During freeway cap talk, remember parks

It's easy to get pumped about an idea to create a big chunk of space for an uptown park by putting a cap over Interstate 277.

By capping the freeway and building a park, Charlotte would finally have a large uptown park, something for which available land is running out.

The Center City 2010 Vision Plan, adopted in 2000, calls for a 20-acre park perched atop I-277 where it runs below grade. Although a cap would cost millions, think of it this way: The I-277 right-of-way land now is off the tax rolls. Any development there would be a plus for the tax base. Further, property next to a well-designed and well-used park typically produces higher real estate values than similar property farther from the park.

So it's good news that the city and an engineering and planning consulting firm are spending four days this week looking at the freeway cap idea, along with other issues related to the section of I-277 near the new NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A couple of things need to remain fresh in city leaders' minds. First, pressure to fill any freeway cap with development will be intense. But the need is great for a large, in-town park. The city shouldn't let dollar signs in anyone's eyes cause the “park” part of the freeway cap idea to shrink too much or worse, disappear.

Second, the city shouldn't forget another park proposal in the 2010 Plan: a linear park along I-277 and I-77 uptown.

That idea never generated as much chatter as the freeway cap, probably because it wouldn't require flashy feats of civil engineering and wouldn't involve a big chunk of land to whet private developers' appetites.

The idea was this: Use the publicly owned right-of-way along I-277 and I-77, plus other publicly owned land, to encircle uptown with a greenway park.

If you look at a map, you'll see much of the land around this loop is already in public hands: Frazier Park between the Third Ward neighborhood and I-77, the Little Sugar Creek Greenway along Kings Drive and plenty of property along Stonewall Street, including a small park next to a Charlotte Housing Authority tower on Baxter Street.

Creating a green necklace of walking and biking trails could forge connections among neighborhoods that today are isolated by highways and high-volume streets. Imagine traveling from Greenville Park, northeast of uptown, down to a large freeway cap park to the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, and from there to Freedom Park or even into South Carolina.

If a large center city park could be the heart of the uptown, the 2010 Plan said, the linear park is the spine. Both park ideas have merit, and one should not be sacrificed for the other.

As the city continues its process to sell off property between I-277 and Stonewall Street, it should ensure that enough land for the linear park is protected from development.

If the city works to follow its plan, then future generations of Charlotteans – as they enjoy uptown's green necklace and a freeway cap park – will be able to look back in gratitude at the foresight of today's leaders.