The New South Campus: Are Morrison and Hinton James Worthy?

When the son of a member of the chancellor’s cabinet applied for his freshman dorm space, he skipped over Old West, on historic McCorkle Place; and Spencer, right there on Franklin Street; and he passed on the convenience of the Upper Quad. He went straight to Hinton James, and when his dad asked which one – the 1960s high-rise or the two-year-old James North – he said he didn’t care. He’d just heard James was the most fun dorm.

Be careful what assumptions you make about the place they used to call UNC-Pittsboro. Some members of the Board of Trustees were surprised to hear the South Campus residence halls – especially Morrison – are quite popular with underclassmen, even as their motel-like appearance makes alumni cringe.

The University’s suburban aesthetic had a long day in court in April after the trustees saw the plans for a basic renovation of Morrison and said, “Hold it: Is this our window of opportunity to tear the high-rises down?”

Rusty Carter ’71 of Wilmington was succinct: If we just renovate, we’ll be looking at these things for another 50 years. On the other hand, trustees Chair Richard “Stick” Williams ’75, who played football in a time when the players lived in Ehringhaus, loved his four years there.

Ironically, the floor-length balconies on the high-rises that seem to be the culprit in their offensive looks also are one of their most popular features; students like the social atmosphere on the breezeways.

And the location is expected to become even more sought-after when Ramshead Center opens early next year in the former parking lot on the east end of Kenan Stadium 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.

There’s also been a psychological change, said Dean Bresciani, who recently stepped down as UNC’s interim vice chancellor for student affairs to become vice president of student affairs at Texas A&M University. Hinton James once was the end of the Carolina world; the construction of the Smith Center and the business school on the southern border, Bresciani explained, eased that perception. Jamesians won’t even be the southernmost residents when the University finishes new married-student housing now under construction behind the basketball arena and business school.

The view of six-story Ehringhaus and Craige has been mitigated by the construction of new four-floor dorms between them and the street; Morrison and James still tower above their new neighbors.

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.”

When it came to a vote this week, the trustees decided to spare Morrison. The renovation scheduled to start in the summer of 2005 includes converting four bedrooms to three and a living room in about one third of the suites, modernizing the bathrooms, and installing central air. The exterior renovation will be minimal, and the trustees kept open the option they still might want to flatten the 10-floor dorms.

But two factors made that problematic for now: Where would you house about 2,200 students while each of the dorms is being replaced; and how much more of the dwindling South Campus green space would be sacrificed for the larger footprint needed for a couple more five- or six-floor dorms?

The discussion comes at a time when universities across the country are moving away from 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, likely to 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 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.

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