Cry Us a River: The Calamity of I-277 in Charlotte—And How We Could Undo It
Jokes aside, Interstate 277 is one of the worst mistakes in Charlotte history—a clogged, dangerous monstrosity that severed neighborhoods from each other, displaced hundreds of families, and continues to hinder opportunities for citizens. What would have to happen to make it disappear?
The 6-mile ribbon of concrete and asphalt that rings uptown represents many things, depending on your perspective. It’s a traffic-choked relic of outdated transportation planning.
It’s a physical and psychological barrier that cuts Charlotte’s center off from the neighborhoods that surround it. It’s a reminder of the hundreds of Black families that urban renewal displaced in the 1960s and ’70s.
Maybe you even see a river. (If you get that reference, you probably spend too much time on Charlotte Twitter. I’ll explain later.) Or, perhaps, Interstate 277 is just another road, a prosaic section of Charlotte’s commuting fabric that you don’t think much about unless you’re trying to weave through the chaos of the Independence Boulevard interchange.
Whatever you see, the I-277 loop—the 4.4-mile U of the Belk and Brookshire freeways, plus the 1.7 miles of Interstate 77 that cap it—has profoundly shaped our city’s development since its completion in 1988. You can argue, as planners and urban advocates increasingly do, that the loop is one leg of a system that has hampered Charlotte’s growth and people in the ways that really matter in a city: neighborhood connectivity, economic opportunity, and a general sense of community. The sterile strip of highway hems in development and occupies hundreds of acres of developable land. By cutting off neighborhoods—most of them, until recently, home to poor Black residents—the loop is both a reminder and enforcer of separation, a “Keep Out” sign on uptown’s doorstep.
“Urban highways are probably one of the worst—if not the worst—things we’ve done as a country, infrastructure-wise,” says Jacob Unterreiner, co-founder of Charlotte Urbanists, a community organization that advocates for sustainable growth. “I like to call it a noose around the city. That’s dramatic, but that’s how it functions.”
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the interstate system, enabled the construction of large, limited-access highways not just between cities but through and within them: loops like I-277, freeways through city cores like I-77, and shorter spurs that jut through downtowns. The post-World War II dominance of the automobile, the act’s advocates thought, necessitated fast and easy access to places where people lived and shopped.
Over the next few decades, the government built these “urban interstates” on land it bought or seized primarily from Black people and other ethnic minorities—“white men’s roads through Black men’s homes,” in the words of a 1960s protest chant. Meanwhile, related urban renewal projects were razing established Black neighborhoods like Brooklyn in Charlotte. Planners and city leaders around the country eventually began to realize the folly of urban interstates and the thinking behind them—interstates, it turned out, encouraged people to bypass rather than visit and shop in urban cores—and many began to look for ways to undo the damage.
Among the first to disappear was the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and demolished in 1991. It’s now the site of a thriving, pedestrian-friendly waterfront. Since 2014, Rochester, New York, has worked to replace its I-490 Inner Loop East with an at-grade street to reconnect neighborhoods and enliven the city center. Some 90 miles east, Syracuse announced plans this year to demolish an elevated, 1.2-mile stretch of I-81 through its downtown. Southern cities, including Dallas and New Orleans, have examined the possibility of tearing down their urban interstates and replacing them with parks, commercial districts, or other community assets.
Charlotte could one day join those ranks if the city is willing to think big and clear some huge hurdles, and the Biden administration is encouraging cities nationwide to do just that. In June, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the Reconnecting Communities pilot program, which created a $1 billion fund to pay for expressway modification or removal projects that undo some of the longstanding effects of urban interstates. (As of August, Charlotte had not applied for money from the program.)
“(I-277) has destroyed communities,” says Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. “These are neighborhoods that suffered because of yesterday’s thinking about infrastructure.”
Any attempt to reverse the damage that I-277 has caused would take a tremendous amount of time, effort, and patience, plus the persistence to endure the inevitable backlash to such a massive project. But some Charlotteans have seriously discussed the idea for years, and they own another powerful argument: By any standard, merely on its potholed and pockmarked face, I-277 is a terrible road.
Built piecemeal over nearly two decades, I-277 is clogged with a logic- and safety-defying tangle of exits and entrances. The highway combines “severe safety hazards,” “geometric design issues,” “heavy congestion,” and “inadequate lighting, lack of maintenance and aesthetics,” as a 2013 study from the state and Charlotte departments of transportation put it. Given the typically dry language of transportation studies, such descriptions land like F-bombs.
The study found that parts of I-277 have accident rates as much as three times higher than the state average. (Try to get off the Brookshire Freeway and onto East 12th Street at Exit 3A, and you’ll understand why.) A highway that funnels a huge volume of cars into three lanes instead of a web of street connections virtually guarantees bottlenecks every rush hour. Worse: The loop doesn’t take you anywhere that surface streets wouldn’t.
“It really is one giant interchange,” Smith says.
Its size and complexity help prevent its demise. Community leaders and economic development officials began to float ideas more than two decades ago. The most ambitious is an unrealized vision of a cap over the Belk Freeway to create an “iconic” public space and more foot traffic between South End and uptown. But the N.C. Department of Transportation, which maintains the interstate, is a few billion dollars short of funding for future projects, and any major changes would touch a huge number of stakeholders. Those include the city, county, state, and federal governments; Charlotte Area Transit System; Norfolk Southern Railway; private landowners; and, above all, drivers: Parts of I-277 carry nearly 100,000 cars a day.
The loop can fool you into thinking it’s permanent, a natural feature of the landscape. It’s difficult to imagine Charlotte before it. But pre-World War II aerial photos reveal Charlotte streets that branch out in a traditional grid from Trade and Tryon. Railway lines sliced through some neighborhoods, and uptown was divided into the four wards that remain today. Without a physical border, most of Charlotte was seamlessly connected to the city’s center. (Granted, the city was also much smaller, giving way abruptly to farms and fields somewhere north of what would become SouthPark.)
“The notion of having neighborhoods where you can walk to center city employment is now considered kind of a holy grail by urban activists of every kind,” says Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett, a contributor to this magazine. “And we had that.”
But in the late 1940s and ’50s, a toxic brew of automobile infatuation and “slum clearance” came to dominate urban planning throughout the U.S. “There was a paradigm adopted post-World War II that today we largely take for granted,” says Rick Cole, executive director of Congress for the New Urbanism, a national organization that supports the “Freeway Fighters,” a network of groups that advocate for the removal of urban expressways.
As white people fled central cities for manicured suburbs, the automobile became the center of American transportation. Spread-out suburbs with quarter-acre lawns require cars to ferry people around—they’re simply too big, and too empty, for mass transit to effectively serve. You know the rest: Single-family houses in the suburbs. Wide and fast highways straight to the city center. Lives lived behind windshields instead of on sidewalks or trains.
The postwar highway-building boom was “open-heart surgery on cities that killed the heart,” Cole says. “We literally reshaped how we lived, believing the idea that it would be more convenient. … But with that convenience has come absolutely colossal—and what is more and more clear, unsustainable—costs.”
One of the biggest costs Charlotte continues to reckon with is the destruction and dismemberment of Black neighborhoods. Urban renewal, in which the federal government paid most of the cost to demolish inner city “slums” and displace countless residents, was often tied to highway building—and creating faster access to uptown was one of the main motivations behind urban renewal in Charlotte.
Vernon Sawyer, head of the Charlotte commission that oversaw urban renewal, recounted in a 2004 oral history, archived at UNC Charlotte, that he thought the poor state of uptown’s roads was killing center city.
“Another reason why (inner cities) were dying was because they were generally inaccessible. And if they were accessible, it was through a slum area. … My God, several of the thoroughfares that came into the city of Charlotte came right through Brooklyn,” said Sawyer, who died in 2018. “Part of our plan for Brooklyn was to provide thoroughfares into the city of Charlotte.”
As officials started sketching out the new skein of expressways, notices went out to property owners, most in Black neighborhoods, that their homes were needed for highways.
In a letter dated Dec. 28, 1966, the State Highway Commission notified fourth-grade teacher Emily Ivory that the state would take her house and property at 1631 Van Buren Ave., just north of Johnson C. Smith University, for a planned expressway. S.R. Pollard, a state “right of way agent,” told her the commission would have the property appraised and that the state would make her an offer for it. “I cried all night,” Ivory told The Charlotte Observer at the time. Her homesite is now somewhere in the tangle of the northern I-277/I-77 interchange.
According to JCSU’s James B. Duke Memorial Library, Charlotte’s new expressways displaced 240 families and consumed cultural landmarks like Biddleville Park and Sportsman’s Grill. In addition to the wholesale destruction of Brooklyn, the highways sliced up Black neighborhoods like Dalebrook and Oaklawn Park.
The northern leg of I-277 opened in 1970. Called the Northwest (now Brookshire) Freeway, it ran from Independence Boulevard north of uptown and provided a connection to the future I-77 route. In a March 1970 article, the Observer described the planned expressway system as a “concrete spaghetti bowl” around uptown. But the paper gamely tried to play up Charlotte’s progress. “You will have solid concrete under your wheels, but, traffic permitting, you will look down and experience the sensation of flying,” the Observer wrote. “If you are subject to air sickness maybe you would rather wait until Charlotte gets a subway.”
The experience of driving on I-277 rarely, if ever, feels like flying. But the city kept building. The rest of it opened in sections: Independence Boulevard to Kenilworth Avenue in 1981, Kenilworth to I-77 in 1988. The state officially designated the full 4.4 miles as “I-277” in 1989. But Sawyer’s hoped-for downtown revival didn’t happen.
“The idea was that once you could get to the inner city easily, everyone would come shop,” Hanchett says. “Nope. The road goes two ways.”
Uptown department stores like Belk and Ivey’s closed and followed their customers to the suburbs. Parking lots and interchanges replaced neighborhoods. By 1994, when Charlotte hosted the NCAA Final Four, uptown was so dead that the city had to build a “Street of Champions” with temporary bars and restaurants to give visitors something to do.
The neighborhoods cut up and hemmed in by Charlotte’s new web of urban freeways didn’t fare much better. As U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Obama, former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx launched an education campaign about the legacy of urban interstates. He recalled his boyhood in Lincoln Heights, which fills the southeastern crook of the I-77/85 intersection. “Businesses didn’t invest there. Grocery stores and pharmacies didn’t take the risk,” Foxx told The Washington Post. “I could not even get a pizza delivered to my house.”
Ironically, the very things the postwar paradigm tried to erase—density, walkability, transit—helped power uptown’s revival in the 2000s and 2010s. The wasteland of parking lots began to fill with new apartments, condos, and office towers. Residents and visitors were drawn by big-ticket items like the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Hornets, along with more mundane conveniences like the ability to walk to get coffee. The Blue Line light rail gave people a way to get uptown besides driving. Uptown and South End have slowly begun to grow back together like severed flaps of lacerated skin, with high-rises going up nearly to the edge on both sides of the I-277 chasm.
Yet the chasm and other factors continue to limit the revival. Remote and hybrid work in the aftermath of COVID have suppressed uptown’s office worker population, and some storefronts remain empty. The Epicentre’s epic demise leaves an empty spot in uptown’s heart.
And the primacy of the car and the thinking that accompanies it persists: For a few months in 2020, the city allowed a pedestrian-only block of South Tryon Street, where artists had painted a Black Lives Matter mural after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The city reopened it to cars after business owners complained about a lack of parking.
The counterargument persists, too, though. One of its most recent, if lighthearted, manifestations is, of all things, a running Twitter joke.
Few things mark a Charlotte Twitter nerd like a meme that’s made the rounds over the past several years: “make I-277 a river,” complete with renderings. The mock-serious argument: Charlotte is one of the only major American cities that lacks a waterfront. So why not divert the Catawba River, flood I-277, and create a downtown river? Iterations resurface every few months. Twitter being Twitter, they often stir up angry replies about whether Charlotte’s urban planning aficionados should think about more serious problems.
It’s a joke, of course. But it does express something fundamental about the frustration the highway engenders: It’s such a god-awful mess, we’d be better off if we let nature convert it into a literal moat. At least you could float down it, beer in hand, and drift over to Whole Foods to buy organic chicken for dinner.
But what, more realistically, could happen with I-277? The possibilities, all time-consuming and expensive, range from tinkering with interchanges to tearing the whole thing down.
One solution is obvious, and the least expensive: Give people more ways to cross. Most of the pedestrian and bicycle routes across the road—narrow sidewalks, tight bridges, and dark underpasses—aren’t particularly appealing. One such project is underway: An $11.5 million pedestrian bridge will connect the Rail Trail over I-277 and into uptown, providing a crucial connection to South End. It’s expected to open in 2025. On West Trade Street, the city has installed a $3.1 million public art project with multicolored LED lights to transform a foreboding passage beneath I-77 into a friendlier, brighter connection to uptown.
A more ambitious option: a version of the aforementioned cap over several blocks of the Belk Freeway, the sunken part of I-277, with a park on top. Charlotte’s Center City Vision Plan has included the proposal for decades. It might sound futuristic or prohibitively complex, but other cities have made similar projects happen. Klyde Warren Park, a 5-acre park built over an urban freeway on the edge of downtown Dallas, opened in 2012. In 2004, Columbus, Ohio, built shops and a pedestrian route on a cap over its own inner loop expressway. Seattle’s Freeway Park, built over I-5 in downtown, opened in 1976.
“This is not a moonshot. This is not inventing something new,” says Smith of Center City Partners. “When the value of land starts to catch up with the value of the cost of creating the land, that’s when that tips.”
Beyond its travel lanes, I-277 eats up land with its shoulders, embankments, and looping on-and-off ramps. Just rearranging those can make a big difference. In the 2000s, as part of the complicated financing behind the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Charlotte reconfigured the I-277/South Boulevard interchange. Switching from cloverleaf-style loops to slimmer, diamond-shaped ramps created a dozen acres of prime uptown land along what was then Stonewall Street. The city sold off the newly available parcels, which developers transformed from empty lots into a Whole Foods, hundreds of apartments, and more shops.
Architecture firms Neighboring Concepts and Shook Kelley have been working on a similar plan for the 5 Points area in west Charlotte. Slimming down the Trade Street/I-77 interchange could free up 10 acres for development and turn part of Charlotte’s inner loop from a tool of separation into a gateway to the city’s west side. “There’s an important symbolic aspect to it,” says Henry Stepp, a Shook Kelley designer.
The city could, conceivably, demolish half of the loop—the Belk Freeway, which would leave the Brookshire as a direct route between Independence, I-77, and N.C. Highway 16 to the west. Still other urban planners dream even bigger: Why not get rid of the whole thing and replace it with normal city streets, intersections, stoplights, and crosswalks? With 100,000 cars a day traveling parts of the inner loop, such a suggestion might seem impossible. But a restored network of city streets would give drivers a lot more options than a few clogged lanes on I-277. Charlotteans who take Monroe and Randolph roads instead of Independence Boulevard at rush hour already know something about the value of alternatives.
And if you doubt the potentially transformative power of freeway removal, consider San Francisco, one of the very few examples of a city—in one way, at least—enhanced by an earthquake. “Those cars are no longer on the Embarcadero Freeway,” says Cole of Congress for the New Urbanism, “and nobody misses them.”
The only construction underway on I-277 is comparatively minor: A $26 million rehab of bridges and pavement along the Brookshire Freeway. The NCDOT planned to spend $5 million acquiring right-of-way to modify ramps and interchanges, but the state’s financial crunch kicked even that modest proposal off the funded project list. Still, Stuart Basham, the NCDOT’s planning engineer for its Charlotte-area division, says the city’s growth necessitates a “reevaluation” of I-277. “The needs,” he says, “are vastly different today than what they were at the time.”
Cities’ growing transportation needs are only part of the challenge, Cole says. Urban freeways are physical embodiments of the inequality baked into our communities.
“We have a huge repair job,” he says. “And that starts with these deep and wide scars on the hearts of our cities.”
ELY PORTILLO spent a decade as a reporter in Charlotte, much of it covering growth and development. He’s now director of research engagement at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.