CuRvE News

This is reprinted courtesy of the Sylva Herald.

Forest Hills leaders hear proposal for ‘new’ Cullowhee

By Maggie Tobias

Plans for a new Cullowhee were unveiled by architects and representatives from the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor during Forest Hills’ Aug. 6 town board meeting.

The session was moved to Western Carolina University’s Ramsey Center Hospitality Room to accommodate the crowd expected to hear proposals that include Forest Hills annexation of some university-owned property as well as the business district known as “Old Cullowhee.” Annexation advocates are also proposing changing the name of the town to Cullowhee.

WCU Chancellor John Bardo, who spoke at the meeting, said areas slated for annexation may be developed with shops, restaurants and other attractions.

He hopes the move will form a union between the university and the surrounding communities.

In time, after the land is developed, neighborhoods could petition to be voluntarily annexed by the nearest municipality, which would be Forest Hills/Cullowhee.

Plans for the redevelopment of the “Old Cullowhee” business district, which is located along the Tuckaseigee River near the former Western Carolina University main entrance, were unveiled during a Forest Hills town board meeting last week. An architect’s illustration (top photo) shows the addition of a pedestrian walkway to the bridge and wide steps leading down to the river’s edge, as well as additional retail and residential space that would blend into the environment. The existing bridge and buildings along Old Cullowhee Road are shown in the opposite picture. – Photos courtesy of Richard Fort/ PBC+L Architecture

A “town center” to be constructed on some 35 acres owned by WCU is one area targeted for annexation and development, said Tom McClure, director of Western’s Office of Regional Affairs.

The WCU property that might become part of Forest Hills includes the strip from the existing Camp Building (old Camp Lab School) to the parking lot across Cullowhee Creek from the Ramsey Center. University long-range plans show the creation of a “town center” in that area to create more of a college town atmosphere.

That 22-acre tract, which is adjacent to Forest Hills entrance, could accommodate as much as 270,000 square feet of commercial, housing and multi-tenant office space, with parking for 871 vehicles including a 320-space parking garage, according to an article in the summer 2008 edition of WCU’s magazine. According to McClure, other university property that might be incorporated into the planned town center and annexed by Forest Hills includes the Fine and Performing Arts Center and other areas along N.C. 107.

Another area is the business district on Old Cullowhee Road (S.R. 1002) near the former campus entrance. That area has declined since it was bypassed by the relocation of N.C. 107 in the early 1980s; CuRvE’s formation grew from a desire to rejuvenate the once-thriving commerce center.

Forest Hills could annex “Old Cullowhee” even though it isn’t contiguous to the current town limits. N.C. general statutes allow annexation if the two areas are separated by state-owned land such as a university campus, said McClure, who is a former chairman of the Jackson County Economic Development Commission.

Forest Hills board members called the meeting to hear proposals from CuRvE representatives and architects, and to ask questions about the plan.

“The outcome of this meeting will ignite a flame that will not die,” said Forest Hills Mayor Jim Wallace, who added that last week’s meeting was purely informational and town board members would take no action.

Brian Railsback, dean of WCU’s Honor’s College, offered a history of CuRvE.

In March of 2007, a WCU student proposed the creation of a water park along the Tuckaseigee River during an undergraduate research exposition, and several Cullowhee residents, students and faculty members heard his plans for taking advantage of the natural beauty of the area, Railsback said.

“Those of us who were there were really intrigued by that,” Railsback said.

As they brainstormed the possibilities, they came up against a wall, he said.

“We found out fairly quickly that it would be very difficult for us to move forward if we were unincorporated,” he said.

That’s when CuRvE members teamed up with McClure to create an annexation plan, Railsback said.

A frequently-asked-questions sheet passed out at the meeting spells out CuRvE’s vision.

The organization wants to make Cullowhee “a unique and highly attractive area – a mix of residences and businesses along rivers and streams.”

Although WCU’s campus will be one of the neighborhoods involved, the new Cullowhee wouldn’t try to copy other college towns. It wouldn’t be just another Franklin Street (Chapel Hill) or Hillsborough Street (Raleigh); it would be something unique, Railsback said.

“We don’t want to lose that vision of sustainability, of preserving what is Cullowhee.” Railsback said. “This may be a good road to form a better partnership between Cullowhee and the surrounding community.”

The official name for that partnership, said chancellor John Bardo, is Millennium Campus, which is what the university also uses as the name for the property it acquired several years ago across N.C. 107 from its main campus. A new health sciences building is under construction on a portion of that tract, and plans announced at the time of its acquisition included mixed-uses communities that would include private industry, university buildings, shops and residences.

Bardo gave the background of the annexation project from the university’s point of view.

The N.C. General Assembly passed the Millennium Campuses Act in 2000, which allows certain schools in the University of North Carolina system, including WCU, to go into public/private partnerships with surrounding areas, Bardo said.

“It was the only vote I know of on any substantial issue where it passed unanimously through both houses,” Bardo said.

The master plan for the Millennial Campus was approved by “everyone up to the board of governors,” Bardo said.

The point is to integrate the educational community with the surrounding residential areas to provide better resources for both, Bardo said.

“Meadowmont Village in Chapel Hill is probably something that looks like this,” Bardo said.

Like Meadowmont, a mixed-use community with residential and commercial areas, the new Cullowhee would feature a mix of locally-owned shops and national franchises, as well as dwellings.

It will be human-scale, walkable and it’ll blend in with the surrounding landscape and architecture, Bardo said.

“I don’t see anything being big box,” Bardo said.

Architects from PBC+L Architecture showed a PowerPoint, featuring images of what such a new community might look like.

The presentation also showed what Old Cullowhee could look like as a vibrant, walkable riverside community, where small businesses would flourish without disrupting the landscape.

Balance between nature and architecture; respect for natural structures; and conservation of natural resources were a few of the themes the architects used in creating the design.

“All we’re showing is a potential concept for that area,” said architect Chadwick Roberson.

As the architects showed the final slide of the plan, a collage of the imaginative futuristic sketches, local business owner Jeanette Evans stood up to speak.

“(The slides) do get you thinking about some good and some bad,” said Evans, who owns Mad Batter bakery, one of the privately-owned shops on WCU’s current existing campus.

One bad thing she wanted to prevent is the possibility of things like the night sky and the mountains being obstructed by new buildings, she said.

“I think that would be something I’d want to protect in my community,” Evans said. “The ability to see the stars at night.”

A benefit to the development and annexation would be the increased political presence Cullowhee would enjoy by having an incorporated identity, she said.

“Cullowhee won’t be dominated by the university,” Evans said.

Instead, she said, they would be unique bodies joining together to make a “great community.”

Changing Cullowhee wouldn’t be a bad thing, Evans said, even though she loves the way it is now.

“I really enjoy Cullowhee,” Evans said. “I’m a Cullowhee girl.”

She encouraged everyone present to fill out comment cards with their thoughts on the project.

“Maybe we can just keep discussion going,” Evans said. “Let’s not just let it end here at this meeting.”

Forest Hills town board members picked up the discussion after Evans with a series of questions for the architects and CuRvE representatives.

Board member Gene Tweedy referred to the central part of the town asking, “Who is that land going to belong to?”

According to Bardo, the land will always belong to the state of North Carolina, and the state will lease it out to private business owners.

Those buildings would be private and would be taxable, Bardo said.

New construction would be based on design standards created to blend with WCU’s existing architecture, and there would be specifications regarding the types of businesses that would be allowed.

“We’re not really interested in a tattoo parlor,” Bardo said.

Tweedy continued with his questions, saying that the sketches showed lots of benefits for the university, but not for Forest Hills.

“I need to find out what Forest Hills is going to be getting,” Tweedy said.

“You do gain an income stream,” Bardo said, referring to the property taxes the town would collect.

Forest Hills residents would also be able to enjoy the services of businesses like restaurants and boutiques, Bardo said.

Enlarging the town limits would also trigger increased demands from residents and from the state, Bardo said.

“If it’s done right, Chancellor, I see a lot of benefit to the community,” Tweedy said.

Bardo said if it wasn’t done right, he’d “haunt” whoever was responsible for its downfall.

As they spoke, the architects, Bardo and Railsback all emphasized that the planned development isn’t a masked attempt to bring in big business and turn the Cullowhee area into a commercial attraction.

It wouldn’t be a massive commercial empire, Railsback said, pointing to the building and development that he said has “devastated” his home state of California.

“I saw what they did with it. It’s not pretty,” Railsback said. “Even the ‘Terminator’ couldn’t help.”

New Cullowhee wouldn’t be like that; it would be based on what the people living there wanted, he said.

“We didn’t start with the idea of, ‘Let’s develop the heck out of this,’ ” Railsback said.

The economy could benefit from the new businesses the town would attract, but at the core of the project is a desire to “stay true to the soul of Cullowhee and leave as little impact on the environment as possible,” Bardo said.

One student who stood up to speak at the meeting noted that the word “sustainability” gets thrown around without meaning these days.

But when Bardo says “sustainability,” he means it, he said.

“Human beings are part of nature, not separate,” Bardo said. “We need to live, but at the same time, we need to be highly cognizant of our environment.”