center median, bus rapid transit or light rail, or a bike highway are all things that could be done there. The real critical element should be to better connect the University of Cincinnati’s east and west campuses though.

    Unfortunately right now much of the new development along MLK has an incredibly suburban design to it. The developments boast large and unnecessary setbacks, generally cheap designs, and surface parking.

    The new infill going in all over Uptown should follow a general design aesthetic and form that includes 3-6 story mid-rises, and slightly taller towers for hospitals and their office uses. This is Cincinnati’s secondary business and residential district outside of Downtown (including the CBD, OTR, West End). And with all of the research and technology jobs in the area, there is a tremendous opportunity to attract young and creative professionals with an international background to the area.

    Connect the area with Downtown via transit and you have something really powerful. Whether the investments to be made along MLK help advance this vision or not is another question though.

  • Kevin Wright

    Well said, Randy. Clifton is indeed a major hub and desperately needs a design/transportation upgrade.

    Mike, you’re right about suburbanites. It makes very little sense for them to go to Clifton for a doctor’s visit when they have quality hospitals nearby.

    My concern with the I-71 interchange is that it will take traffic away from Avondale, giving no one a reason to even drive through the neighborhood, thus hurting its chances for future business development. Why not put the interchange at Victory Parkway (where there is already space), forcing people to drive through Avondale (part of Uptown)? The answer, I’ve heard, is that Walnut Hills High School does not want the interchange there. Otherwise, it seems to make sense to me.

  • Zachary Schunn


    “The real critical element should be to better connect the University of Cincinnati’s east and west campuses though.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    The stretch of MLK between Jefferson and Reading is just not very walkable, and there’s little reason to go over there unless you’re a medical student. (That may change as further development pops up in this area.) I agree on your suggestions, Randy, but I would also emphasize the widening of sidewalks, consideration of more pedestrian crossings, and improving the aesthetic (probably closer to McMillan or Ludlow).

    The problem, of course, is that this is a high traffic road and thus the general consensus will as usual be, “Let’s widen it to solve traffic!” Shame that no one seems to understand the concept of induced demand.

  • Aaron

    Interesting post, lived in Clifton for years (and on MLK Dr. for 2 yrs) without knowing much of the history. Walking up that hill from McMicken to Clifton Ave is a depressing experience (I tended to walk through the neighborhood instead).

    Any funds, which I assume are limited should first go to connecting the UC campuses and making it a more walkable space between the 2. Light rail is a pipe dream at this point, just give me a safer walking environment and that is an improvement.

    I seriously doubt that MLK Dr. has anything to do with UC being able to recruit/retain students and faculty though. First, student population is increasing, so I suppose you could argue that more students would come if MLK were better designed, but I find that claim highly unlikely. For faculty, in most cases, they are taking the job at UC because the labor market blows and there just aren’t many opportunities out there for most profs (at least in the tenure track market).

    Suburbanites (at least the one’s that could come to Clifton and really make a significant economic impact) don’t come to Clifton for a variety of stated reasons, but I think they can be boiled down into 2 categories – the group of folks that just do not want to experience anything that may be different or an inconvenience compared to their suburban lifestyle and the other group which just wants to avoid black people.

    Just my two cents…keep up the good work, I was sad to discover this site AFTER I moved out of Cincinnati. It is a really underrated city, I miss it.

  • Joe

    This expansion of MLK, the new interchange at I-71, and the redesigned Hopple interchange will likely open up Uptown to a wider range of uses and could spur a significant amount of new office and commercial development. The Uptown area, especially along MLK could be the perfect spot for back office uses which need lower rents than available in Downtown. Hopefully Uptown could become a promising alternative to Class A office uses seeking more suburban office development that has been fleeing to Mason and Northern Kentucky for the last several decades taking thousands of well compensated jobs with them.

  • Anonymous

    I live at 558 MLK just moved in they didn’t tell me anything about this anything to be done? Or when it’s gonna happen since its been awhile since this article.

    • Several homes and businesses have already been demolished to make way for the MLK widening. However I don’t believe any of the road construction has begun. Keep your eye on this site, I believe the author of this article should be posting an update on this and other area road projects within the next week.

    • Anonymous

      Down here by good Sam. And before central parkway they haven’t done any demolition.

      If I’m under lease(till December 2012) will they be required to compensate me in some way. I hate moving and just Moved.