CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The state highway department has agreed to its highest land settlement ever to push ahead the Independence Freeway project.
But the $22.5 million, imminent-domain deal with the owner of Independence Shopping Center carries a second cost – the continued dismantling of the east Charlotte business corridor that borders Charlotte’s most controversial road.
Stephanie Autry, the shopping center’s attorney, says the N.C. Department of Transportation is making its record payment to a longtime east-side commercial center that the encroaching freeway has reduced to a tear down.
The highway department needs about a third of the shopping center’s remaining 18-acre property to build an overpass and interchange for Conference Drive, part of a $51 million plan to both widen Independence and speed up traffic by removing signals at Conference, Sharon Amity and Idlewild roads.
Highway department spokeswoman Jennifer Thompson said state officials decided the settlement figure was an appropriate cost to move the freeway forward.
As with many businesses along the construction zone, Independence Shopping Center already has lost valuable access to Independence and side streets. Major anchors, including T.J. Maxx, have left, and other former tenants, from a bank to a McDonald’s and more, have already been razed.
Despite the loss of land, Autry says the owners will “try to stay above water” as long as possible before they eventually tear down the shopping center and redevelop the remaining property.
Given the pace of the work – the freeway has moved eastward about a mile per decade – the timing of the redevelopment remains to be seen.
“The reconfigurement of Independence has been extraordinarily slow. Therefore, the agony has been drawn out,” said Nancy Carter, who represented the area on the Charlotte City Council for more than a decade. “It’s not just Independence but a wide area of development that’s been impacted by the uncertainty and the pace of the work.”
Autry said the case illustrates the true costs of a government decision that has affected an entire side of town.
“The city and the DOT got what they wanted,” she said of the freeway project. “But they have to pay.”
Independence Shopping Center, which is owned by First Allied Corp., filed suit in 2011. The two sides settled on a price for the land this summer.
The highway department initially offered $16.8 million for the shopping center land, the higher of two appraisals. The ownership wanted $27 million. In reaching their agreement, the two sides basically split the difference.
The goals of the state’s 24-year-old freeway project are improving safety and the flow of east-west traffic while promoting “economic development and environmental stewardship,” according to the highway department’s website.
The city’s busiest street now carries about 70,000 cars a day, many of them to Matthews, Mint Hill and the suburbs of Union County. The freeway’s traffic could reach as high as 90,000 drivers by 2035.
Planning for the expressway began in 1974. Work started 15 years later. The next two-mile link, between Sharon Amity and Wallace Lane, will add interchanges at Sharon Amity and Idlewild and is expected to be finished by October 2016.
Carter said she would have preferred a smaller interchange project that would have been “more supportive of small business in the area.”
Along Independence, that’s not been the rule. The original route, according to city historians, dates back to the 1940s and a private city council meeting at Myers Park Country Club.
When the road opened, it sliced through the neighborhoods of Elizabeth and Chantilly. For more than 60 years, the road has been marked by shifting plans, piece-meal financing, construction delays and the seething frustrations of drivers, residents and business owners.
When the state and city started the freeway project, some 125 businesses closed in the first mile. The additional sections have caused similar economic upheaval through the middle of east Charlotte.
“The city and DOT had a decade to see what happened,” Autry said. “Instead of saying ‘we’re going to modify our plan,’ they decided to continue on.”
Mary Newsom, assistant director of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, said Independence represents a modern project based on an outdated premise.
“Any massive highway will leave a scar and hurt the neighborhoods it plows through,” she said. “It’s 1950s thinking to even build these highways through the heart of the city. Charlotte has been pursuing this 1950s vision for sixty years.”
In recent years, top state highway department officials have talked about a less expensive and less disruptive plan to extend Independence’s facelift to Interstate 485.
Thompson said highway planners have joined with their counterparts from the city and other parts of Mecklenburg County to plan a broader future for the freeway corridor. The state envisions many of the businesses and new parks moving to the side streets where they’d be reachable by foot or bike. That would leave Independence to serve a single purpose: moving tens of thousands of motorists to and from the city each day.
“We’re well aware that businesses must be accessible,” Thompson said. “They just might be accessible in a different way.”
Carter hopes that the more thorough planning now taking place will mitigate some of the freeway’s mounting damage.
She lists longstanding needs – overpasses that can be used by pedestrians and cyclists, accessible green space, a future access road flanking the freeway, and an expanded street-car route that will incorporate more of the east side.
Any improvements, she said, face the same challenge: “How to get across Independence, that’s the problem.”