Wednesday, August 7, 2013

When it comes to I-277 cap, bold Charlotte gets timid

I-77 is one side of the noose encircling uptown Charlotte.(Photo by Nancy Pierce)
If you think it's too bold, too "out there" - too gutsy - to seriously plan to put a roof atop part of the freeway encircling uptown Charlotte, consider what's up in St. Louis. As Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic Cities website describes in "Should We Be Thrilled Or Disappointed by St. Louis' New Highway Park?" other cities think freeway capping is too timid. (Charlotteans might note the appearance of former Mayor Anthony Foxx, as transportation secretary, at the groundbreaking in St. Louis.)

The article notes that the "Park over the Highway" (aka "the lid") is part of a $380 million project to connect the rest of downtown St. Louis to the Mississippi River, funded by a mixture of public money (federal grants and a voter-approved local sales tax) and private contributions (via the CityArchRiver foundation).

But in St. Louis, it seems, the local debate is not whether it's a waste of money to build a park downtown on top of a freeway, but on whether the freeway itself should just, well, go away, and turn into a boulevard.

"On the contrary, some local observers see the 'the lid' as a bandage for the urban interstate, when what's really needed is reconstructive surgery. Rather than toss a green carpet over I-70, they would prefer to knock down the highway completely and construct grade-level boulevards in its place — truly integrating city and riverfront." Indeed, as Jaffe reports, "Writing at Next City in April, city alderman Scott Ogilvie pointed out that nearly every public comment about the current 'Park over the Highway' project supported further study of the I-70 demolition."

What are we to make of this in the Queen City? We have a highway (Interstate 277, with a leg of I-77) that encircles our uptown, cutting it off from all the surrounding neighborhoods. This highway was planned in the 1950s! That was when Le Corbusier was envisioning cities of nothing but towers, lawns and highways (and apparently he never envisioned parking lots, but that's a topic for another day), and when Robert Moses was gutting New York neighborhoods for highways, until opposition finally stopped him. But here in the QC our highway didn't even get finished until the 1980s, by which time other cities were seriously questioning this technique of strangling their downtowns. And, yes, it gutted plenty of Charlotte neighborhoods as well, but they were mostly poor, so city fathers paid little heed to any protests they might have raised.

It was the mid- to late 1990s when I first heard the idea to cap a part of I-277, the part that's below grade from about Church Street to Caldwell or Davidson streets,  So ... why is St. Louis so far ahead of Charlotte on this endeavor?  OK, maybe it's that giant, extraordinary river just beyond their freeway. Nevertheless, it's past time for Charlotte to get its act in gear on this. We may not have the Mighty Mississippi and the Gateway Arch, but we have a wonderfully reviving uptown, surrounded by some great neighborhoods. We have Little Sugar Creek, and its greenway is pretty much blocked by the I-277-U.S. 74 spaghetti-bowl junction.  Is a cap better than boulevard-ization? I don't know, but I do know either would be better than what we have now. Since when has Charlotte become so timid?


Anonymous said...

completely agree. Its long past time that Charlotte stopped building for cars and started building for people.

Eric Orozco said...

The last time a CDOT official explained it to me he said we couldn't boulevardize it because the I-277 loop actually functions as one enormous interchange loop. Oh... Well, who in their right mind puts even one building in the center of an interchange loop???

Well, Charlotte, that is where our entire CBD and civic center currently exists in the minds of our expert officials... In the middle of one ginormous interchange loop! Don't talk to me, talk to CDOT.

Erin Chantry said...

Thanks so much for writing this...I think turning 277 into a boulevard is the wrong fight (I just don't think it's going to happen), but capping it in the locations you mentioned would do wonders to connect neighborhoods to the city center. If this ever becomes a campaign for change, let me know how i can help.
-Erin Chantry (Urban Designer and native Charlottean)

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