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UNC, Town Lay Plans for Williams Tract

UNC, Town Lay Plans for Williams Tract

You blink in the bright morning sun as you walk out the door and head toward your work in a research complex on the cutting edge of bio-tech/human genome research.

A jogger brushes by you, his shadow weaving in and out through the tree shadows on the sidewalk. People walk toward parks, residential buildings and sidewalk cafes. A crescent of buildings curves around a central fountain at the heart of town.

You live in this community located just minutes from one of the nation's top-ranked universities, a home to families and students, a hub of commercial activity.

Can't imagine it? UNC is working, although still in the planning stages, to make just such a scenario a reality.

Cutting-Edge Planning

UNC, in conjunction with design consultant Ayers Saint Gross, has outlined detailed plans to develop 575 acres of University-owned Horace Williams property into a state-of-the-art mixed-use complex that would include research facilities, residences for students and families, retail and recreation.

The Horace Williams Advisory Committee, composed of faculty, students, administrators and community members, has guided the conceptual development of the site.

The committee has already made informative presentations to the local governing bodies, including the Chapel Hill Town Council and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education.

Plans presented included sketches and maps detailing site constraints, population density and stormwater drainage. The plan for the tract outlines growth for the next 50 years.

Based on the principles of "smart growth," which emphasize preserving and creating open space and public transportation, the complex would employ an estimated 25,000 workers, provide 500,000 square feet of research office space and would house 3,000 residents.

Jack Evans, co-convener of the advisory committee and a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, said construction on the research sector, dominating the east precinct, and residential area, primarily on the west precinct of the property, could begin within the next 10 to 15 years.

"The logic here is that there may be synergy between these two," Evans said.

The east precinct, designed as a stand-alone research campus, is modeled after McCorkle Place on main campus. Evans said the facility would accommodate genome research and be located along Airport Road.

The west precinct would accommodate all age groups, including students. Residents and commuters to the tract would have access to retail and recreational facilities.

To encourage interaction between the main campus and the new complex, an easy-access transit corridor would connect the Horace Williams property to UNC.

Evans said planners might choose to connect the site to the University by reviving an old railroad track that is on the site, or by implementing a designated bus path to encourage the use of public transportation between the tract and main campus.

Evans said he thinks a fare-free busing proposal, which the Chapel Hill Town Council is considering, would facilitate transportation between UNC and the Horace Williams property.

Proponents say this plan is sound and represents a boon for the area, giving Chapel Hill its own Research Triangle Park. But the plan has raised some eyebrows among the tract's present tenants and town leaders.

Spinning Its Wheels

The Chapel Hill Transportation Department faces concerns about relocation costs, said Mary Lou Kuschatka, director of the Transportation Department.

The town's Transportation and Public Works departments and the county-run Animal Protection Society will have to relocate from their Horace Williams sites if the University does not grant their request for an extension on their 30 year co-lease that expires in December of 2006.

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"(The lease extension) would allow us more time to finance the new facilities," said Assistant Town Manager Sonna Loewenthal, who added that she hopes the University will extend the lease despite its expansion plans.

Loewenthal said that renewing the lease would give town officials time to finance the relocation of town facilities. She estimates relocating Public Works will cost somewhere between $10 million and $15 million.

Loewenthal said the town hopes to close on a deal that would secure land on Millhouse Road for a new Public Works Department before the end of May.

No decision has been made as to where to relocate the Transportation Department.

And although no development plan for the Horace Williams tract has been approved by the Town Council, town officials are considering the results growth will have on the community.

Mayor Rosemary Waldorf said she hopes the town and the University can work together to make sure the community's growth is constructive, not destructive.

"The Horace Williams tract can't be developed at a rate that the community can't sustain," she said.

Waldorf also said mass transit would be an important part of Horace Williams development. "The intensity at which the property can be developed depends completely on mass transit," she said.

Planning for public transit is an important part of growth for the site, Evans said.

He said committee members are focusing on the coming decade and the committee is mobilizing for action for the first phase of development. "One of the things we're working on right now is developing a set of plans for the first phase of work that is financially viable."

From Planning to Reality

Much remains to be done before the visions for the tract can become a reality.

Plans for the Horace Williams tract presently lie tucked into portfolios.

The students who will one day call the tract home have not yet been born.

This spring day on Airport Road is quiet and still.

A cricket chirps.

A black snake slithers across the rusty railroad track, basking in the same ray of sunlight that might one day glint across the steel and glass of a shiny new research building.

The City Editor can be reached at citydesk@unc.edu.

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