Unparking UNC, an Op-Ed for the Independent Weekly

Unparking UNC
Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Will the Chapel Hill campus become a model for easing sprawl?

Faced with an enrollment spike of 25 percent over the next few years, UNC-Chapel Hill is planning the campus of the future. By 2008 bike paths, greenways and regional rail could serve both the old campus and new academic buildings clustered around traditional brick courtyards. Under a plan that goes before the UNC Board of Trustees in the fall, the restructured campus would resemble a pre-automobile town, with residential, research and academic life mingling in a walkable environment.

More than a bold vision for one university, the new Chapel Hill campus could become a model for containing sprawl in the Triangle's cities and towns. Walkable town patterns are being urgently discussed throughout the region today, as planners seek to replace sprawl with intelligent growth. The key, of course, is figuring out what to do about all those cars. And the success of UNC's plan will depend on how it deals with the 17,000 already parked on campus every school day.

Cars were on the mind of Jonathan Howes, former mayor of Chapel Hill and professor of planning and public policy at UNC, when I met him on campus recently to talk about the new plans. In a room padded with maps, diagrams and models, Howes described the past and future of UNC--and the way he hopes they'll be intimately connected.

"From its founding in 1793 to 1945," Howes explained, "the campus developed as a parklike chessboard of quadrangles. Polk Place and McCorkle Place, with the Old Well at their intersection, form the core of the North Campus." This is the UNC campus you see in postcards: a serene mix of academic and residential buildings, bikes and pedestrians, small streets and undergraduates sunning themselves on low stone walls.

After 1945, the campus spread southward during a time of rapid growth and postwar prosperity, with UNC Hospitals and research labs leading the way. As enrollment grew from 8,000 to 24,000 students, cars became a prominent feature of the new campus. From an intimate campus where folks walked to class, UNC was transformed into a commuter destination for thousands.

To provide beds for some of the new students, high-rise dormitories were built in the woods south of Kenan Stadium. The rationale was simple enough, however flawed it looks today: High-rise buildings were quick to build, and they required less effort to fit into the campus. Building high also meant more space on the ground--for parking, of course. At the same time, the nearby hospitals grew exponentially, with additions (and parking lots) added like barnacles to a shell. To serve the increased traffic, four-lane Manning Drive was built, bisecting the campus like a modern Mason-Dixon Line.

The result has been clear for quite some time. "The South Campus," said Howes, "has little relationship to the charm of the North Campus. There is less sense of intellectual community there."

One big reason for the contrast between UNC's older and newer campuses, says N.C. State professor and landscape architect Mary Myers, is the prevalence of cars--and spaces for them--on South Campus. "The greatest impact on the UNC campus is not computers, but cars," Myers says. "Look at the old North Campus: big trees, gracious lawns, elegant buildings grouped in quadrangles and very few cars."

While the North Campus is built to pedestrian scale, South Campus sprawls with cars. "What the strip mall and big-box store are doing to the Triangle, the mega-sized research lab and parking lot are doing to South Campus at UNC," she says. "The South Campus is not about people anymore, it's about cars."

Enter Ayers Saint Gross, a Baltimore firm of architects hired by UNC two years ago to restructure the campus and plan for future growth. Architect Adam Gross wants to make the South Campus "not only livable but enviable." His vision is bold. With input from faculty, students and alumni, Gross has proposed a plan that would extend the old North Campus southward, creating a series of new quadrangles. In this chain of outdoor rooms, classrooms will mingle with new, small-scale student dormitories, cafes and shops.

But what will happen to the parking lots? The keystones of the new plan for South Campus, according to Gross, are new academic structures that will replace the Bell Tower parking lot and the Rams Head parking lot--sort of.

Because both of these parking lots are located in natural valleys, Gross plans to fill each valley with a parking deck. On top, at ground level, would stand academic buildings around a North Campus-style quadrangle. The quads would invite pedestrian traffic, with students changing classes and flowing easily to and from other parts of the campus. Parking and academics could peacefully coexist.

To see the clash of parking and academia Gross' plan would avoid, look no further than the Kenan-McColl Center, perched on a South Campus hill next to the Dean Dome. Built recently in a brick-and-stone style that looks like the North Campus on steroids, the Kenan-McColl Center forms a courtyard about the size of a baseball diamond. Unlike the North Campus buildings it resembles, though, the center is ringed by roads and parking. A multistory parking deck, nearly the size of the Kenan-McColl Center itself, is attached on the north side of the hill.

You immediately sense that the environment at the Kenan-McColl Center belongs to cars, not to you. Instead of inviting you outside, the center gives you the message to stay indoors. Campus life, the brisk exchange of knowledge and sociability both indoors and outdoors, is not encouraged. And yet that kind of campus life is the traditional essence of UNC.

For academic life to prosper nowadays, Mary Myers and other planners believe that public transport is essential. "Parking structures are a very expensive short-term solution," she notes. "We've got to explore options, using rail, bus, bicycles and footpaths to move people."

Chapel Hill-Carrboro and UNC have a head start, with a well-serviced bus system and a budding system of bike paths and greenways. The Ayers Saint Gross master plan builds on those systems, planning for no growth in parking spaces and adding a corridor for light rail along Manning Drive. In the future, Myers believes, UNC could be linked by rail to Duke, N.C. Central and N.C. State universities--with students at all four campuses using their laptops, not their brakes, while traveling from home to class.

Ayers Saint Gross will present its final master plan to the UNC Board of Trustees in the fall. If the trustees approve it, they will not only secure UNC's future as an academic environment, but make a giant leap away from the Triangle's sprawl patterns. As Myers asked, "What if we said, 'We're not going to build parking structures anymore, we're only going to build train stations?'"

A remodeled UNC, mixing the academic environment of the past with transit technology of the future, could provide some important answers to that critical question.

An article for The Independent Weekly, by Frank Harmon