Morrison Likely Can Stay, If It Can Dress Better

Even as it moves the center of student life closer to South Campus, the University has tried to banish its four high-rise residence halls from the Manning Drive streetscape, partially hiding them behind four new dorms.

The chancellor would implode them if that were feasible. One trustee said tear them down or we’ll be stuck with them for another 50 years. Another said there was nothing fundamentally wrong with 10- to 15-story buildings, “just because these four are hideous.”

The trustees spent more than four hours April 22 discussing the fate of Morrison and, by association, probably Hinton James. They stand 10 stories and are considered more onerous to the eye than their six-floor mates, Ehringhaus and Craige. All four were built in the 1960s.

It all started with the necessity to approve a $24 million renovation of Morrison, scheduled to start in summer 2005, which would provide central air conditioning, fire safety amenities, asbestos removal and plumbing and electrical upgrades. It became a “what if” moment, and the what-if was the question of whether Morrison could be blown down and replaced with a lower, prettier building that would cater better to 21st century student tastes for larger rooms and more common space.

The four-room suites are Spartan and tight. But Morrison, the closest to main campus of the four, is quite popular. The trustees were told it rates high when students list their preferences. And the location is expected to become even more sought-after when Ramshead Center opens with a new dining hall, student gym and Pit-like plaza; later, a new student services building will go up where Chase Hall now stands. Both are a stone’s throw from Morrison.

Trustee Rusty Carter ’71 of Wilmington said he favored demolition because he believes alumni want aesthetics to be part of the remake of South Campus. “This is a very important decision in terms of what we’re going to leave on South Campus,” he said.

But others said they feared that more of the disappearing green space would have to be used to house the same number of students in a shorter building with larger rooms and suites. The four dorms house 3,600 students; by comparison, the four new four-floor dorms in their neighborhood house 1,000. Comments from the board members indicated little sentiment for replacing Morrison.

Chancellor James Moeser dislikes the high-rises aesthetically, but he said that after much thought he couldn’t support replacing them at this time.

The discussion comes at a time when universities across the country are moving away from just the bare housing necessities and toward more attractive residential “communities” with larger rooms, fewer students per bathroom, all the electronic hookups, services and amenities such as recreation and dining nearby – and in some cases classrooms and small numbers of live-in faculty.

Carolina is set to build apartment-style residences in the area behind Hinton James, which probably will be a privilege of juniors and seniors. Surveys show that students prefer living on-campus to off-campus apartments if the price and the comfort level are right.

The University has a clear intent to make South Campus – once called UNC-Pittsboro for its remoteness – an all-services bedroom community and not just stacks of bedrooms. About 55 percent of the students who live in dorms live on South Campus.

Finally Trustee Bob Winston ’84 of Raleigh asked, why not “soften them up so they aren’t so different” by spending more to add exterior renovations?

The trustees asked the facilities staff to come back with specifics on that option, deferring their decision until their May meeting.

Adam Gross of Ayers Saint Gross, the Baltimore firm that drew the campus master plan approved in 2001, was asked what he would do if he had 30 seconds to remake the exterior of Morrison. He said he would replace the brick facade with a different brick facade, maybe not do anything to the (flat) roof, maybe convert the balconies to interior space – they are the part that, he said, gives it the “motel, the prison look.”

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