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2 visions of new uptown icon seen, but realization is a long way off

Creating an uptown icon was the bold goal of meetings this week between city leaders and a national engineering firm.

Standing in a room filled with drawings and diagrams, engineers Thursday spelled out two possible visions for redeveloping a coveted piece of uptown real estate.

Both plans called for a cap over Interstate 277 and the creation of a “central celebration area” that would serve as a gathering place for people downtown – something city planners have long wanted to see.

City officials seemed pleased with the work unveiled at the meeting. Still, most admitted that any such plan was a long way from becoming a reality.

“This is still very much in the blue sky stage,” said Danny Pleasant, the Charlotte Department of Transportation's interim director. “It is a compelling idea and it'll probably get done someday. Now, if that day is five years from now, or 10, we can't say.”

The recent redesign of I-277 left about 12 acres of available land just off the highway, on the southwest side of uptown. The five parcels sit in an area next to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and just a few blocks from Bank of America Stadium and Time Warner Cable Arena.

City officials are looking to redevelop the land and want to create an eye-catching, pedestrian-friendly part of town. Already three parcels are under contract, and officials expect the others to follow quickly.

Carving the land out of the highway cost about $26 million. The city paid $21 million. The state paid the rest. Selling all five parcels should net more than $60 million for the city, about $20 million of which will go toward the construction of the hall.

The most provocative part of the plan deals with capping I-277, an idea first backed by City Council in 2000.

The new proposals follow different paths. The first would cap an area between College and Church streets, building a park atop the new land. The park would become a civic destination, used for gatherings downtown.

This plan also includes a pedestrian bridge that crosses the highway in a circle and would pass by hotels on both sides of the highway.

The second proposal is slightly more ambitious. It would cap five blocks of the highway, creating a European-style boulevard on top, with stores and hotels on both sides. This plan also includes a civic gathering place, this time right beside Bank of America Stadium, currently the location of the Observer's parking deck.

The first plan would cost about $170 million. The second plan could cost as much as $300 million. Officials said those figures are in today's dollars and would increase over time.

Officials with HNTB, authors of the proposal, estimated that the city could pay for the plans with money earned from selling new parcels created by it.

Several cities have built highway caps with varying degrees of success. Seattle created one of the earliest when it built a park and convention center in the '70s that covered three city blocks and stretched across Interstate 5.

More recently Columbus, Ohio, spent about $7 million to build a 1-acre cap over Interstate 670. The Union Street cap, as it is known, has become a retail destination, leading other cities in Ohio to consider similar construction.

Jim Kimbler, Charlotte's transportation planner, said the proposals were interesting, but that officials had a lot of evaluating to do.

“This will take a lot of review,” he said.

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