Duke contends with zoning codes

As the University looks to develop its campus, it also seeks to eliminate some of the steps that have delayed such construction endeavors in years past.

Pending the approval of Durham City Council at its July 21 meeting, about 1,400 acres of the University will be reclassified as a university-college zoning district--a move that will facilitate the process of development and set up clearer guidelines for construction along the periphery of the University's campuses.

"The new plan still provides for city concerns on zoning issues, especially on the edges of Duke's campus, but also provides us more flexibility to proceed," said John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations.

Officials from the city's planning department approved the language governing the newly created UC zoning designation in February, drawing on input from Duke, North Carolina Central University, Durham Technical Community College and neighborhoods surrounding the three schools' campuses.

Although a request by the University to change the wording governing a UC zone was denied, the University now seeks to place East, West and North campuses and Central Campus between Campus Drive and Duke University Road under the new designation.

The boundaries in question have been marked off by city rezoning signs, indicating to passers-by that the city is reconsidering the designations of the marked areas.

John Schelp, president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association, said the signs initially raised alarm that the University was trying to expand beyond its current borders.

"We all saw the yellow signs with red 'Z's' on them," he said. "One neighbor was wondering if Zorro had come in overnight to mark his territory on campus."

After several meetings with Duke officials, however, Schelp said neighbors were not as apprehensive about the University's development plans.

"There were a couple of bumps in the beginning, but we have cleared the air and are working now with senior officials, which is encouraging," Schelp said. "In general, what we're asking for will not give the University heartburn, and many of our issues are already reflected in the campus master plan. Our only lingering concern would be if they decided to change the list of [Central Campus] on-campus retailers to something we're not comfortable with."

Thus far, Duke has opted not to include most of Central Campus among the acreage up for rezoning because it has not finalized plans for Central's massive renovation and does not wish to commit the area to UC zoning guidelines at this time.

Duke officials initially opposed clauses calling for "limited retail" serving "on-campus users" within UC zoning districts, saying the terms were too vague and could potentially limit the University's future development, Burness said.

The University requested that "limited" be dropped and "on-campus" be changed to "campus" so as not to preclude retailers that might cater to non-residential members of the campus community. The request was denied due to neighbors' concerns that more lenient terms might pave the way for chain retailers to trample local businesses like those on Ninth Street.

Burness noted that the fate of Central Campus' zoning designation can be determined after there is a more definite plan for its development.

"If we chose to put Central into the [UC] zone later, we could," Burness said. "Regardless of what zone Central is in, if we wanted an exception to the zone's restrictions, we could go ask for an exception. It would just require the normal planning reviews."

The University is no stranger to such reviews. In fact, building on Duke's campuses has been governed more by exceptions than by the rule for well over a decade.

Executive Vice President Tallman Trask said many of the University's properties currently under development are designated as residential zones--a "bizarre" quirk that has forced the University to seek exceptions such as height variances for each new building it wishes to construct. This bureaucratic snafu has led to some rather absurd reviews of peripheral development at times, he said.

"Under the old zoning, they said the Eye [Research] Institute was too tall, which was weird because it is only half the height of the Hospital right next door," Trask said.

While this peculiarity in the zoning designations of University property has not prevented the University from going ahead with major construction plans, it has caused a number of delays as University officials must request and wait for variance approvals, which can take months to secure.

"With the new [UC] zone, the University can go back over and clarify things to make the zoning much more appropriate to what reality is, and we'll be able to save both time and money," Burness said.


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