Durham County

Can NCCU and its chancellor achieve ‘shared prosperity’ with campus neighbors?

N.C. Central University Chancellor Johnson Akinleye acknowledges the university will have to deal with gentrification worries as it pushes for the redevelopment of the area around its campus.
N.C. Central University Chancellor Johnson Akinleye acknowledges the university will have to deal with gentrification worries as it pushes for the redevelopment of the area around its campus. ctoth@heraldsun.com

N.C. Central University will benefit if the area around it redevelops, but campus and local leaders have to find a way to make sure the change also helps the businesses and people who now call that area home, the university’s chancellor says.

“A shared prosperity is what we’re looking for, and ways to do that,” NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye said during a recent discussion with Herald-Sun staffers that focused heavily on the future of the campus and the possibility the university’s growth could trigger a wave of gentrification in the adjoining Durham neighborhoods.

Akinleye left no doubt that he believes the university will expand both its enrollment and its footprint in the city, the first triggering the second because the existing campus is almost fully built out.

Already, plans for a new student center on the southwestern corner of the campus and a new business school on the northeastern corner, next to Fayetteville Street and N.C. 55 respectively, are pushing the acquisition of existing homes by the university, he said.

As homes hit the market, more purchases are likely, even if not necessarily for those two buildings. But even with the twin projects – both targeted for a summer 2021 completion – supplying the short-term impetus and the funding, “it’s a very delicate undertaking because you want to maintain a good relationship with the community,” Akinleye said.

The longer-term question centers not just around the campus proper, but on what’s likely to unfold in the coming years along the Fayetteville Street and N.C. 55 corridors.

Last year, with firm backing from Akinleye and other N.C. Central officials, planners added the N.C. 55 corridor and the NCCU campus to the blueprints for a light-rail system that originally was supposed to link downtown Durham, Duke University’s medical center and and UNC-Chapel Hill.

That decision on its own is likely to fuel interest in the corridor from “big developers who are going to move into” the corridor and buy property there, out of the conviction it’ll fuel more construction near downtown, Akinleye said.

On the west side of campus, community leaders have prodded NCCU to join forces with them to redevelop the now-vacant 20-acre Fayette Place tract, the site of a since-demolished Durham Housing Authority project that’s now back in the authority’s books after a barren stretch of private ownership.

Akinleye’s been firm in saying the university’s participation is tied to the ability of local leaders to assemble a broader set of development partners – and on their willingness to address the half-mile stretch of frayed-at-the-edges homes, business and roadway that separate Fayette Place from his campus.

“If we put a building up there or some infrastructure up there, we still have that corridor between that and the institution, and that corridor needs to be redeveloped,” Akinleye said, reiterating his view of the matter. “If I have students, if I have buildings over there, classrooms over there, they still have to travel to the campus, and that corridor is a concern to us.”

He said NCCU leaders believe a successful redevelopment around the campus will mean new and “better businesses” moving into it.

But that’s where concerns about gentrification come in, and, as the chancellor acknowledged, the need to reach an understanding not just with neighbors but with a new City Council lineup that’s perhaps more likely than its predecessor to see redevelopment as a mixed blessing.

The key will be finding ways to help residents and businesses so “they don’t feel that they are being pushed out,” Akinleye said.

For NCCU, that could mean using its influence on and off campus to line up training and other services for existing businesses, in hopes of ultimately improving their profitability. It might need to do likewise in the housing, job training, education and child care arenas for residents.

“It has to be a discussion that looks holistically at not just economic development – putting up new high-rise apartments they can’t afford and restaurants that they would never be able to eat in and all of that,” Akinleye said. “You have to look at working with the community so that anything we do also takes into consideration factors that would help to improve their lives, their health, their well-being and this society.”

With the city, reaching an understanding isn’t likely to be the work of a moment, not least because Akinleye and Durham’s new mayor, Steve Schewel, have to forge a working relationship.

Though neither’s new to leadership – Akinleye became NCCU’s provost in 2014 and took the reins as chancellor in 2016 after his predecessor was stricken down by cancer, while Schewel’s a longtime Durhamite who joined the City Council in 2011 – both readily admit they don’t know each other all that well.

Schewel said he’s looking forward to sitting down with Akinleye for a long conversation “to fund out what NCCU’s priorities are, right from him.”

But after hearing a summary of Akinleye’s comments to The Herald-Sun, the mayor said he understands “the dilemma” the chancellor identified, namely that “N.C. Central really wants redevelopment in that area of the campus and along the Fayetteville Street corridor, but also wants to do it in a way that’s not damaging to the current residents.”

“That’s a very difficult needle to thread,” Schewel said.

The mayor added that he thinks “the way in which Fayette Place is redeveloped is going to be key to that,” presuming local leaders can secure “widespread community buy-in” and, eventually, funding.

The Fayetteville Street and N.C. 55 corridors differ in that Fayetteville Street is “still residential” and has on it the kind of historic homes that are “often the target of gentrification,” Schewel said.

N.C. 55 is “more of a commercial corridor” but the aging McDougald Terrace public housing complex is both nearby and in need of redevelopment, he said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg