A vision is taking shape for Charlotte’s West End that proposes tearing down acres of highway infrastructure that divided the historically Black neighborhoods from Uptown. In its place could be minority-owned businesses, mixed-income residences and vibrant parks.
- Charlotte visionaries have been working on this strategy over the past several years. Now, it’s looking more like it’ll become a reality.
Driving the news: The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $1 million “Reconnecting Communities” grant to the City of Charlotte in February to study a possible redesign of the I-77 interchanges near Wesley Heights. The project could diminish the highway barrier and open up the land for a fresh new use.
- The area could become a cultural district in the West End.
Why it matters: The plan would revitalize a part of Charlotte that was once thriving, with Beatties Ford and Rozzelles Ferry roads acting as the community’s main arteries, as documented in the Five Points Forward strategy. Then, in the 1960s and ’70s, highway construction plowed through minority neighborhoods, displacing more than 240 families and destroying homes, businesses and other community institutions.
- Over the years, economic opportunity dwindled and crime rose.
- “It was like (the) Civil Rights (Movement) came, and then it’s, ‘You got civil rights? Well, we’re going to civil engineer a highway in between you,'” says Henry Stepp, a Historic West End Partners board member and designer with Shook Kelley.
Today several efforts underway aim to uplift West End while retaining its culture and history.
This highway project is perhaps the most ambitious and transformative of them all.
Context: In 2020, Historic West End Partners, Neighboring Concepts and Shook Kelley partnered to create Five Points Forward, a reimagination of the West End with the Gold Line streetcar in mind. When the planning experts, architects and designers reached out to the community for input, they heard a desire to reconnect to Uptown, Stepp says.
- That sparked the serious conversation about reconfiguring the highway, detailed in Five Points Forward. The initiative became the basis of the city’s grant application. Charlotte was one of 45 recipients out of 435 submissions.
Zoom out: The “Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program” doles out federal dollars in an attempt to undo the socioeconomic harm caused by highways that cut off communities of color, as Axios’ Joann Muller reported.
- For example, Buffalo, New York, received $55.6 million, the largest award, to build a cap and tunnel over an expressway that segregated Black residents in the ’60s. And Boston got $2 million to plan a park over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Chinatown.
“Reconnecting the West End will really build upon what was proposed within the Five Points Forward study from a visioning perspective,” says Katie Witherspoon, a city transportation planner and the Reconnecting Communities project manager. “That vision really being the safe and comfortable connection between Uptown and the West End and then looking at what type of redevelopment can occur.”
Details: Five Points Forward recommends the city focus on the cloverleaf interchanges around West Trade and West Fifth streets near Wesley Heights, as well as ramping on the opposite side, which could be about 10-20 acres. The strategy refers to the area around the interstate as the “Gateway Area” and envisions several possibilities for the surroundings:
- A landmark pedestrian bridge over I-77, signaling to drivers that they’ve arrived in Charlotte.
- A promenade on Andrill Terrace Road, adjacent to the highway, with views of Uptown. There would be below-grade parking decks with mixed-use buildings with office and hotels above.
- A main street along Montgomery that leads to the promenade and an urban park. One side of the road would be a linear park, and the other would be lined with shops, restaurants and other businesses.
Other proposals for the area include local minority-owned businesses and affordable housing, in partnership with Inlivian, which owns 50 income-based housing units in Tarlton Hills adjacent to the highway. Inlivian CEO Fulton Meachem says there’s an opportunity to increase the density of affordable housing as part of the project.
- “With some large projects, we know that sometimes the families that lived there don’t get the opportunity to actually participate in the economics and the amenities that are being brought to that community,” he says. “For us, it’s extremely important for our families to be able to participate in that.”
Another idea is to expand Frazier Park or extend Irwin Creek across I-77, so the greenway links to historic communities like McCrorey Heights, Neighboring Concept’s Eric Orozco tells me.
- “Frazier Park just gets squeezed into a little greenway,” Orozco says. “Why not open it up? Why not create our version of Little Sugar Creek along Irwin Creek? That’s exactly the kind of things that the grant will look at.”
Yes, but: These ideas are all currently aspirations. The city’s job is to use the grant money to evaluate what’s feasible.
- It’s unclear what the total cost would be to reconfigure highway infrastructure in Charlotte.
How it works: Charlotte Department of Transportation will work with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to study the current and future demands of I-77 traffic. The construction could fall at the same time as NCDOT’s work to eventually extend the express lanes, a department spokesperson says.
- Right now, CDOT is determining the contracting for the grant with USDOT. The goal is to begin the 18-month study next year.
- By the end of the study, CDOT representatives hope to have identified what to do with the interchange. But it will still just be the beginning of a long-term process. “We’re really looking at a 10- to 20-year horizon,” Witherspoon tells me.
Flashback: Charlotte’s overhauled highway infrastructure before. More than 15 years ago, the South Boulevard exit on I-277 was reconfigured as part of exit improvements for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Excessive cloverleaf designs were replaced with slender diamond interchanges, opening up land now home to apartments, businesses and Whole Foods.
What’s next: The national Reconnecting Communities program is a five-year, $1-billion pilot established under the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law. Charlotte was awarded the grant in the first of four cycles. It’s possible the city could score more dollars for construction in that timeframe, or it could seek infrastructure grant money elsewhere to pay for future phases.
- Of note: The Knight Foundation, Fifth Third Bank and Wells Fargo are contributing to the 20% local match for the planning grant, Witherspoon says.
Renderings courtesy of Shook Kelley and Neighboring Concepts