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September 23, 2007
Innovation Center crucial first step for Carolina North
Guest column
Jack Evans


When UNC planners first envisioned the mixed-use academic and research campus known as Carolina North, they saw an opportunity to plan for academic innovation in a sustainable way.

Staff and consultants have worked diligently to create plans for a 250-acre campus that encourage the use of public transportation, make the most sustainable energy choices, and support the university's needs for the next 50 years. The plans are friendly to the environment, leaving the forest and wetlands of the nearly 1,000-acre Horace Williams tract almost entirely undisturbed during this period while concentrating construction on land at the airport.

Plans for Carolina North have also benefited from community involvement. In March 2006, Chancellor James Moeser created the Leadership Advisory Committee to seek input on Carolina North from many community perspectives and to develop principles to shape plans for submission to local governments. That committee delivered its report to Moeser in January.

Starting in March, and in each of the following six months, the university invited the public to participate directly in the planning for Carolina North through a series of community meetings. The community responded actively, attending the six scheduled meetings in substantial numbers, about 100 people on average, asking important, thoughtful questions of our planners and consultants, and expressing their interests as neighbors and as residents of the larger community. They wanted to make sure that alternative energy sources, such as solar, have been considered (they have). They asked whether greenways and bike trails will be connected on the site (they will). They asked whether the plans include space for housing and for a school (they do).

Community members also provided feedback by filling out comment cards at each meeting. Each month, those cards -- more than 230 of them to date -- were collected, read, transcribed and posted to the Carolina North Web site ( to make them widely accessible. The comments ranged from transit and parking issues to the impact on wildlife: "All areas of the development should be easily reachable by the transit corridor." "I would like to see some urban public spaces." "Consider rail corridor connection between central campus and Carolina North." "I'd like to see playgrounds mixed in with the housing units."

For all that community feedback, we are extremely grateful. One of the first contributions made by community members who attended the meetings was to help identify the most desirable features from the three preliminary scenarios that should be retained as we moved to two and finally to one scenario.

The resulting scenario, the basis for our current draft plan, also includes some elements from earlier scenarios that the public liked, such as an emphasis on perimeter parking. That community feedback has helped to shape the plan that we will present to the board of trustees this week.

The Innovation Center planned for Carolina North was first identified as a specific project to the LAC in October 2006 as a building that might need to be submitted for a special-use permit. Our faculty needs the Innovation Center, a business incubator, to be more competitive in seeking privately sponsored research funding and to explore effectively here in Chapel Hill opportunities for formation of new companies.

The Innovation Center is to be built through an agreement with a private developer and will, consequently, add to the tax base of Chapel Hill. Originally planned for a site on the south side of Estes Drive Extension, the trustees in July approved consideration of an alternative site off Martin Luther King Boulevard. This siting is not only consistent with effective planning for transit services at Carolina North.

More importantly, this siting is clearly preferable for this building that, as much as any one building will, makes the statement about the role of Carolina North for the university's near-term future.

We will present a plan for action to the board of trustees this month, and we will review that plan with the community at one additional public meeting on Oct. 4 at 4 p.m. at the School of Government. Following that we expect to submit a plan to the Town of Chapel Hill.

We are excited about what Carolina North means for the future contribution that the university will make to the community, state and nation. We are also excited about the sustainability practices that we are incorporating in the plan for Carolina North.

Finally, we appreciate the participation that our planning has attracted, and we hope the community will take advantage of the opportunity on Oct. 4.

Jack Evans is executive director of Carolina North and a professor at and former dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill. More information about Carolina North is available at

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