GREENSBORO — A segment of the Downtown Greenway now under construction along Murrow Boulevard will add another great link for walkers, runners and bike riders.
But it’s also taking something away — a “what if” piece of Greensboro’s transportation past, when planners envisioned a high-speed freeway zooming right through town.
Today’s Murrow Boulevard was designed in an earlier time as part of a “controlled-access freeway,” said Chris Spencer, Greensboro’s interim transportation director.
Greenway construction has erased one of the more tangible pieces of the freeway that never panned out. That would be the northern half of what was to be an interchange at Gate City Boulevard, then known as East Lee Street.
Construction crews building the greenway on Murrow’s eastern side already have supplanted the intersection’s former on-and-off ramps in favor of a standard, perpendicular crossroad regulated by a stop light.
When complete, the current project will be a major addition to the greenway that someday will make a 4-mile circuit around the center city.
Most people think of the work now under way between Gate City Boulevard and West Fisher Avenue as strictly a “bi-ped” project for bike riders and pedestrians.
“Really, it’s also a large roadway project,” Spencer said. “It’s a rebuild of much of Murrow Boulevard.”
The aim is to bring Murrow’s design for motorists more in line with the traffic it actually carries these days, which is not at the interstate levels once envisioned.
In a community that has benefited from decades of astute transportation planning (think Bryan Boulevard and the Greensboro Urban Loop), it’s an example of, “What in the dickens were they thinking?”
Two words help explain how the bottom fell out of the city’s initial plan that officials began putting into effect in the 1960s: Bragg Street.
“It’s hard to understand how Murrow became what it is or was prior to the current project without understanding the concept for continuing the roadway westward via Bragg Street,” said Tyler Meyer, the Greensboro Department of Transportation’s planning manager.
As early as 1953, city officials began eyeing Bragg Street as a major artery that could relieve congestion on the much busier Lee Street a block or so to the north.
Greensboro’s thoroughfare plan envisioned Bragg Street extending from the abortive Murrow interchange, along part of existing East Bragg Street’s current route and then through the Glenwood neighborhood to the area near the Greensboro Coliseum.
The plan gained momentum through the early 1970s. Murrow Boulevard eventually was built in the form that the greenway is now altering. Other sections of this proposed network that did get built include Fisher Avenue and Smith Street
The city bought 48 houses and businesses between Murrow and Elm Street with an eye toward building the first, western leg of the expressway.
In August 1972 the News & Record’s predecessor, the Greensboro Daily News, reported that the city’s proposed, $13.9 million Bragg Street Expressway was poised for consideration by state highway officials.
“Bragg Expressway’s Plans Near Approval,” the Daily News headline proclaimed.
But residents of the Glenwood neighborhood strongly protested the project’s path through that part of town, citing estimates that suggested a total of 170 houses and 17 businesses would be displaced.
“Local officials and citizens were concerned with the impacts to the Glenwood neighborhood and by 1976” the project was scaled back somewhat, city planners said in a 2006 report titled, “Bragg Street: Its Concept and Demise.”
In 1985, the report notes, “GTCC was granted permission to construct a driveway to the old J.C. Price campus in what was the right of way” for extending Bragg Street toward the Murrow interchange.
Local officials finally asked the state Department of Transportation to give back control over the right-of-way for that part of the project in 2001. During the previous decade, Greensboro leaders had revised the city’s thoroughfare plan several times to reduce the project’s scope.
“By 2003, all of proposed Bragg Boulevard had been removed from the thoroughfare plan,” city planners said in their report.
Already waiting in the wings was the Downtown Greenway that currently follows a small part of the old Bragg Street Expressway’s proposed pathway between Freeman Mill Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Supporters had introduced the greenway concept in 2001 as part of a new center-city master plan. Five year later, city leaders included the greenway in a new “Bi-Ped Plan” that made it the centerpiece of a far-reaching network of trails.
The eastern section of the Downtown Greenway now under construction along Murrow Boulevard will continue to Fisher Avenue and North Greene Street, where it will connect with the current open section. That eastern section of the greenway is expected to be finished in October 2020.
City government and other project supporters recently announced that they had purchased land on the other side of downtown to complete the rest of the greenway. Construction of that final, western leg is expected to begin next year.