CORNELIUS – Much like the original aesthetic improvements for the Catawba Avenue bridge over Interstate 77, an Exit 28 landscaping plan has left the Cornelius Town Board underwhelmed. But commissioners still approved the design unanimously Jan. 7, noting that they hoped it would be the first phase to an ever-improving look for what they consider an entryway to town.
“To say this has been watered down is a dramatic understatement,” Commissioner Dave Gilroy said.
In 2015, the Exit 28 Diverging Diamond Interchange project reconfigured how drivers and pedestrians crossed the interstate. Part of that was the installation of masts and cables meant to give a striking nautical look to pay homage to Cornelius’ 70 miles of shoreline along Lake Norman. Budget, deadline and safety limitations kept the full vision from coming to fruition, leaving officials and residents calling it a disappointment.
Planned landscaping, brick abutments, flags and other aesthetics were aimed to improve the look, but town funding for the improvements, slashed from $1.3 million to $200,000 during last year’s budget talks, put much of those elements out of reach.
Assistant Town Manager Tyler Beardsley told the board that the landscaping committee, which included current and past commissioners as well as Cornelius residents, had to switch its focus from hardscape designs to being landscape-driven.
Landscape architect Gary Fankhauser said the latest design met the financial criteria and took into account that it would be viewed differently by drivers going 70 mph on the interstate compared to those going across the bridge at 20 mph.
“With the limited area we have to work with and the budget, we decided to go with simple designs,” Fankhauser said.
Plants were chosen based on what could grow there, would require limited maintenance and would offer year-round color through leaves or flowers. The project is not expected to impact trees already in the area.
Beardsley said flags were taken out of the plan because of concern over scale.
“Especially with the underwhelming mast and cable system, to put in a flag pole, it would have to be substantial to be seen at any kind of distance,” he said.
Fankhauser added that flags would have taken the majority of the budget and wouldn’t be seen if there was nothing to accompany them.
Plans to display the town name were eliminated from the plan when the proposed brick walls were removed; however, I-77 Mobility Partners, the contractor for the express lanes project, has indicated that there is a plan to put lettering on each bridge over the interstate, according to Town Manager Andrew Grant. Commissioners agreed that it likely won’t be what they had in mind.
“I thought about this as phase one,” Gilroy said of the presented plan. “We’ve got to do something more to have some level of distinction – something to make our interchange different from any other interchange in America. We failed. Hopefully there is another piece here.”
Mayor Woody Washam agreed, saying the bridge must “capture the feeling and look of what Cornelius is all about.”
“I think this is something we’ve got to keep going,” he said. “This is a beautiful start for what we have to work with.”
Since it’s such a scaled-back version, the town only needs localized approval from the N.C. Department of Transportation rather than going to the state for public art approval, which means it should be obtained a lot quicker. Depending on toll-lane construction, the project could be completed as early as June.
“We know toll-lane construction is ongoing,” Beardsley said. “Timeframes may shift to the fall. But I-77 Mobility Partners said we could get things moving in the spring.”