When the last segment of Interstate 485 opens Friday, drivers will see potential traffic relief. Developers will see an opportunity.
The final 5.7-mile segment will link Interstates 77 and 85, bringing thousands more cars and “unlocking,” in developer parlance, more acreage near the highway.
But with more development could come still more traffic in an area that already sees plenty of congestion.
Some nearby development has already started, such as a Publix at the Prosperity Church Road interchange and a Walmart at Bryton Town Center near the I-77 interchange.
Charlotte developer Roy Goode’s company owns almost 29 acres just southwest of the Prosperity Church Road exit. He’s owned the vacant land for a decade, biding his time until the highway opened. Now, he’s planning to start work on a mixed-use project with offices, retail space and possibly residential units.
Having the road open will mean he can start seriously marketing to prospective tenants, he said.
“We’ve been, as everybody else has, waiting for 485 to open up,” said Goode. “Before then it was like, ‘We’d love to talk to you, but we can’t really talk to you until we see the cars moving on 485.’ ”
Neighbors such as Donnie Oehler, who owns Oehler’s Mallard Creek Barbecue, are hopeful the completed I-485 – under construction for 27 years – improves traffic flow. But they’re bracing for more apartments, more businesses and more cars.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet. It’s gonna be a mess,” said Oehler. “The day that thing opens, it’ll be something.”
His family used to own much of the land from Ridge Road to Johnston-Oehler Road, and various branches of the Oehler family still own large tracts down to the soon-to-open Mallard Creek Road interchange. Oehler said his immediate family owns about 100 acres, and they still raise cows and grow crops on the land. They don’t have any plans to move, he said.
But he can see I-485 from his barbecue business and believes more development will follow.
The outerbelt is widely credited – or blamed – with sparking an explosion of development in Ballantyne, as well as leading the way to construction of thousands of homes in Union County. Some see growth that has helped lure corporate headquarters to that part of the county. Others see sprawl that sucked business and residents from around the center city.
Now, some are anticipating similar growth in the city’s north.
“People don’t realize they’ve run out of real estate on the south side” of the I-485 loop, said Oehler. “For years, everything had to be on the south side. Now guess where they’re coming.”
There have already been some skirmishes. Residents protested a 2013 plan by Halvorsen Holdings to build an apartment complex as part of its Publix-anchored development at Prosperity Church Road. The project was approved last year after a reduction in the apartment building size and the inclusion of more green space.
“We didn’t want to turn it into a Ballantyne,” said Theresa Rosa, a neighborhood leader who has helped develop the city’s Prosperity Hucks Area Plan. That document – which lays out a dense mixed-use development zone around the Prosperity Church Road interchange – is expected to be approved in the coming months.
“There’s a lot of property right around 485 where developers are really just watching and waiting for this area plan to be approved,” said Rosa.
Tom Low, a Charlotte architect and urban planner, said I-485 was premised on a decades-old, auto-centric view of how cities should grow and manage traffic.
“It was the development model of the 1960s: Build your beltway, and they will come,” said Low. He recalled seeing plans for I-485 interchanges in the early 1990s, each with a color-coded dot indicating what it would be used for: residential, retail or commercial. It would be more than a decade before “mixed-use” became the buzzword.
Now, mixed-use developments – which feature apartments, houses, restaurants, shops, offices and parks in one tract – are popping up at other interchanges along I-485. Developer Sam Simpson of Simpson Commercial Real Estate unveiled plans for one such site in March at Brookshire Boulevard and I-485.
Three major mixed-use developments are planned at Providence Road and I-485, totaling more than 2,100 housing units, hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and retail space and covering 356 acres. Some of the biggest names in Charlotte development are behind them: Lincoln Harris, Crescent Communities, Childress Klein and Crosland Southeast.
Low said market forces, especially a shift back to more compact living with shorter commutes, have helped power the resurgence of mixed-use developments.
“Twenty years ago, they weren’t interested in that at all,” said Low. “Now, they have kind of decided collectively this is the model they need to embrace.”
Away from the areas directly bordering I-485, economic developers are anticipating the road’s impact. Darlene Heater, executive director of University City Partners, said increased access by car could make the 950 acres vacant in University City’s geographic boundaries more attractive.
“The road structure up in this area has been majority suburban,” said Heater. “This is going to provide remarkable access to us.”
She said she’s taken interested developers out to see the new I-485 interchanges and the land around them. “It is primed,” she said. “We have a lot of developers that are actively searching in this area.”
Rosa said it will be important for current residents to work with developers, and understand that stopping development in its tracks isn’t possible.
“Change is coming,” said Rosa. “And you’ve got to work with the change.”