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Tuesday, 10 August 2010 20:06

WCU unveils plans for Town Center

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Western Carolina University hopes to create a new commercial hub to bolster life on campus and serve the larger Cullowhee community.

The university wants to carve out 35 acres from the main campus to create a “Town Center.” Building sites would be leased to restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores — and ideally even a specialty-style grocery store, according to WCU Chancellor John Bardo.

As the name implies, Town Center could fill a void in Cullowhee’s current makeup.

Convincing businesses and developers to come to Cullowhee at set up shop in the new Town Center will obviously be the biggest challenge, especially given the economy. Private investors willing to wade into the commercial marketplace are testing the water cautiously and choosing their new ventures wisely.

But not to worry, Bardo said.

“All economic downturns sooner or later go away, and this one will as well,” Bardo said.

A conceptual vision for Town Center was unveiled at a meeting last week as part of a pitch by the university community to the nearby town of Forest Hills to expand its town limits. Being part of an incorporated town is essential to pulling off the Town Center development, according to Bardo (see related article).

Far from being an actual plan, the illustrations were merely intended to sell people on an example of what Town Center “could be,” said Chadwick Roberson, an architect and principal at PBCL Architecture.

The university’s next step is to hire a consulting firm that would delve into specifics: what exactly would buildings look like, how would they be laid out, what types of businesses would be recruited, and so on.

Bardo envisions a mixed-use development with condos as well as shops. Town Center may house a few university functions, like the graduate school or admissions office. But there would be no classroom buildings or dorms, for example.

Bardo said the university would ask Forest Hills to adopt wholesale the university’s design for Town Center. A blanket approval for Town Center as a “planned unit development” within Forest Hills would be good for 20 years, eliminating the need for each new business or building to get individual approval from the town.

Curt Collins, owner of a small organic farm in Cullowhee called Avant Garden, questioned whether the Town Center would become a repository for corporate chain stores.

“I don’t want to see Applebee’s or Chili’s or even McDonald’s,” said Collins said.

Bardo countered that those may be precisely the businesses that could afford to build stores and pay rent, and so barring them from Town Center would be unwise.

“We wouldn’t do that. We couldn’t agree to that as a university,” Bardo said.

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