Sunday, August 20, 2006

Seeking answers on Carolina North

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on June 10th, 2006

There has been a lot of controversy about Carolina North and the town-gown dynamic.The UNC Board of Trustees recently passed a resolution telling its staff to have a plan for Carolina North ready by October 2007. The reason for the hurry at this point in time is unclear, considering how long it has delayed substantive planning. It has already been more than 12 years since the first committee to discuss the development of the Horace Williams property was convened, and considering the scope of questions that must be answered, 16 months does not seem like much.

But it is the BOT's prerogative to put together any timeline it wants for planning on its end, so hopefully its staff will put together a plan that is both logical and feasible. The big questions they need to answer through this process are why this research campus will be successful, why it needs to be at this location and why it will be a good thing both for the university and the surrounding communities.

For instance, UNC seems to be making an assumption in its Carolina North plans that a lot of business and industry will want to relocate there. However, the similar Centennial Campus at N.C. State has performed well below expectations.

Can UNC convincingly show us in 16 months that its project will be more successful than its peer in Raleigh? I sure hope they have tenants lined up before they seek permission to start building.

One thing UNC seems interested in placing at Carolina North is institutions related to health and medical research.

This could be a good idea, but the unfortunate reality is that the grant money from the National Institutes of Health that much of that research would rely on is presently getting cut rather than increased because of federal budget deficits and the president's misplaced priorities. Should UNC move so quickly while necessary funding sources are so unstable?

UNC should also show why Chapel Hill, rather than somewhere else in the system, is the best place to put this sort of satellite campus. There is little doubt that if these plans are successful it will provide at least some level of economic development for the area.

But the Triangle is booming while other parts of the state languish due to outsourcing and other economic woes. Would it not be better for the overall interests of the state to put something like Carolina North in the eastern part of the state or the Piedmont?

UNC leaders frequently talk about their responsibility to the rest of the state in the context of chiding local officials for asking too many questions about their plans, so I'm sure this is an issue they will consider seriously. I don't know the answer, but I expect UNC will provide it for us in the next 16 months. (And an adequate response would not simply be that they own the Horace Williams tract.)

Whatever sorts of plans UNC ends up proposing over the next 16 months, it needs to show some tangible proof that they will be successful. At a bare minimum, UNC should be able to show that there are research campuses similar to the one it is proposing that are located in communities that have similar characteristics to Chapel Hill.

I want to see that something like Carolina North has been a win-win proposition for both the university and the city elsewhere in the country before I can be convinced that it will be here.

The things I've discussed so far are just the big picture questions to establish why it's a good idea to build Carolina North in Chapel Hill. If UNC can effectively show that need, it then should come up with a site plan that maintains the current quality of life Chapel Hill residents enjoy -- particularly in terms of protecting the neighborhoods near the Horace Williams property and minimizing the environmental impact of the development.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro's leaders have argued in the Leadership Advisory Council meetings that there needs to be a transit plan for Carolina North.

They're right to do so -- and building a new Interstate 40 interchange is not the sort of creative planning this community deserves from UNC when it comes to this development.

Much controversy was caused recently when several members of the Board of Trustees made comments of a negative tone toward the Chapel Hill representatives on UNC's Carolina North committee. But considering the possible magnitude of this project and how many of its basic characteristics remain unclear, Bill Strom, Cam Hill, George Cianciolo and Julie McClintock should be commended for their approach.

As a young Chapel Hillian, I am particularly aware of the way this project could enhance or destroy the local quality of life.

Asking pointed questions is not obstructing UNC's growth plans -- it is ensuring that this will still be a great place to live in 40 years. What more could we ask of from our elected officials?

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