For almost 50 years, the UNC Wesley Foundation has served as the University’s Methodist campus ministry. Its building is beginning to show its age, prompting plans for a renovation that includes a residence hall designed to house more than 100 students.
The residence hall would be the first large-scale residential community on the East Coast by a religious organization at a public university, said Nick Didow ’70, a member of the foundation’s board of directors and an associate professor at Kenan-Flagler Business School.
The foundation currently can house eight students. “It’s an intentional community of students that revolves primarily around developing faith life,” Didow said. “Students are selected by their interest in issues of faith and interest in personal growth and faith as part of the college experience.”
“I see it as a great opportunity to expand our ministry,” said Jan Rivero, campus minister for the Wesley Campus Ministry. “It gives us the opportunity to do a lot more programming.”
Campus ministries associated with various faiths and denominations are independent from the University.
Rivero said the residential community would be more about lifestyle choices than religious ones. “The process of screening folks and bringing people into the community will be based more on the quality of living that they’re interested in than holding to a particular doctrine. We anticipate this being a community that’s in alignment with our mission. It will be substance-free — a community of acceptance and tolerance.”
The construction of a new building on Wesley’s Pittsboro Street site, however, is a subject of debate. The foundation’s initial plan — for a five-story, 70,000-square-foot structure — would have required rezoning. This caught the attention of Chapel Hill’s Historic District Commission, whose primary goal is to conserve the heritage and character of the town.
“[The commission’s] reaction has been that they are strong supporters of Wesley,” Didow said. “But on the other hand, they have formally expressed opposition to any rezoning. And we understand the difficult position they’re in.”
Neighbors have expressed concerns about the proposed building’s height, how well it would fit in the neighborhood, and the precedent it might set for future growth on the University’s western border.
The initial plan had called for 30 apartments housing six students each in a five-floor building. The foundation has scaled back to a four-floor building, which also would require rezoning.
Meanwhile, the foundation also is considering an alternative. A possible property swap is being discussed, in which it would trade the Pittsboro Street property for the site of the Coates Building on East Franklin Street. The original home of the Institute of Government, the building has been used most recently by international studies programs and needs renovation.
“There was a feeling of the Coates Building that maybe that wouldn’t be as difficult a proposition for them to put in a new facility there,” said Bruce Runberg, associate vice chancellor for facilities and construction planning. Though the Franklin site is farther from existing residences than the Pittsboro site, a larger building there could be problematic because it’s in the historic district.
Rivero said the renovation would enable expansion of the mission of the foundation. “It will enlarge the outreach of our ministry and connect us more organically to the community,” she said.
“I think it will give us an opportunity to be more intentional about a ministry to the whole student body — right now we’re a little inward-focused, and I think this gives us an opportunity to have a ministry presence in the community rather than just kind of a club for a small group of students.”