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Housing shuffle planned at WCU

The design concept for student apartments on the WCU Millennial Campus features a combination of wood, brick and rock on the building exteriors. Donated rendering The design concept for student apartments on the WCU Millennial Campus features a combination of wood, brick and rock on the building exteriors. Donated rendering

Student housing at Western Carolina University will see a massive shuffle over the coming years as university leadership looks to update old buildings while preparing for the school’s continued growth. 

During a Sept. 7 Board of Trustees meeting, the board set the plan in motion with a unanimous vote to recommend the demolition of Scott and Walker Residence Halls, old-style high-rise dorms constructed about 50 years ago.

“We plan to construct replacement buildings for Scott and Walker beginning in 2020, so because of the bureaucratic processes required to get approval for buildings to be designed and built and for buildings to be razed, we wanted to start the process,” WCU Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Mike Byers told trustees during a Sept. 6 committee meeting. “This will end up before the governor before it’s over.”

The destruction of Scott and Walker is an emotional subject for the generations of WCU alumni who have made memories of all kinds in the old-style dorm rooms, each crammed with a pair of desks and twin beds. Byers said he was reminded of that fact quite sharply during a recent presentation to the alumni board, during which he found himself “plowing through” the demolition plan.

“I told them I was glad (Interim Chancellor) Alison (Morrison-Shetlar) had left the room while I did that because I think she would have sent me to sensitivity training,” Byers joked to trustees.

However, he said, the time has come. The buildings are approaching 50 years old — if the university was planning to keep them, it should have done some serious renovations at least a decade ago, Byers said. 

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Razing the buildings will present a problem, as they sleep a combined 1,150 students. The current plan is to begin demolition in May of 2020 and then go straight into construction of the collection of lower campus residence halls planned to replace Scott and Walker, with those new dorms opening in fall 2022. That means the university will be without those replacement beds for four semesters and three summers. 

But WCU hopes to have a pair of other housing projects complete by the time Scott and Walker are gone. A new 600-bed upper campus residence hall is now under construction, about 35 percent complete according to WCU Facilities Director Joe Walker. That facility is expected to open in fall 2019. 

A public-private partnership on the university’s Millennial Campus off of Blackhawk Road is also expected to add to the housing inventory. During their Sept. 7 meeting trustees approved the concept of a ground lease with Wilmington-based Zimmer Development Company as well as the general design for the planned 500-bed student housing complex. The project is expected to be complete by fall 2020, in time for the first semester after demolition of Scott and Walker begins that May. 

The plan is to build apartment-style housing comprised of eight residential buildings and one clubhouse. Design plans call for a mix of exterior materials, including brick and rock as well as wood features on the apex and balconies. 

“On that side of (N.C.) 107 Western Carolina only has the one building that you can’t see from there, and that’s the Health and Human Sciences Building,” Byers told trustees Sept. 6. “What we’ve asked them to do is recognize it’s a campus building but make it so it doesn’t stick out with existing surroundings.”

The complex will be constructed on property owned by the WCU Endowment Fund but operated by Zimmer through a long-term ground lease, 40 years with an option to renew for another 10. The exact lease amount will be based on the results of an appraisal not yet completed by the trustees’ meeting this month. The agreement includes an escalation clause, with the amount to rise by 5 percent each year. When the lease ends, the buildings will become property of the Endowment Fund — and therefore of WCU — or the university can require the developer to demolish the buildings if it wishes. 

While the 600 beds from the Upper Residence Hall and 500 beds on the Millennial Campus will nearly match the 1,150 beds currently supplied by Scott and Walker, the inventory will fall short, and with the university continuing to grow things will likely be pretty tight in the housing department until replacement buildings are complete on the lower campus. Undergraduate enrollment at WCU grew by 605 students from fall 2017 to fall 2018 and is projected to continue rising. 

However, university leaders believe the plan will ultimately benefit housing capacity at WCU while keeping things as painless as possible in the transition. And where the Millennial Campus is concerned, the housing project will pave the way for the university to make further use of the undeveloped land in the future, as building the apartments will require Zimmer to install vital infrastructure, including roads, water and sewer. 

“Once they’ve done that, that benefits future development within the Millennial Campus, and that’s not an accident,” Byers told trustees. “That’s part of the plan for putting it here.”

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