Nov. 13, 2013 09:28

UNCG’S Glenwood expansion, rec center prove divisive

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George W. Bush was still president when UNCG began outlining possible campus expansion into the Glenwood neighborhood, but several faculty members and a fresh crop of students are pushing back this semester.

The plan is outdated, they argue, and doesn’t make financial sense, but the first phase is nearing completion, and construction on a $91 million recreation center is slated for the spring.

Opponents of the plan who highlight the rec center as an expensive, misplaced priority, attended a recent UNCG master plan forum and then called a press conference the following week to highlight their concerns.

Speakers, backed by about 50 attendees, called on UNCG to immediately halt the expansion because enrollment numbers are declining and jobs and programs are being cut.

Jonathan Lyle, a member or the NC Student Power Union, said the school’s master plan called for the growth because of increased enrollment but that projections haven’t panned out in the wake of an economic depression. The state reduced UNCG’s budget by millions of dollars this year, he said, forcing the school to cut teaching positions. Like other speakers, Lyle questioned the wisdom of the facility in the face of these realities, adding that because the cost would be shouldered by student fees, the plan is “adding on to a life sentence of crushing debt.”

Junior Emma Troxler said the school caters to working-class students. She said the rec center is “ridiculous” and “unnecessary,” adding that it would serve the school’s image more than students, many of whom wouldn’t use the facility.

Class of 1969 alum Laura Tew hit similar notes in her remarks, saying students apply to UNCG to receive “an education, not a mortgage.”

A few students said the current cost of the school is already too much, adding that they are fearful about an increase in the student fee rate. Daphne Sanchez said she is struggling to afford tuition at UNCG. She is working her way through college but said she’s dispirited to see that money going towards a recreation center.

Dillon Tyler already hit a financial wall, unable to make a payment in the middle of a semester. Tyler was forced to drop out, but he has since returned, he said.

“The backs of our working-class demographic cannot shoulder the weight that we’re pushing down on them,” Tyler said. “The University of North Carolina at Greensboro wants to expand its campus but it can’t hold onto its core.”

University administrators see things differently.

Associate Vice Chancellor Mike Byers said official planning for the expansion began in 2009 after the area was identified as a potential site in 2007. Four years ago, administrators decided they wanted to house significantly more undergraduate students on campus, bumping the rate from 30 percent to 40 or 50 percent.

The majority of the first phase of expansion, which is complete and full of students save for a portion that burned down, is student housing. Regardless of enrollment rates cited by critics, the growth helps achieve the school’s aim, Byers said.

“Even if we didn’t grow by one more student, we’d still want to grow the amount of student housing because we want to increase the number of students who live on campus,” Byers said. “We aren’t spending money that could be used anywhere else.”

Student housing facilities end up paying for themselves with rent revenue covering debt service and operating costs, Byers said. Students living on campus are likely to engage in student activities and be better students, he said. Most importantly, he added, studies show students living on campus are more likely to graduate.

Byers said the student affairs office could better answer questions about the impact of the rec center on student fees or whether the facility is already a done deal, but nobody with the office could be reached in time for this story. Byers confirmed that the money for the expansion, including the center, would come from students and not a donation or state funds.

Though Byers said he is unsure if it’s too late to stop the recreation center as some opponents requested, he emphasized that UNCG didn’t make a hasty or ill-informed decision.

“People had an opportunity to be involved since 2009,” he said. “This is a slow, methodical process. That’s by design. We can’t make rapid decisions.”

The current recreation center is overcrowded, he said, given that the school has increased from 10,000 to 18,000 students since the current center was designed more than 20 years ago.

The expansion, a part of the university’s expansion along the Lee Street Corridor south of campus and into the working-class Glenwood neighborhood, has been a divisive issue for nearby residents. Some, including students and faculty who live in the neighborhood, oppose or criticize how UNCG has handled the expansion process. Other residents say school officials have gone above and beyond their obligations despite some minor problems, but residents on both sides seem to agree that the growth has dominated too much of the neighborhood’s attention.

Glenwood resident Brian Higgins said he stopped attending neighborhood association meetings because the expansion has made meetings too acrimonious.

He is sympathetic to the concerns people have raised about the project but said the bigger story is that property owners in that part of the neighborhood likely never intended to fix up their properties.

“The condition of the area that they purchased in was pretty bad, to make an understatement,” Higgins said.

He said the neighborhood was left with two scenarios — one where it works with UNCG to modify the university’s plans, and the other where private developers eventually buy the property for student housing with no community input or accountability.

“You can second guess [UNCG’s] intentions until the cows come home,” Higgins said. “They made way more effort than any other developer recently would. The best thing you can do is be at the table and share your concerns.”

Being at the table netted plenty of improvements from the original plan, he said, listing half a dozen such as a tree protection plan off the top of his head.

Prior to construction, Higgins said he could see daytime prostitution and drug dealing from his house. He credits the expansion with improving safety and other neighborhood issues.

Throughout the process, only a handful of Glenwood residents have opposed the process entirely, he said, adding that opponents mischaracterize neighborhood sentiment on the issue.

Some people don’t stand firmly for or against UNCG’s actions in the area but take issue with elements of what is happening. Greater Glenwood Neighborhood Association President Fahiym Hanna doesn’t mind the recent student housing that UNCG erected along Lee Street, but he still has other concerns.

“The rec center is obviously too big for the neighborhood,” he said. “A lot of questions are not being answered transparently. I’m mostly against the nontransparency going on and that there are more questions than there are answers.”

Hanna said the university violated numerous items in a memorandum of understanding drafted between the neighborhood association and the school, adding that it doesn’t seem beneficial to generate a new one considering problems with the initial memorandum.

Higgins said UNCG has resolved most of the issues raised that violated the memorandum and that association members have worked hard to come up with revisions. The initial agreement didn’t address the recreation center because residents couldn’t align on a position, but Hanna doesn’t want to see it built.

“I don’t think it’s ever too late to stop it, especially given that they haven’t broken ground yet,” he said.

Hanna said that while he hasn’t put much effort into opposing it, the issue has been a “huge diversion from our mission as a neighborhood association.”

Higgins agreed, but said it isn’t really appropriate for the neighborhood to say anything about whether the rec center is built. Still, if he was a student, Higgins said he would “probably raise concerns about the costs” himself.

UNCG has already bought the land where the recreation center is planned, which is a block from where it was originally planned due to neighborhood concerns, Byers said.

University officials met repeatedly with neighborhood residents through the Greater Glenwood Neighborhood Association, presenting and tweaking their plans for the campus’ growth.

“Their neighborhood plan actually called for that kind of activity, but we decided to go above and beyond,” Byers said.

Students and other attendees at the first of two forums about UNCG’s master plan raised repeateded questions about the wisdom of constructing an expensive recreation center.

Sue Dennison, an associate professor of social work, said the center would come with a 30-year mortgage, a fact that concerns her when enrollment is down and is projected to decline further. A spokesperson for UNCG said the recreation center was initially designed in 2006 and that student fees have been set aside to contribute towards funding the project for three years.

“We are in different economic times right now [than when the plans were created],” she said. “We’re attracting working-class students. It concerns me that this seems to be a train that’s left the station.”

Several students — including Tyler, Troxler and Juan Miranda — expressed similar concern about the impact of the rec center on tuition and fees for working-class students. Miranda asked numerous questions, several of which went unanswered, about the funding and need for the center.

“Education should be our core,” Miranda said. “It should be our number one. It seems like the forefront of this [plan] is not about education.”

Miranda argued that student fees have increased 42 percent since 2010 and said reduced programs and teaching positions watered down the quality of UNCG’s education.

Sasaki presenters stressed the need to reintegrate the Lee Street and Glenwood properties back into the rest of the campus through changes on Lee Street, transforming the underpass into a “Spartan Corridor” for alternative transportation, providing shading along Forest Street, shielding the train tracks from view and sports fields and a glen south of Lee Street to continue the school’s emphasis on green spaces.

Not all attendees spoke against the planned recreation center in Glenwood. Student Government Association President Crystal Bayne and a fitness instructor at the current rec center both spoke up and said students need the new facility.

There is a lot happening throughout UNCG’s stretch along Lee Street beyond the rec center. Byers said a tunnel under the train tracks is supposed to open in January along with the student housing on the site that burned down, and the planning for the second phase of growth in the area will happen next summer. A university police station is scheduled to open next fall, and demolition on buildings further west on Lee Street is already underway to make room for more student parking.

The school already owns most of the properties from Chapman Street to Tate Street along Lee, although businesses such as Beef Burger and Curry Tire & Auto will remain. If properties went up for sale, such as two gas stations at the intersection of Aycock Street, the school would need to seriously look at them, but there are no plans in the works for the remaining properties.

“Our intent is to only work with interested sellers,” Byers said. “Right now we’ve got our hands full.”

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