Carolina North Clears Town-Gown Hurdle

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After years of planning and 10 months of stop-and-go negotiations, the UNC Board of Trustees and the Chapel Hill Town Council agreed this week on how to move forward with nearly 1,000 acres envisioned as a satellite campus called Carolina North.

The votes in both bodies were unanimous, and the atmosphere at both gatherings was unusually celebratory.

“On behalf of all the chancellors before me, I’m pleased to be the one sitting in this chair, on this day,” Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 said at Thursday’s Board of Trustees’ meeting.

The council approved a new zoning district to cover the more than 600 acres of the UNC land within its zoning jurisdiction.

The agreement between UNC and the town of Chapel Hill will regulate for several decades the property’s development, allowing the University to develop 3 million square feet on 133 acres over the next 20 years – the longest period of time allowed by the state.

The agreement calls for 300 acres to be permanently protected from development, and it sets aside 228 acres for development over the next 50 years. The University-owned property is two miles north of the campus off of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Estes Drive; it includes the 81-year-old Horace Williams Airport, which the University plans to close.

The vote to approve the development agreement came before the trustees during a special meeting after the town council approved the agreement on Monday. The mood at the special meeting was celebratory, and trustees recognized Carolina North planners and town officials for their work.

“This has been a long, arduous process for the University and town,” observed trustees’ Chair Roger Perry ’71. “I think this is a historic moment for the town and University.”

Jack Evans, a longtime business faculty member who since mid-2006 has served as executive director of Carolina North, said the development agreement gives the University new flexibility. “It creates a foundation to permit us to think about the ways we can use Carolina North,” he said. “This agreement … gives us that launching pad.”

He noted how issues of traffic and land preservation had been key issues in the negotiations. In addressing that first concern, he said, a traffic impact study conducted by a consultant for the University indicated that traffic would not increase significantly during the first 800 square feet of development.

“The more significant impact will come in later years, when we approach more square feet of development,” Evans said. “There will be traffic whether we are there or not, and other development projects going on will also impact traffic. Periodically, we will update the traffic analysis.”

Initial plans for Carolina North include an Innovation Center for research and entrepreneurship and a new home for the law school. However, despite this week’s agreement, little development at Carolina North will happen quickly.

“There won’t be any immediate flurry of activity, but what this does is create the environment to move forward,” Evans said. “We already have the permit for the Innovation Center. That project is likely to be the first one digging in the ground, but it depends on the developer being ready to go.”

As planned, the Innovation Center would be built and run by Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc. in partnership with UNC. Last fall, just months after the trustees approved the design for the Innovation Center, officials with Alexandria put the project on hold indefinitely due to the economic slowdown. Evans said getting construction started on the Innovation Center will be the first priority.

The law school could be the next project, though construction of a new building would require funding from the N.C. General Assembly, which has put capital development projects on hold due to the state budget shortfall.

Beyond the Innovation Center and new law school, development will be dictated by the needs and ideas of University researchers, Evans said.

– Elizabeth Templin ’09 (MA)

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