The project, expected to break ground in May and reach completion by August 2016, will entail a 120,000-square-foot building that mixes student housing on the upper floors with commercial and dining businesses on the ground floor. The facility will add 380 student beds to campus and give businesses affected by the fire or currently operating along that commercial strip first right of refusal to occupy the new building, according to a press release from WCU.
“The concept will create a new town-like environment in the heart of the campus, with a mix of commercial and dining establishments on the ground floor, while also adding additional student beds to help accommodate the demands of increasing enrollment,” said Bill Studenc, communications director for the university.
Rick Bennett, longtime Cullowhee resident and a member of both Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor and the Cullowhee Community Planning Committee, isn’t applauding. He would have liked to see the community consulted before the school went ahead with the plan.
“I don’t know of any survey that Western took that asked the community’s input or was designed to see what the community wanted,” he said. “It was basically what Western needed and that was it. That seems to be the method of operation.”
But developing a mixed-use facility was part of the master plan the Board of Trustees endorsed in 2013, Studenc said, and while community members weren’t involved in the specific plans for this building, County Planner Gerald Green, as well as WCU staff who have been active in Cullowhee community planning efforts, were included in the campus master planning effort.
Ambling University Development Group will develop the facility according to a design in keeping with other recently constructed buildings on campus, such as Blue Ridge and Balsam residence halls and the Courtyard Dining Hall, Studenc said. The Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund of Western Carolina University, which owns the commercial strip, chose the company.
Notices have already gone out to existing businesses that their leases will end on May 1.
“This will enable the Endowment Fund to turn the site over to the developer in order to have sufficient time for the site work that needs to be done, including asbestos abatement, as part of the demolition process,” said Mary Ann Lochner, general counsel to WCU.
The board had voted in February 2014 not to fix the building after looking at cost estimates, insurance settlements and tax assessments. In planning the next step, it weighed factors such as the property’s historical significance and its businesses’ contribution to WCU culture, the press release said.