I-485, the road that shape-shifted Charlotte growth

A road does more than offer pavement to motorists. Planners know building a road can shape the way an area grows. The final section of I-485 opened June 5, but for two decades before that, the route of the highway was luring development.

New subdivisions, restaurants and offices were galloping along the edges of Charlotte when officials, planners, developers and neighborhood activists—lured by brochures proclaiming “Like it or not, I-485 IS HERE!”—convened for a day-long conference to examine the impact of the outerbelt on the area’s growth.

It was 1998. By then, a regional mall had opened in Pineville and had become a beacon for more development near that first I-485 segment to open at N.C. 51, itself once expected to remain a rural route marking the city’s southern development border. The upscale neighborhoods of Ballantyne, Piper Glen and others were rising out of farmland seemingly almost as quickly as developers won approval for their construction.

Some interchanges see growth zoom, others languish for now

Charlotte’s I-485 lures growth, and with growth comes traffic

“Some people are going to wake up in 20 years and be absolutely shocked,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s then longtime Planning Director Martin Cramton warned the crowd, “We’re going to have to get far more serious about land planning.”

Harry West, then executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission and witness to that area’s continuing efforts to add lanes to its beltway as development surged, didn’t sugarcoat the issue:  “You’re not where we were at this stage of the game. You’re way ahead of us. You have begun your sprawl long before you built your loop.”

His recommendation: “If I thought you would listen to me, I’d tell you not to build it. It’s going to be more trouble than you want.”

Scroll below to see a timeline map of development in Mecklenburg County 1989-2015

A month ago on June 5, former Charlotte mayor and now Gov. Pat McCrory drove a race car through a ribbon to open the final 5.7-mile segment of Charlotte’s 67.6-mile loop. The event signaled the city’s entry into a group of nearly two dozen U.S. urban areas surrounded by a continuous circle of asphalt and concrete, a ring that shapes growth and development, carries commuter traffic and influences quality of life.

The completed superhighway, with 34 interchanges, curves around the city with sections ranging from four to eight lanes. So far it has cost $1.325 billion. State officials say its price tag will increase to $1.35 billion when two more interchanges are built.

The outerbelt, which curves within 20 feet of Cabarrus County to the east and less than 2 miles from South Carolina, propelled development away from the center city into the fringes of Mecklenburg County and into neighboring counties which offered lower property taxes, lower housing prices and smaller school systems without court-ordered busing for desegregation. As development spread, so did the city’s boundaries as it annexed the new subdivisions. Bedroom communities sprang up in neighboring counties, sending thousands of residents toward the outerbelt to get to their jobs.

But as the outerbelt attracted development to the southern side of the city, it also helped shape growth patterns elsewhere, pulling more development to other areas beyond the center of the city.

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To see a map of development that you can zoom in on, scroll below.

'Charlotte was in the mood to grow'

From the groundbreaking in 1988, when then Gov. Jim Martin announced the highway name as Interstate 485, it has taken 27 years to finish, a process marked by intense controversy over the alignment of the route and the politics of state funding. Along the way, voters elected politicians with differing minds on how to manage the pressures of growth that inevitably follow highway construction. Developers, buoyed for years by a strong economy, raced to build more and more houses, apartments, offices, shopping centers, restaurants.

While easing congestion on some roads and moving motorists more quickly to destinations around the Charlotte region, the outerbelt has steadily filled up, forcing the recent $83.3 million widening, which opened in December 2014, of the early southern segment, even as the last section was being completed.

“I think Charlotte was in the mood to grow,” says former Mecklenburg County commissioners’ chair Carla DuPuy, who served 1984-90. “People were anxious for development. We wanted to be a bigger city. I don’t think anybody, even Martin Cramton, who was a very bright man, imagined that it would be this unbelievably sprawling.”

Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt—who in the 1980s championed the fierce fight to align the outerbelt north of N.C. 51 to encourage more development nearer the center city— describes today’s growth pattern as a “prophecy fulfilled.”

“The outerbelt gave birth to far more subdivisions than we would have seen,” he says. “It starts at the interchanges and stimulates faster development.”

With Mecklenburg County hitting 1 million people this year, and with Charlotte projected to be one of the fastest growing cities in the country, the key issues around outerbelt construction have been its impact on traffic congestion and safety and how to manage the growth such highways ignite.

What have people said over the years about planning and I-485? A sampling of quotes

Pavement begets congestion

Loop highways across the United States all have the same history: For a while motorists get traffic relief, then the lanes become congested.

The 9.2-mile southern segment of I-485 from Interstate 77 to Rea Road today ranks as one of the state’s most congested roads, with an average of more than 100,000 cars a day.  Even after the widening to six lanes, rush hour traffic can come to a standstill.

 As early as 1999 transportation planners were warning that the highway might not, in the end, provide the congestion relief envisioned. A 1999 I-485 Interchange Analysis notes that “intensified land use will keep the belt road from functioning effectively.” It pointed to what had happened across the nation: “Building an outer loop has increased the demand for new development and land use was not held constant. Correspondingly, the loop was not able to function effectively.”

Today, fewer than a dozen of the 34 interchanges are heavily developed, and on the east and west sides of the city the interchanges lead to acres of undeveloped property.

As the city and county look to the future, how have officials handled what has happened so far?

The early decisions

In 1968, the Charlotte Observer reported that N.C. transportation officials had proposed a 58-mile interstate highway around Charlotte estimated to cost $60 million. Officials predicted its construction would be challenging. Indeed, the controversy was fractious, emerging in a changing political environment.

As the city and state were figuring out where to put the road, Charlotte was in the midst of intense political debate over district representation, finally approved by referendum in 1977. The first board of Mecklenburg County commissioners with some district members took office in 1986. Meanwhile, powerful members of North Carolina’s state board of transportation, including some from Charlotte, navigated transportation decisions primarily through political negotiation.

Key decisions about the highway came steadily. Should its southern leg go north or south of N.C. 51? City and county officials had adopted policies encouraging large-lot, rural development and restrictions on extending water and sewer lines beyond N.C. 51, an effort to curb sprawl. But the state board won the battle, and put I-485 outside of N.C. 51.

State transportation officials say they initially decided to build a four-lane highway on the southern side based on local growth policies. But as time went by  developers with plans for subdivisions offered to donate right-of-way to encourage their favored locations for several of the interchanges, including Johnston Road as a gateway to Ballantyne and Rea Road as an entryway to Piper Glen.

“I think for an elected official to get elected, the primary thing was to improve access and provide for traffic movement,” says Bill McCoy, director emeritus of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.  “I don’t think there was a lot of thought to what’s going to happen to these intersections 30 years down the road.”

Other decisions came along: Aligning the eastern leg through Mint Hill, then changing it to avoid several neighborhoods; moving the eastern leg, after protests from Mint Hill and Matthews, farther t outside their city limits to the rural edge of Mecklenburg County, which pushed the route closer to neighboring Union and Cabarrus counties; changing the route for  the final, northeast segment after county officials mistakenly bought land for a county park in the path of one of the alignments.

As residents and officials worked out the controversies, Charlotte was changing economically and culturally. Voters approved the sale of liquor by the drink. The city won an NBA basketball team, then an NFL team. The airport became a major hub. Charlotte became one of the nation’s top banking centers.

“All those things started happening that moved Charlotte from a sleepy Southern town,” says Dick Black, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg planner for two decades before becoming planning director in rapidly suburbanizing Union County in 2001. “The outerbelt has brought a lot of sprawl. But if those things hadn’t happened and we built the outerbelt, we would have had a lot slower growth process.”

“The same growth that started in Myers Park and Dilworth moved past N.C. 51 into Union and became Marvin and Weddington.” — Union County Planner Dick Black

Ultimately, says Bill Coxe, a Huntersville transportation planner who worked as Mecklenburg transportation planner for two decades, “I-485 distributed the development that was coming here to along 485 instead of wherever else it might have gone.”

Along with the spread of development to the edges of Mecklenburg, plenty of bedroom communities have grown in neighboring counties, attracting buyers in part because of the outerbelt’s accessibility. “The same growth that started in Myers Park and Dilworth moved past N.C. 51 into Union and became Marvin and Weddington,” says Black.

Growth also spread to all sides of the city. On the southwest, the once-rural Steele Creek area has developed with homes, shopping and restaurants. In the northeast, near UNC Charlotte, the University City area is anchored by a large research park and dozens of newer neighborhoods. The area east of Mint Hill has been slower to attract development in part due to a lack of water and sewer service, but officials expect interest in the area to increase. Just this week came news that a Florida developer has filed plans for a 371-acre, mixed-use development with 850 single-family homes on large lots, businesses and offices off I-485 near Albemarle Road.

“This is a very exciting time for our community,” says Darlene Heater, executive director of University City Partners, a business group which promotes the northeast Charlotte area. “We have waited for a very long time for our leg (of the outerbelt) to be completed. We are at the cusp of a development momentum. I think great things are in store for University City.”

Planning for growth

During nearly three decades of outerbelt construction, Charlotte-Mecklenburg planners often have waved the red flag, warning of the consequences of uncontrolled development.

Planners studied potential land use scenarios and developed policies, approved by elected officials, for development near outerbelt interchanges and for small area plans for communities near the highway likely to be changed by growth.

Plans are plentiful, including the 1999 I-485 Interchange Analysis as well as more specific plans for the Albemarle Road, Brookshire Boulevard and Providence Road interchanges and the westside Dixie-Berryhill area. Hoping to minimize low-density sprawl, planners encouraged dense mixed-used developments near interchanges, where residents can live, work and play.

“Our outerbelt is going to function a lot differently from others. We have planned for the type of development we want to occur.” — Charlotte Assistant City Manager Debra Campbell

“The outerbelt provided an incentive for development to leapfrog to exurban areas,” says Assistant City Manager Debra Campbell, who was Charlotte-Mecklenburg planning director from 2004 until last year. “I think that was the most negative aspect of construction of 485. However, we have been good at integrating land use and transportation.”

Ultimately, she predicts, “Our outerbelt is going to function a lot differently from others. We have planned for the type of development we want to occur.”

But plans are only guidelines. When developers propose specific developments, it’s elected officials who give the OK for what will be built. Those decisions don’t always adhere to adopted plans.

“The development interests in this city and county are very strong and have been for years,” says McCoy of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

Consider the Prosperity Church Road interchange on the just-opened northeast segment.

A 1999 plan for the area envisioned a walkable village. The plan has been under review over the past few years and has been revised with changes that planners hope will ensure that vision. But since 1999, elected officials have approved car-oriented development and big-box retail at odds with the guidelines.

“A majority of the land is undeveloped or underdeveloped so we still have the opportunity to maintain the original intent for a village,” says Campbell. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the updated plan this month.

Meanwhile, development continues.

“I just know that if you don’t have an aggressive planning arm,” says Gantt, “development won’t go the way you want it to be.”

DuPuy remembers being invited to the groundbreaking for the first segment of the outerbelt in the 1980s. Since then, she says, the city and county have had a “learning curve.”

“What we were trying to do is better planning,” says DuPuy. “As I look back, I’m not sure we did that. What happens is success needs growth. We have not done it perfectly, but we have certainly done better on the newer developments than we did on the earlier ones.”

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