Improvements to I-440 are needed, but the impacts will be significant.
On a sunny, windy day last month, a lone golfer drives a ball onto the green on a nine-hole, Par-3 golf course. A few hundred feet away, players from a U.S. Tennis Association league lob balls back and forth. The swimming pools situated between the golf course and eight tennis courts stand empty in March, but it’s easy to imagine kids slipping down the twisty red waterslide come summertime.
In a few years, it’s likely that the recreational facilities at the NC State University Club, located since 1961 on Hillsborough Street just down the road from the exit off of Interstate 440, will look dramatically different. As part of planned improvements to a stretch of the Beltline north of Wade Avenue to Walnut Street in Cary, including widening the road from four to six lanes, the club stands to lose up to a quarter of its 46 acres to eminent domain. As currently planned, the project takes up half of the club’s tennis courts, as well as most of an adjacent parking lot, rendering the swimming pools untenably close to future traffic.
“Our goal is to have a reconfigured footprint before [the N.C. Department of Transportation] touches the property, so there’s no interruption of service to our members and guests,” says James Ivankovich, the club’s general manager. “There is going to be some movement of different amenities. How extensive that is isn’t known at this point, but we’re working through every possible scenario.”
The I-440 widening package, projected to cost $475 million, will improve a stretch of highway built in the 1960s that can tally up to 90,000 vehicles per day. Parts of the highway rack up crashes at a rate three times the state average due to short acceleration and deceleration ramps, drivers having to merge in the fast lane, bottleneck congestion and other issues.
Though the improvements—which include replacing bridges, upgrading interchanges and physically lowering Blue Ridge Road to be situated underneath a railway—are needed, the impact is significant. Dozens of businesses and residents will be displaced and major entities, including Meredith College, NC State University and the University Club will lose large swathes of property. NCDOT-hosted public meetings beginning last summer have brought out hundreds of concerned stakeholders.
“We definitely understand that the widening needs to happen,” says Kristi Eaves-McLennan, the executive director of marketing at Meredith College. The women’s college is currently slated to lose roughly 10 acres of land, and the project will impact apartment residences on campus as well as athletics practice fields. “[The land] is a planned future growth site, where some of the ground is more level and we need to think about the long term. Hundreds of Meredith constituents have made their voices heard about this project, writing in their opinions and going to meetings, saying how much they value the Meredith campus and its importance to the community.”
At NC State, Associate Vice Chancellor Jeff Bandini, who manages the university’s real estate portfolio, says the project will affect “buildable acreage” on the Centennial Biomedical Campus, a storage building on Ligon Street, the Biomedical Campus’s short-game golf practice facility and a maintenance building located on its northeastern corner. The university doesn’t have a current estimate for the amount of acreage affected by the project due to recent adjustments in the project’s design.
“We are meeting with stakeholders and talking to different groups all the time,” says Steve Abbott, a spokesman for NCDOT. The department has been able to change the plan from preliminary stages to reduce its physical footprint and mitigate some of the impacts to property owners. Stakeholders say DOT officials have been open to listening and responsive to their concerns.
In July, the department will hear presentations from four different design-build contractors and later this summer will award final planning and construction of the project to the highest-scoring bidder. NCDOT will then be in a position to discuss compensation with all of the entities affected by the project, and construction is on track to begin in spring or early summer of next year.
“The biggest thing for us, other than compensation, is timing of the project,” says NC State’s Bandini. “We need significant lead time to move people and replace our short-course facility. So from a facilities perspective, as a large entity we need a lot of time to plan and relocate folks. We’re asking not to start the project with our property.”
Ivankovich says the University Club is in the same boat. It’s sending out surveys to its more than 900 members to get their input on how they want to see the property reconfigured—and hopefully improved—and the club will look to hire an architect once it knows more about the final design.
“A lot of this is about being vocal, letting the DOT and the different agencies governing this process know the impacts and the personal stories this could cause havoc with,” Ivankovich says. “From the DOT’s standpoint, they’re doing their jobs, but there is a people side to this that’s important, and maybe there are better ways to think about it and alternatives that haven’t been considered.”
If all goes well, the I-440 improvements will make the highway safer and less congested by 2025. The improvements will also fit neatly with the county’s 10-year, $2.3 billion transit plan, which will see Wake County and the City of Raleigh working with NCDOT on Bus Rapid Transit along the Western Boulevard corridor.
“We’re working together to make sure what we’re doing on the highway side doesn’t hurt what we do on the future transit side,” says Joey Hopkins, Division Engineer for the state highway division covering Wake County.
“We want to reach a deal with the stakeholders, offer relocation help; there are all kinds of things we can do,” adds Abbott, the DOT spokesman. “We know we’re inconveniencing people by taking property, and we want to make them feel alright about it. We want to reach a deal, and if we can’t, it goes to the courts.”
That’s an outcome that all the parties, at the moment, appear to be working hard to avoid.
“A lot of this is about being vocal, letting the DOT and the different agencies governing this process know the impacts and the personal stories this could cause havoc with.” — James Ivankovich