Durham County

NCCU may turn to private sector to add student beds

Chancellor Johnson Akinleye is backing a plan to expand N.C. Central University's on-campus housing offerings.
Chancellor Johnson Akinleye is backing a plan to expand N.C. Central University's on-campus housing offerings. ctoth@heraldsun.com

Trustees at N.C. Central University appear likely to support their most aggressive option for expanding student housing, presuming they can find a private developer to help finance and build it.

Eventually, the campus could add up to 600 beds to implement a policy requiring sophomores to live on campus, replace another 400 beds of barracks-style housing with suites and apartments, and maybe even add up to another 300 in apartment-style housing for juniors, seniors and graduate students.

Officials could begin taking concrete steps late this year, if they heed a consultant’s suggestion to begin asking prospective developers to step up.

In signing on, they stressed NCCU is having to move on the issue because there aren’t good off-campus options for students close to the university.

“If we were in an area surrounded with five or six apartment complexes like Greensboro, we wouldn’t have this problem,” Chancellor Johnson Akinleye said, alluding to the situation around UNC Greensboro and N.C. A&T State University.

One of the consultants helping Central work through the issues, Wilson Jones, agreed.

“Most institutions your size, I fully expected you to have a student-focused [private-sector] apartment complex on one corner of your campus” or nearby, Jones said. “And I’m shocked that you don’t have one.”

If we were in an area surrounded with five or six apartment complexes like Greensboro, we wouldn’t have this problem.

Johnson Akinleye, N.C. Central University chancellor

He cited both UNC Charlotte and UNC-Chapel Hill as examples of where private builders have erected off-campus apartments that “are trying to replicate the business of campus housing minus some of the residential-life programs.”

The closest such option for NCCU students is likely the Campus Crossing development, south of campus between Fayetteville and East Cornwallis roads, Jones said.

Even there, “a lot of students have concerns” about safety and other issues, said Michael Hopkins, a trustee and president of NCCU’s student government.

Housing mandate

Tuesday’s discussion played out in the trustees’ finance committee, cheered on by a full board that’s been weighing NCCU’s options since the spring.

The university’s now housing about half of its full-time undergraduates on campus, in part because it implemented a freshman residency mandate under former Chancellor Debra Saunders-White. Originally, that policy also mandated sophomore residency, but Akinleye later decided NCCU doesn’t currently have the bed space for it.

Just the freshman residency mandate puts pressure on Central by potentially forcing more juniors and seniors to live off campus, Akinleye said Tuesday.

And the shortage of close-by off-campus housing options is a problem even for graduate-level programs like the NCCU School of Law, he said.

Housing’s enough of a recruiting and retention issue for the law school that Dean Phyliss Craig-Taylor has pressed administrators to find bed space for some law students on campus, the chancellor said.

Why few options?

What Akinleye, Jones and the trustees didn’t discuss Tuesday, in any detail, was why there is so little student housing close to campus. Jones openly punted on that, telling trustees he had to “be careful what I say in a public forum.”

But the issue has surfaced previously, most notably this summer when Akinleye acknowledged that NCCU had turned a cold shoulder to building a new business school at a site about a third of a mile off campus owned by the Durham Housing Authority.

The chancellor billed that as a timing issue – officials had already picked an on-campus site – but trustees Chairman George Hamilton was less diplomatic. He said Central’s leaders see “corridor challenges” to off-campus development along Fayetteville Street, and a big “safety and security” problem on its N.C. 55 side given the proximity of the McDougald Terrace public housing complex.

The upshot is they’ve been reluctant to get involved in things like the redevelopment of DHA’s Fayette Place property, which for about a decade actually belonged to a private-sector developer who had planned student housing there.

Even if they weren’t, the political climate in Durham these days could spark questions about whether off-campus housing development in the area would trigger gentrification of McDougald Terrace and its surrounding neighborhoods. Similar questions have surrounded apartment projects downtown and in Chapel Hill Street corridor.

The NCCU leadership’s interest in seeking a private-sector developer to work with comes mainly because the university, on its own, likely doesn’t have the financial firepower to pull off housing development on the scale it envisions.

Jones estimated that the full slate of new or replaced beds would likely require anywhere from $69 million to $130 million in some sort of debt financing.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg