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Duke can do better 

Lured by dollar signs, senior officials at Duke University have been talking about rezoning the university's Central Campus in a way that goes beyond the academic mission of the university. Since February 2003, the Duke-Durham Partnership neighborhoods have worked hard to support rezonings for Duke's Medical Center, East Campus and West Campus. Leaders of the neighborhoods around Duke supported the redevelopment of Central Campus, an area between West Campus and the medical center. We worked out with senior Duke officials a list of retail uses we felt would be compatible with the neighborhoods--including three new restaurants, a performing arts center, a 99-room hotel, a bowling alley, a Duke clothing store, new dorms and an on-campus book store with coffee shop. The partnership neighborhoods then voted to support this agreement. The list has remained unchanged ever since.

Duke then asked the partnership neighborhoods to acquiesce on looming construction projects, such as an eye center, an addition to Perkins library and new East Campus dorms. We did.

We feel we've been quite reasonable in supporting Duke's needs. In response, Duke has been less than neighborly.

Retail use supporting the academic mission of the university, such as student restaurants or a campus bookstore, is appropriate. But the partnership neighborhoods voted to oppose retail on Central Campus that goes beyond academic retail, such as general clothing or jewelry stores. This sort of retail would have an unfair advantage over nearby businesses because they wouldn't have to pay property taxes and would undermine the surrounding community.

Duke, however, hasn't been working in good faith with the community. At a March 10 forum in Trinity Heights, Duke officials acknowledged they're looking at more retail than the list we had worked out.

Duke's intentions were confirmed when Duke executive vice president Tallman Trask III said at the forum that Duke might ask that Central Campus be zoned "general commercial" by the city. A general commercial designation, which would allow unlimited retail, would be consistent with Duke's actions a year ago, when the university architect went behind the partnership neighborhoods' backs to actively lobby the city's planning department to remove the term "limited retail" from Durham's University-College ordinance.

For months, university officials have refused to share details of their retail plans with the community. Why the secrecy? Instead, Duke accused the neighborhood partners of spreading rumors that Duke wanted to build more retail. Lo and behold, it appears we were right.

Bowing to community pressure, Duke is now saying it might offset the loss of property taxes by working out some sort of payment. Why create a special status for Duke retail? Why not just pay property taxes like all other Durham businesses? Why is Duke trying to deny local jurisdictions revenue?

Creating an on-campus retail cocoon would exacerbate the town-gown tensions that prompted the creation of the Duke-Durham partnership initiative, further isolating Duke students from Durham by discouraging students from patronizing off-campus businesses. A self-contained retail center at Central Campus would transform the Durham Freeway into a physical barrier between Duke's main campus and the bustling commercial strip on Ninth Street. Why venture out to Ninth Street, Brightleaf Square or Northgate Mall when you can shop right on campus?

A graduate student recently said at a campus forum that "security" at Duke means control of resources--keeping students out of Durham and their money on Duke's campus. The university has now lowered its parking lot gates during off-hours and closed campus streets. The inconvenience and expense of parking at Duke sends a message that outsiders, such as Durham residents, are less welcome.

Reinforcing this message, Duke recently erected an eight-foot fence and gates along sections of its southern boundary in order to, they say, protect parked cars. And a 45-year-old woman walking her dog on East Campus was recently stopped by a Duke police officer who asked her: "How long do you intend to be on campus?"

All the while, Duke officials insist they have no intention of isolating the campus.

With Duke, don't listen to what they say, look at what they do. Throughout the retail discussions, Duke repeatedly claimed they care deeply about the Durham community. Yet, Duke got out of $596,000 in impact fees for their new construction and paid $847,000 less than requested to help Durham cover local costs (figures represent what the city said Duke should pay minus what Duke eventually paid). At the same time, Duke had no problem finding $500,000 to buy iPods for all incoming students.

Duke contributes far less than Princeton, Harvard and Brown universities pay to their host cities. This money could have funded important projects in our community.

And while Duke says that all this new campus construction won't have an impact on local traffic because it'll be offset by regional rail, Duke repeatedly resisted a regional rail station at Duke Medical Center.

Their wish came true when the Triangle Transit Authority recently announced that the medical center station had been dropped from its plans for this stage. Since Duke is Durham's largest employer, including thousands at the medical center, the station could have helped keep cars off area streets.

With the loss of the TTA rail station at the medical center, Duke's excuse for paying less to the city is no longer valid. So, Duke's check to help cover the local costs associated with its new construction must be in the mail.

Despite assurances by Duke officials at the March forum that they'd try to better communicate their Central Campus plans with the neighborhoods, we've heard nothing from Duke for nine months. We then read on Nov. 29 in The Chronicle, the student newspaper, that Duke's Board of Trustees was set to approve proposals for Central Campus. Duke officials say the article was wrong.

Duke could have set the record straight. One thing this episode shows is that Duke doesn't yet get that they need to be proactive in contacting and sharing information with its partnership neighborhoods.

Since the March meeting, Duke officials have started inviting new presidents of partnership neighborhoods to meetings. The exclusion from this meeting of those with whom Duke had been negotiating Central Campus plans for months raised suspicions that Duke was trying to foster divisions between the partnership neighborhoods they say they want to help.

There is good news. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently wrote an excellent article describing Duke's retail efforts (see link at www.owdna.org ). The Herald-Sun wrote an editorial saying Duke has raised "justifiable ire" with its plans for Central Campus and needs to win back the neighborhoods' trust.

And, after months of discussions, the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham, a group that links neighborhood associations from across the city, voted this summer to support the position that the new University-College District is the most appropriate zoning designation for Duke's Central Campus. The INC also supported the list of limited retail uses that was worked out with Duke and endorsed by the partnership neighborhoods in 2003.

Just before the vote, Michael Palmer, Duke's director of community affairs, tried to have the sentence supporting the retail list removed from the position statement. He failed, and the measure was passed. Despite Duke's effort to manipulate the INC's decision, the vote wasn't even close.

The INC vote represents a setback for Duke's efforts to build on-campus retail that goes beyond the academic mission of the university. We know the City Council is paying attention. We hope Duke's Board of Trustees is, too.

This year, Duke welcomed a new president, marking a new beginning. Hopefully, Dr. Richard Brodhead will use this opportunity to clear the deck. Fulfilling two simple requests would help move things in the right direction:

  • Have Duke stick to the list of on-campus retail uses the partnership neighborhoods worked out with the university and later was supported by the InterNeighborhood Council.

  • Move the Neighborhood Partnership Initiative out of the Public Affairs office (more concerned about Duke's image than finding real solutions to problems) and into an area of the president's office with more substance. Then, maybe we can bring the word "partnership" back into the mix.

    And maybe we can clear the air and move forward. Then, maybe Duke can go back to focusing on academics and not undermine Durham with its on-campus retail schemes.

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