The I-77 bridge in Cornelius: Inviting gateway or big fail?

Traffic approaches the Exit 28 bridge on an overcast day. Residents have complained that the cables and masts are hard to see.
Traffic approaches the Exit 28 bridge on an overcast day. Residents have complained that the cables and masts are hard to see. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

If one goal of public art is to spur conversation, then the silvery new masts and cables on the Exit 28 bridge over Interstate 77 are doing their job.

The two masts and diagonal cables were supposed to help brand the town of Cornelius as the gateway to Lake Norman. But since their installation in January, criticism has been profuse: The masts are too short. The metal cables, too thin. The scale is off, and the whole thing is hard to see from the highway.

Among the disappointed: Some town commissioners who approved the design.

“It’s a classic fail,” former Mayor Lynette Rinker says.

“We’re underwhelmed,” commissioner Dave Gilroy admits.

“EVERYONE recognizes the design of the masts at exit 28 falls woefully short of expectations,” former Mayor Jeff Tarte, now a state senator, wrote on Facebook.

The pieces, which are meant to evoke sailboats, or perhaps a suspension bridge, are part of a bridge makeover that’s less than half done. Town leaders are counseling patience until all elements – decorative abutments, lantern-topped brick columns, landscaping – are installed.

But they’re also already brainstorming fixes. Gilroy proposes a black coating that would better contrast against the sky. Mayor Chuck Travis suggests spires, flags, maybe reflective white paint.

Today, the bridge saga looks like a case study in the complexities – and pitfalls – of creating successful public art. It begins with a beautiful but too-expensive plan from a Raleigh architectural firm. It continues with then-commissioner John Bradford volunteering the services of an architect friend, who drew a mast-and-cable design. His work became input for the Raleigh firm, which created a design that commissioners approved in 2012. The finished product is less majestic than it appears in drawings.

“The masts are small and insignificant compared to the structure of the bridge. When I first saw them, I thought they were new lights,” says David Walters, a UNC Charlotte professor emeritus of architecture and urban design who has served on public art commissions. “I’m afraid it makes the town look rather silly.”

Joining east and west

The project began with ambitious goals. As the state planned a diverging-diamond interchange at Exit 28 to improve traffic flow, Cornelius leaders saw an opportunity to overhaul the aesthetics of the bridge that’s often visitors’ first glimpse of the north Mecklenburg town. They hired the Raleigh architectural firm Ratio and held meetings to seek the public’s ideas.

The original objective: a bridge that reflected Cornelius’ unusual history, as a former cotton mill town that became a lake community when Lake Norman was created. That history often makes Cornelius, population 27,000, feel like two places – the older town east of I-77, and the newer part, with expensive lakefront homes, on the west side. With the bridge design, leaders saw a chance to link the town metaphorically.

Commissioners initially considered a design with lighted sail-like canopies over a pedestrian walkway and braided railings that evoked both water and weaving. Interstate drivers would see white lettering that would spell out “Cornelius” against a blue background. “It was stunning, and it would have been gorgeous,” Tarte says.

But that plan cost at least $4 million, about $2 million more than commissioners wanted to spend.

So at a 2012 meeting, as they debated what to cut, commissioner Bradford, now a state representative, told his colleagues on the town board that he’d find another architect to draft a design free.

A friend of Bradford’s, Charleston architect Mark Moehring, drew up designs depicting diagonal cables stretching from the bridge to two masts. The masts rise from brick columns on opposite sides of the bridge. “Cornelius” is spelled out on the bridge railings.

The town paid Moehring $5,000 for the design rights and shared it with Ratio, which came up with its own mast-and-cables design. Moehring recently described his involvement as “very early on and very brief.” He said he hadn’t seen the installation.

The mast and cables went up in January, following construction of the diverging diamond interchange, which had caused months of traffic delays. Motorists and businesses were relieved that all lanes had re-opened. And as installation approached, local leaders expressed excitement.

“I don’t think there’s any bridge on any interstate that will look as spectacular as this bridge is going to look,” Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell told the Observer in November.

Then the masts and cables were installed. Some residents reacted on a Facebook page called Exit 28 Ridiculousness, a forum where people had vented and shared information during the interchange construction. Several complained the structures were hard to see from the highway. Cornelius resident Courtney Shaughnessy posted a photo of the bridge, the cables barely visible against the blue sky, with the caption “Nailed it!”

“It was really meant for some comedic relief,” she said. When she compared the handsome renderings to the final product, she thought of photos of failed attempts to copy crafts depicted on Pinterest, a photo-sharing website.

Ratio’s Jennifer Sisak says Ratio delivered a product “very much” like the version the firm showed commissioners in 2014. That version tweaked an earlier design, deleting six of 24 cables because they placed too much tension on the bridge. Some people have wondered whether the height of the masts is lower than planned. Sisak says no. They’re within about three inches of the height originally depicted – more than 38 feet.

The only change from a year ago, Sisak says, was for safety reasons. The N.C. DOT required a horizontal cable that connects the diagonal cables. That cable is diverting some light that illuminates the structures at night, she says. The town is looking for a way to correct that.

Aiming too high?

Tarte, who was mayor when commissioners approved the design, wonders if their aspirations were too high, considering what they were willing to spend. He had favored limiting the aesthetic improvements to $2 million, given other pressing needs, such as road improvements. Maybe, he says, the desired impact was impossible on that budget.

Rinker, who was mayor pro tem, agrees: “I’m not saying it was right to spend $4 million, but in hindsight, putting an artificial cap on (the project) limited the options.”

Rinker also wonders whether she and her colleagues erred by changing design directions late in the process, when the project faced a DOT deadline. “In some ways, we made a decision without having all the answers,” she says. “We were within a hair of losing any aesthetic improvements. What do you do? You go with this or nothing.”

Walters, UNCC’s professor of architecture, says the story of Cornelius’ masts and cables is one he’s heard before: “Those are the kinds of well-intentioned mistakes that happen often to neophytes – the mismatch between plans and budget, the oh-my we have to make a decision now.”

Walters counsels that towns hire public art advisers. “Public art is a complicated process,” he says. He even wonders if the bridge was the best place for the art. “If you’re saying, ‘You’re going to enter somewhere special,’ probably a freeway bridge isn’t the best place to do it.” He feels for the town, “because they wanted to do something good, and they ended up with something silly.”

This was the first time public art had been integrated into a state Department of Transportation facility, Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant said. The department had to approve the design, which needed to be durable and easy to maintain. Designers had to take into account factors such as weight, bridge vibrations, road salt and weather. The town used public art consultants early in the process, Grant said.

The masts and cables cost about $170,000, a small part of the total estimated $2.4 million price tag, which has included burying utility cables and adding a protected pedestrian walkway across the center of the bridge.

Mayor Travis says he’s reserving his final opinion until everything is completed. Bradford, the former commissioner, also emphasized that much remains to be done: “All of that is going to be a welcoming gateway into the town of Cornelius, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the final product.”

But when will we get the final product? That’s unclear. The remaining construction will probably take six to eight months, Sisak says. It can’t begin, however, until the DOT determines engineering requirements for two new lanes in each direction under the bridge, part of the state’s I-77 toll project from Charlotte to Mooresville.

So for now, there are the masts and cables, which rise amid a tableau of taller street lights and a McDonald’s. You may notice them when driving on I-77 at Exit 28. Or, depending on weather, light and your attention level, you may not.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271

The Exit 28 bridge makeover

The aesthetic makeover follows last year’s completion of a diverging-diamond intersection on the bridge.

Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Completed improvements include: Buried utility cables, protected pedestrian walkway, sidewalks with brick pavers, stainless-steel masts and cables. Landscaping on the bridge is nearly complete.

Improvements to come include: Four brick abutments with columns topped by lanterns, decorative sign posts, landscaping in the ramp areas and adjacent to I-77.

Completion date: Unscheduled until engineering requirements are determined for the upcoming interstate widening.