Durham County

Location, location, location. NCCU bosses dubious of alternative siting of new business school

NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye
NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye ctoth@heraldsun.com

N.C. Central University leaders are dead set on building a new business school at the corner of N.C. 55 and East Lawson Street, but that apparently didn’t stop some of their counterparts in Durham’s power structure from suggesting they put it on a Durham Housing Authority property instead.

Chancellor Johnson Akinleye recently told campus trustees he’d fielded a suggestion that he consider placing the new building at Fayette Place, a 14.4-acre tract north off East Umstead Street that the housing authority required in mid-June from a Philadelphia developer.

NCCU officials have been focused on the N.C. 55/Lawson site since the trustees approved its selection nearly a year ago. The new business school is a $30 million, state-bond-funded project, one they hope to to finish in time for the start of the 2021-22 academic year.

Akinleye indicated the schedule means NCCU lacks the flexibility to reconsider the site selection.

“With the timing we already have, and not having other investors to go [in] with us, we can’t wait on that,” he said of the Fayette Place proposal.

He and trustees Chairman George Hamilton also said there’s a bigger picture NCCU, city and DHA leaders have to consider when it comes to sizing up potential redevelopment options near campus — one that has to address the future of the McDougald Terrace public housing complex.

“What the chancellor is saying is spot on: We should not drive our partnership with the city on a project basis. We need a holistic plan,” Hamilton told his fellow trustees during their June meeting. “We have corridor challenges we’d like to see addressed on Fayetteville Street. We’ve also got a back door, which is McDougald. All that has safety and security written all over it. The right approach with the right partners could help us address it.”

The Fayette Place property is about a third of a mile north of campus and already has a tangled history.

It was once the site of a public housing complex, once that DHA tried to convert into a for-profit development for low- and middle-income families in the early 2000s. But that idea, and even more its execution, ran afoul of federal regulations that control the use of public housing subsidies. In 2007, the authority had to sell the property to settle what was in essence a debt to a very unhappy U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The buyer, Campus Apartments Inc., proposed using the site for privately-run student housing. It demolished all the buildings that were on it, but that’s as far as its plan ever went. It was never clear the idea had buy-in at NCCU, and whatever momentum there was behind it evaporated entirely once the economy collapsed late in 2008.

A contract clause gave DHA the option of eventually buying back the land. Facing pressure from local activists unhappy that the property remains vacant, it secured a $4.2 million grant from the city government and used it to execute the re-purchase on June 15.

The housing authority’s CEO, Anthony Scott, acknowledged that the business-school idea is “one of the many suggestions” to surface regarding future uses of the site. But DHA “has no concrete plans whatsoever” for the site pending talks with residents, activists, city officials and other interests, he said.

“I’m not going to get in to who said what, when and how, because when does that list start and when does it end,” Scott said when asked if DHA officials had floated the idea of moving the business school to their counterparts at N.C. Central.

City Councilman Steve Schewel — the council’s liaison to the housing authority — said there “was a discussion” about the idea and it’s but “one of several ideas” about the site’s future uses.

Along with housing, “members of the community have also expressed interest in things being on the site that will create some employment and generate some prosperity for the neighborhood,” Schewel said. “I’ve heard discussion from some members of community that one possibility for that would be that the business school might be there. But that has not been officially raised by or at the housing authority that I know of.”

Meanwhile, in mentioning McDougald Terrace, Akinleye and Hamilton were alluding to a possibility that’s figured in past discussions at the housing authority.

Scott’s predecessor, Dallas Parks, was interested in orchestrating a broad redevelopment effort dealing with McDougald, the former Lincoln Apartments next door, and perhaps even Fayette Place and other close-by neighborhoods. The authority in his time secured a planning grant from the federal government, but the idea eventually went no further.

Akinleye’s signaled that one of his priorities as chancellor is beefing up campus security. And in discussing Fayette Place with trustees, he said the property’s separation from campus is a disadvantage.

“There’s still that corridor with security challenges,” he said, alluding to a walk that would involve traversing Fayetteville, Merrick or Lincoln Streets.

The university, meanwhile, was ready as of June to “move toward appraisal and purchase” of the land it needs for the business school at the N.C. 55/Lawson Street site, said Jonathan Peeler, its associate vice chancellor for facilities management.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg