Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Charlotte's outerbelt vs. Independence Boulevard

"See there's a highway to the right of us I took it years ago.”
Distraction #74, Avett Brothers

Circuit City.
Toys R Us.
Service Merchandise.
Barnes and Noble.
Wolfe Camera.
When I moved into a neighborhood off Idlewild Road on Charlotte’s east side in 1993, I moved minutes away from big-box land along Independence Boulevard ( U.S. 74.) For the parent of a toddler, it was perfect, except in December, when every other consumer swarmed the boulevard and parking lots.

Now that part of Independence Boulevard has many empty big boxes.

Nearby neighborhoods are hanging on, waiting for a widening and realignment of Independence Boulevard, with the elimination of three traffic lights between Albemarle Road and Conference Drive. Some residents hope the widening will spur an increase in home values, which has happened for neighborhoods closer to downtown along the corridor.

And now Gov. Bev Perdue has given Charlotte a choice: Finish the final northern segment of the outerbelt or complete the Independence Boulevard project.

The next step: the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization is scheduled to make a decision in August. If they don’t pick the outerbelt over Independence, construction on I-485 probably won't begin in 2015, according to an article in The Charlotte Observer by Steve Harrison. That choice followed a February 2009 promise from the governor to speed construction of I-485.

I moved away from big-box land in 1999, toward downtown Charlotte. My commute shortened dramatically. And after a few years of big-box deprivation, Target moved nearby.

So I don’t really have a dog in the fight for or against widening of Independence. But the future health of those east side neighborhoods affects me, and flaws exist in the decision-making process now:

  • The vice chairman of MUMPO, Anthony Foxx, is a Democratic candidate for Charlotte mayor. One city council member who represents the area, Nancy Carter, faces a political challenge from Darrell Bonapart, who has led the Charlotte East Community Partners. Any decisions or pronouncements from those candidates will be strongly influenced by short-term political goals.
  • MUMPO is heavily weighted toward favoring work on Independence. Of the 17-member board, 8 are from Union County. Only three represent northern Mecklenburg towns. And towns in Iredell County that would be greatly affected by an improved outerbelt have no representation on the board.
  • Plans for Independence are out of date, given our changed economy. The retail industry has moved dramatically online. Federal funding for light rail appears light years away. Housing needs have changed too.
  • The process isn’t transparent enough. Lists of the landowners affected by either decision should be online, and searchable, with the proper identities behind corporations and businesses available. While a PDF map of the Independence widening has been available online for a while, new technical capabilities of adding transparency are available now, and taxpayers have more reason than ever to check for themselves for conflicts of interest.

A representative for Charlotte East Community Partners has said the organization would rather postpone the Independence widening. Representatives of another neighborhood organization, Coventry Woods Neighborhood Association, want the Independence work to proceed before the outerbelt, and they’ve urged Carter and Foxx in email to support that idea.

Given the circumstances, any decision should wait until after the November mayor and council election, though of course broad debate during the political season is in order. And given other factors, perhaps widening Independence first isn’t such a good idea.

Ideas have surfaced about whether the Independence widening should be done at all, or whether it should be done differently, as a boulevard or parkway like in Washington, D.C., and other cities. More time might allow alternative ideas to develop.

Throughout its history, Independence Boulevard has disrupted neighborhoods. A delay might give us a chance to rethink its future.

More information at MUMPO.

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