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Construction on campus poses ecological concerns

With the University in the midst of its most expansive building and planning boom since its inception, the campus is bound to feel some growing pains, among them the environmental effects of so much construction.

Duke recommitted to the principle of "a university in the forest" in the campus master plan, approved by the Board of Trustees in May 2000 as a physical blueprint for the University's future. The plan vaguely recommends conserving natural areas that are vulnerable to development, and it includes drawings that lay out a specific vision for each area of campus.

The University has already strayed from at least one of those drawings, however, in the proposed parking garage next to the Bryan Center. The garage is not included in the plan's drawings, but Executive Vice President Tallman Trask said the proposal is a compromise.

"There has been an unresolved disagreement between the parking consultant and the master plan consultant since day one about the placement of parking," said Trask, noting that Lee Copeland, the master plan consultant, preferred parking on the fringes of campus.

These types of planning decisions are quick ones, and there are a variety of environmental concerns that come into play, from aesthetics to sediment flow to research and teaching.

"The woods here are particularly nice to look at, but beyond that, as you develop more buildings, roads and so forth, you have an increased amount of impermeable surfaces, so these areas become buffers for water runoff," said Norm Christensen, former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

He also said animal populations were another concern of construction, although not an immediate one. "They're quite diverse. By and large I think they're fairly healthy," Christensen said.

Occasionally, environmental concerns can change a project very significantly. The new parking lot on Circuit Drive, for example, was reduced in size last year, when planning officials decided that attempts to mitigate environmental harm would be cost-prohibitive.

Similarly, when the Freeman Center for Jewish Life was first being planned in 1995, the original location was rejected because it included a wetland.

"There was a lot of wetlands issues there and prices just skyrocketed," Trask said. He added that construction near wetlands must conform to regulations from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Before the University begins construction of a new project, the plans are presented to the Committee on Facilities and Environment, an advisory body composed of faculty and administration members. Final approval of all major projects lies with the Board of Trustees.

"It's rare when a project comes through and flies through," said immunology professor Jeffrey Dawson, CFE co-chair. "There's a sense of history, a sense of aesthetics. Those two are almost paramount," he added.

The committee is not always unanimous, Dawson said, noting the Divinity School addition raised objections. "We don't want to destroy the overall ambiance of the forest near the Chapel," Dawson said.

Since Duke is one of the few universities with a school of the environment, Dawson and other planners attempt to use the Nicholas School as an asset to advise building. With specialties ranging from water flow to forestry, the professors' insights can be quite valuable, Dawson said.

"I think the major ecological effect we're having now is that we're taking the Duke campus, that was essentially a rural campus, with a lot of trees and open space, and we're making it an urban campus," said Curtis Richardson, professor of resource ecology and director of the University Wetland Center.

Richardson is currently helping to build a new wetland in the Duke Forest, near the Duke Golf Course, in the hope of accommodating road and parking lot runoff and improving water quality.

"The water quality has been lower in some of the sub-streams around the construction," Richardson said. "There's no question that when you have construction you have more sediment in the water, and sometimes even some hydrocarbons."

Some sites on campus have historic value for scientists as well. Daniel Richter, a professor in the Nicholas School, called the corner of Towerview Road and Duke University Road particularly historic.

"It's a site studied by Dwight Billings in the '30s and perhaps before that," he said. "It's... part of a central core of sites used to develop the concept of forest succession."

Richter said such sites show the value of undeveloped space beyond aesthetic or practical purposes. He uses several plots of campus in teaching students.

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