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Tread lightly

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One hundred years ago, Horace Williams worked his Chapel Hill farm, vast swaths of fertile pasture and wooded acreage now eyed by UNC for its ambitious 1,000-acre Carolina North project.

Around the same time, James Shepard led the recently chartered N.C. Central University. It became the southern node of Durham's vibrant Hayti neighborhood, now targeted by NCCU for its own expansion plan.

How each campus grows will dramatically alter its respective urban ecosystem. Carolina North will redefine the character of an entire city. NCCU's master plan of new dorms, buildings and parking garages could upend neighborhoods in that area's largest upheaval since N.C. 147 splintered Hayti.

It is interesting how the universities are communicating with city officials—their fellow power elite—but also with average citizens who will be affected, for better or for worse.

In the case of Carolina North, UNC's presentation last week before the Town Council did little to ease concerns that even with an advanced transit system, thousands of people driving to northern Chapel Hill would transform Martin Luther King Boulevard into a midtown version of U.S. 15-501. Results of the impact studies are still pending, but several councilors and audience members rightfully noted the proposed amount of housing in Carolina North—as low as 4 percent in some scenarios—is troubling.

Southern Orange County is already busting the buttons on its tight pants: Growth in Chapel Hill from 2005-35 is projected at 55 percent; Carrboro at 26 percent. Without more housing, Carolina North can hardly be called a mixed-use development.

As for NCCU, the tell lies on its Web site, nccu.edu, under the link "Our Neighborhood."

It waxes poetic about the university's proximity to "celebrated Research Triangle Park," Duke University and an interstate system. Those are NCCU's distant neighbors, but they are not its neighborhood. NCCU's real neighbors are the longtime residents who tend to their brick bungalows on Pekoe, Otis and Cecil streets (and undoubtedly fight for a parking spot in front of their homes); who own The Know Bookstore on Fayetteville Street; and who live east of campus on cul-de-sacs that dead-end at the highway.

NCCU is not so much blended into its neighborhood as it is wedged. Any expansion, which I acknowledge is necessary, must be gentle; its plans, inclusive. Hayti has suffered enough indignities from those who thought they knew what was best for the neighborhood. As with the ill-fated urban renewal projects of the past, these neighbors have been excluded from honest discussions of NCCU's plan, and instead have been numbed with PowerPoint presentations, platitudes and mysterious maps.

UNC and NCCU, take note: While universities can make a town, they can also break it.

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