Carolina North: Trustees Say 'Go'

The UNC trustees have given the go-ahead to the initial phase of Carolina North, the University’s satellite campus that totals about 1,000 acres. The question is if and when the town of Chapel Hill will bless the plans.

Site plans have been refined for a mixed-use site bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (the former Airport Road) and Estes Drive that will include a research and innovation campus, corporate partnerships, retail space and housing for faculty, employees and graduate students.

The University plans to develop 250 acres of the 970-acre site over the next 50 years. It has a more detailed 15-year blueprint, beginning with an “innovation center” — a sort of incubator to stimulate partnerships between UNC research and private businesses. The center would front on MLK Boulevard, in the words of Carolina North director Jack Evans, “at the front door — as a way of saying, ‘This is what Carolina North is all about.’ ”

But Evans reiterated to the trustees in September that some of the initial development probably will include “core University activities.” At the top of that list at this time is relocating the law school there, along with a large research arm of the School of Public Health and an ambulatory care center run by UNC Health Care.

Evans said that, in his brief discussions with law school Dean Jack Boger ’74 (JD), “it’s a time-crunch choice between renovating and rebuilding over five to six years on [the main] campus or two years of development at Carolina North. The discussion is getting close to closure.”

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 express concern that, without a dedicated entrepreneurship campus, UNC will fall behind other large research schools.

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.

The estimated cost to lay the infrastructure for all of this is $220 million; that does not include the first building. The funding has not been worked out in detail, but it’s understood that UNC will ask the state for much of it.

The innovation center will require a special use permit from the town. Discussions with Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County officials 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.

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. The targeted 250 acres is all within Chapel Hill’s jurisdiction.

Planners lately are putting a lot of emphasis on the environmental impact of Carolina North, pointing to a state-of-the-art water reclamation system and noting the care taken to minimize disruption to flora and fauna on the undeveloped portion of the site.

“Not investing an additional small amount of money to make improvements in the meantime to the other 750 acres would be missing a market opportunity,” said trustee Alston Gardner ’77. “It would help to advertise the space and make it known as students down the road in Durham County know about Duke Forest.”

Gardner suggested that the board consider adding more parking spaces so that more people in the community could use the trails and other existing recreational space.

“It’s a gem out there,” he said.

On the developed portion, moving people in and out of the site – and, in some cases, back and forth between Carolina North and the 729-acre main campus – will be the focus of study over the next few months between the University and the town, which together will study the impact of the development on traffic patterns and try to hammer out a transportation plan that likely will be heavy on mass transit.

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