Carolina North: Not Just for Research Anymore

Carolina’s law school could move to the 1,000-acre satellite campus known as Carolina North within the next 15 years. The School of Public Health could expand to the new campus, and UNC Health Care might open an ambulatory care center there.

Those are among the scenarios in the latest draft of plans for the land left to the University by philosophy Professor Horace Williams (class of 1883). There has been talk around campus for several months that UNC might be planning uses for the site – more than a mile from the main campus – other than the entrepreneurship incubator that has been discussed for much of the past decade. The Board of Trustees heard the new plans on July 26.

Carolina North still is planned primarily as a meeting place for the University’s research and private concerns interested in putting it to the world’s use. Trustees and administrators continue to fear that UNC will fall behind other large research schools without a dedicated entrepreneurship campus. New trustees Chair Roger Perry ’71 said it’s like having “one arm tied behind our back.”<

But pressure on the main campus, which has little building space left, inevitably will turn other eyes to the north. The law school is a good example – already growing out of a 1999 addition that roughly doubled its size, and running out of parking space. Jack Evans, a longtime business faculty member who now serves as executive director of Carolina North, said a law school move was "simply under active study right now." For one thing, he said, it would be difficult for the school to remain open while adding on to its existing building.

The public health school, also out of space to expand contiguously, sees the new campus as a possible pilot site for water reclamation research – most of Carolina North, crisscrossed by major creeks, likely would remain undeveloped for many years, and parts of it could serve as a natural laboratory.

Over the past eight years, UNC has put more than $1 million into site plans and studies of the environmental, economic and social impact of Carolina North on the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Most recently, the University engaged all parties in a year-long debate over use of the site after it became clear that the towns – from which it needs cooperation with zoning changes – were not comfortable with the major expansion. UNC then asked Ayers Saint Gross, the firm that designed the main campus master plan, to get involved.

In the latest plan, development of research buildings, housing, roads and open space would be clustered on 250 acres in the southeast corner of the tract bounded by Martin Luther King Boulevard (the former Airport Road) and Estes Drive. This, planners say, would serve UNC's needs for the next 50 years – leaving three-fourths of the tract undeveloped during that time. All of the 250 acres are within Chapel Hill's jurisdiction, which could simplify zoning matters.

The development area follows closely the footprint of 79-year-old Horace Williams Airport, which the University would close. It calls for perhaps as much as 2.5 million square feet in the first 15 years, including four buildings for research; a research/business incubator; the headquarters for the Renaissance Computing Institute, designed to put computing innovation to work on real-world problems; the law school, public health school and health care facilities; residences clustered around the campus; and a modest amount of retail and commercial uses.

Evans said he does not anticipate undergraduate programs or housing moving to Carolina North because of the "integrated and interdependent nature of the undergraduate program. What undergraduates do is so rooted in the main campus, it seems unlikely to me."

Those who have followed the Carolina North process know it's a moving target. For example, Luanne Greene of Ayers Saint Gross told the trustees that building height at this point was capped at six floors. "But other folks have said, 'Why stop at six?'" she said.

The trustees were asked to review the plans and pass official judgment in September. The key question now: How will town officials react? Discussions with the towns over land use, transportation, environmental concerns and the impact on existing development over the past year and a half have been contentious, with some town officials openly skeptical that Carolina will be able to do this without disrupting the quality of life in that part of town.

UNC representatives, as they have from the start, characterize Carolina North as a must-have.

"I believe the future success of this University hangs on Carolina North," Evans told the trustees. Perry said: "The time of talking about Carolina North is over. It's time to get it on the ground before it's too late."

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