Durham County

The days of Central Campus student housing at Duke University are drawing to close

Duke University’s Central Campus apartments are likely to close for good in the summer of 2019 as the private school shifts the bulk of its undergraduate housing to West Campus, two key officials say.

The decision “is about as firm as any decision can be and maybe even a little firmer,” being contingent only upon a new, 506-bed dormitory on West Campus off Towerview Road opening on schedule, said Steve Nowicki, dean of undergraduate education.

That project, The Hollows, is already under construction and is supposed to be ready by July 2019.

It’ll nonetheless supply only about half the beds Duke needs to replace the Central Campus apartments, which date from the 1970s and according to Duke officials like Nowicki and Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta are long overdue for replacement.

Duke has secured the other half, for now, through its late-2016 acquisition of 300 Swift Ave., an off-campus apartment complex it purchased in a $50 million cash deal.

After giving notice to the complex’s then-tenants, many of them Duke graduate students, the university implemented plans to use 300 Swift as swing-space housing for undergraduates displaced by renovations to a pair of West Campus dorm complexes, the Craven and Crowell quads.

Once those upgrades are complete, it’ll be free to devote 300 Swift to housing students who’d nowadays live on Central.

But because 300 Swift itself is “not a place where in the long run we want to have” undergraduates living, the complete solution will lie in the construction of another 500-bed dorm somewhere else on campus, Nowicki said.

That follow-up project awaits “the opportunity and the resources,” as Moneta put it, with Nowicki clarifying that it’s a matter of money.

“It’s not the idea of how to do it, it’s the question of how and when do we fund it,” Nowicki said. “The current construction and renovations are hundreds of millions of dollars. There might be some reluctance on the trustees’ part to say, ‘What the hell, let’s do another couple hundred million,’ without thinking it through.”

He added that officials agreed to wait for Duke’s new president, Vince Price, and new trustees chairman, Jack Bovender, to settle into their roles before resuming discussion of the follow-up dorm project. He also said Duke officials think there might be “philanthropic opportunities” to help pay for it – meaning that donor dollars could wind up footing part of the bill.

It looks like Duke intends to retain ownership of 300 Swift. But its role once the second new dorm gets built would change in ways that today are “unknown,” Moneta said, adding it “maybe” could become graduate-student housing.

In any event, “current plans are to have all undergrad housing on East and West” campus, Moneta said, alluding to a split of assignments that puts first-year students on East Campus and many of the remainder on West. Duke requires all undergraduates to spend three of their four years in campus housing.

The fate of Central Campus itself is up in the air. Though Duke officials don’t want to use the existing apartments as student housing, it’s “unclear as yet” that the university will demolish them, Moneta said.

Plans for the property “are just in the thinking stage,” Moneta said.

“Having this amount of land to land-bank is a wonderful problem to have,” he added.

Central Campus in the mid-2000s was supposed to be Duke’s next frontier, development-wise. In 2007, the university secured Durham City Council support for a rezoning that was supposed to clear the way for a $500 million investment in classroom facilities, housing and other facilities on about 128 acres.

But the project fell victim to the 2008 recession, and to some on-the-ground realities pointed out by Pelli Clarke Pelli, the world-renowned architectural firm former Duke President Richard Brodhead hired to design it.

One of project’s goals was to somehow knit together East and West campus, but by 2008 architect Cesar Pelli and his associates were arguing that Duke should instead focus on building out and extending West Campus. That thinking drove subsequent construction initiatives like the under-construction Rubenstein Arts Center and The Hollows.

Pelli’s team “looked at us almost incredulously and said, ‘Why would you build something there, if you want to connect campuses, build West out toward East,’” Nowicki said.

But even there, “with the downturn what was going to be one big, integrated plan got broken up into things we could opportunistically work on,” he said.

Central Campus’ apartments, meanwhile, had evolved over time from their original role as housing for graduate and professional students into housing for undergraduates. Given the three-year residency requirement and renovation needs on East and West, they’ve kept on playing a role in the Duke inventory long after North Carolina public institutions like UNC Charlotte retired and demolished very similar units.

UNCC got rid of its comparable apartments in 2011, reasoning that even its 1980-vintage ones weren’t worth upgrading to include fire sprinklers.

For Duke, the upkeep costs of the Central Campus units clearly don’t make sense as “engineers and architects come in and say, ‘Here’s the cost of a renovation, but it’s more than it would cost you to build something new,’” Nowicki said.

A long-term fallow period for the Central Campus property would create an obvious town-gown flashpoint because many of the apartments line Erwin Road and are highly visible. Nowicki suspects the university will eventually “want to have that developed, maybe by a private developer, for things that are compatible with Durham and the [Duke] medical center.”

Even with the direction for undergraduate housing set, housing in general remains an issue for Duke, particularly for its graduate students, he added.

“As Durham has become a hot place to live, housing prices have just gone up,” Nowicki said. “We’re not as bad as Stanford and Palo Alto [in California’s Bay Area], but we’re getting to the point where a graduate student who wants to come here has to look quite far away” from campus for a place to live.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg