The following is a Letter to the Editor from Gavin West, architect at Housing Studio in Charlotte. Neither he nor his firm are involved in the design or construction of the Rail Trail Bridge.
Center City Partners recently unveiled designs for the new pedestrian only Rail Trail Bridge, which would cross I-277 and connect the city’s core with East Morehead Street. This project represents a major step forward for the development of walkability and urban street life in Uptown. As a local, practicing architect, I’ve often thought that the I-277 loop has effectively created a moat around Uptown and limited its potential to connect with the rest of the city.
For all its benefits, the I–277 loop effectively places Uptown on an island, cutting it off from potential connections to other neighborhoods. The 2018 census named Charlotte the fifth fastest-growing city in the country. With such an explosive population boom, Charlotte’s Uptown area and all of the surrounding neighborhoods are expanding as quickly as the construction market can support. While I-277 helps bring commuter traffic into the city, it also forms a boundary and limits the size of the city’s urban core.
The prevalent urban planning of the 1980s imagined that residents would live in suburbs outside the city and use the interstate to commute into a downtown that was primarily for work. However, this segregation of uses into different areas ignores the interdependence of all of these uses. It creates suburbs that consist only of generic houses and downtowns that become desolate and unsafe after the workday ends. While the John Belk Freeway has helped Charlotte grow, it has also perpetuated this vision of urban planning.
The need to create a continuous loop for high-speed automotive travel creates both extreme changes in topography and unusually shaped plots of land that have been cut by the road’s course. This phenomenon yields a number of sites around the city’s core that are extremely challenging to develop, representing not only a lost development potential, but a serious issue for creating a vibrant pedestrian life. Pedestrians already had to cross dismal bridges above roaring traffic to reach Uptown, but with these sites they also had to cross several empty blocks that created a sense of isolation and the lack of security. In this way, the moat limited both the maximum size of Uptown itself and its ability to connect with surrounding neighborhoods.
However, the most recent wave of development is finally making its way over that moat. For decades, the irregularly shaped and steeply sloping sites surrounding the interstate have provided too great a challenge for most developers to engage. But the value of land in Uptown has reached the point where working with these sites seems worthwhile to developers. In the past few years, many of these challenging sites have already been developed. They require a greater degree of architectural innovation and added cost, but these obstacles now seem relatively insignificant.
These sites include the Novel Stonewall Station apartment building, the Presley South End apartment building, the Uptown 550 building, and various other miscellaneous developments. Many of these residential projects also include more public elements, such as the Whole Foods Market in the Novel Stonewall Station building. The public components of these programs can help foster a sense of community. They eliminate the dead zone surrounding the city’s core and replace it with activity that can help further the connection between Uptown and the rest of the city.
The construction of this new pedestrian bridge represents another important milestone in this process. After 30 years, Charlotte’s urban fabric is finally crossing the moat created by the John Belk Freeway. This development could allow the city to move from a place of isolated moments of urban connectivity to a holistic network of interconnected neighborhoods. Crossing this moat represents an opportunity for Charlotte to show how contemporary cities can grow in a sustainable way and how urban fabric can stitch itself together around the cuts created by automotive infrastructure.