Monday, December 12, 2011

Time to neuter that noose around uptown Charlotte?

Is Charlotte finally making a move toward taming the uptown noose I mean, the uptown loop? The freeway encircling uptown, made up of Interstate 277 and a section of Interstate 77, strangles uptown, eliminating easy pedestrian and bicycle connections and creating bottlenecks for traffic flow into and out of the center city.

It was Feb. 15, 1997, (but who's counting?) when I first heard the idea to cap the below-grade section of I-277 between South End and the south part of the center city. The idea keeps being proposed, and being dismissed as too expensive, or too difficult. But it's a great idea that deserves serious study.

Now, at last, something may be happening. The Charlotte City Council tonight is supposed to vote on an agreement with the N.C. Department of Transportation to launch a study of the whole uptown freeway loop. Here's a link to the city council agenda. Go to agenda page 19.

Despite misgivings, capping a freeway, or more precisely, sending it through a tunnel, is comparatively inexpensive and has been done in many other cities. It's neither revolutionary nor extreme.  It is NOT as expensive as digging a tunnel, a la Big Dig in Boston. The digging took place years ago, before I-277 opened in the 1980s.

Other cities are going further, pushing to turn old freeways into high-volume boulevards, which can move plenty of traffic but are designed so that shops, restaurants, housing and workplaces can grow along their sidewalks. The classic example of a high-volume boulevard is the Champs Elysees in Paris. Here's a list of other projects, some still in planning phases.


Uptown needs better connections to neighborhoods around it, and this includes street connections. If you ever drive in from south Charlotte on a weekday morning you'll probably hit a tie-up on Providence Road as it nears uptown, and on Third-Fourth streets  or Seventh Street. You may wish longingly for more connecting streets into uptown, which would divert some of the traffic load onto those other streets. (Morehead usually isn't as crowded, nor is Stonewall, but they apparently are too far from the center of uptown to get as much of the traffic load.) We could use more connections via Second (MLK Boulevard), Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Ninth streets, but I-277 and its spaghetti bowl interchanges block those possibilities.

Back to the freeway cap: I know the date was Feb. 15, 1997, because I first heard the idea at an all-day workshop organized by the old Charlotte Urban Forum public interest group. Open to the public, the event was to draw up possibilities for redesigning uptown. The impetus was an ill-considered plan to build a new arena uptown (that part was OK) and "development," drawings for which resembled a suburban shopping mall plopped into the city.

The workshop had no official purpose, but we did get then-Mayor Pat McCrory to drop by, as well as some planning commission officials (the commission was one of the sponsors) and some of the developers and uptown boosters calling themselves 24-Uptown Partners. The Partners' goal was to build that arena and shopping center-esque "entertainment complex" well-intended but clumsily suburban in its proposed execution.
 In order to write the preceding paragraph, I looked back at the 1997 articles I wrote for the Charlotte Observer and spotted some interesting notes of what had been proposed at that workshop. How about the idea of a NASCAR museum? Hmmm. That may fall in the category of "be careful what you wish for., because you may get it." The list contains so many projects that were built in the next 10 years that in hindsight I wonder how many of the architects and developers there already knew what they were planning?

Among the other discussion topics were, and I warn you that these will sound familiar:

Put more housing uptown.
Mix uses, not just on the same block, but within a building, so that the vacant areas of uptown fill with five- or six-story buildings with retail space on the street, offices above, and housing above that.
Expand the trolley system.

But here's a list of some of the ideas that, at the time, I characterized as not among the predictable ones:

Bury I-277 where it crosses South Tryon and fill the land created atop it with mixed-use, five-or six-story buildings.
A NASCAR Museum next to the NFL stadium, with condos topping the museum. [The NASCAR Hall of Fame opened on Brevard Street in 2010, and has drawn far fewer visitors than projected, losing money.]

Put housing back into Second Ward, where the old Brooklyn neighborhood was demolished for urban renewal. [A development deal to do this stalled after the crash of 2008.]
Move the Amtrak station from North Tryon to West Trade. [This is in N.C. DOT rail plans.]Put a convention hotel next to I-277. [Done.]
Convert the old convention center to a museum or city market. [Old convention center was demolished to build the EpiCentre, a slightly more urban-style entertainment complex than was envisioned in 1997. It's tied up in an acrimonious bankruptcy case.]Rehabilitate the Carolina Theatre.[Not done. But not demolished, either.]
Concentrate retail on South Tryon Street. [Other than art museum gift shops, little retail beyond restaurants has come to South Tryon Street.]
Build a zoo. [Insert quip of your choice here.]

In looking at my 1997 articles I noticed that other sponsors of the workshop were the UNC Charlotte College of Architecture, the Charlotte chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, my current employer.

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