The other night during the basketball game, they flashed to some old film of the opening night of the Dean E. Smith Student Activity Center.
It was around this time of year 30 years ago, and it brought change not just for the fans but for the whole community. It was the university’s biggest move down the hill in decades and suddenly the hospital, campus and a much larger arena were having their impact on what came to be known as Fordham Boulevard.
The blurry videotape they showed at halftime was a reminder of how things have changed and how long its been since we thought seriously around here about where the next generation of Tar Heels are going to play the game of basketball.
The prospect of another basketball arena getting built here is not some academic discussion (sorry, couldn’t resist). As recently as 2014 there was serious study of a new arena as well as major renovations to the current one.
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Then came an NCAA investigation and a few years of state budget cuts and away went the idea of pushing for a big money upgrade for revenue sports. The project for now is on hold, whatever that means.
Not on hold is the pressure to make a change. Beloved as it is, the Smith Center is a high cost / high maintenance venue that has never been able to make much money outside of basketball season. Replacing it, or some kind of serious upgrade, is probably smart economics and will happen at some point. I can imagine right now it’s hard to plan for what with all the lawyers and stuff.
But it is time to start thinking about the change and asking a few questions.
One question that really hasn’t been raised is where?
There has long been an assumption that a new Dean Dome would rise on the same spot. Given the experience of the last 30 years and what is projected to happen along the bypass, it is at least worth asking if it really makes sense to build an even larger more well-used venue in the exact same spot.
And, to flip that, if the new arena remains at its current site, what kind of fixes are required for Manning Drive and Fordham Boulevard as growth cascades along N.C. 54 and U.S. 15-501?
The Manning Drive intersection is a must solve for southern Orange planners. It has long been a clogged, dangerous intersection and if unchanged will remain so with or without traffic from a major sports arena spilling into it.
As for location, there are few places anywhere near the university that make sense and none on campus that do not offer a greater or equally challenging transportation nightmare. Keep in mind that it is doubtful that a new Smith Center would be smaller or less used than the current building. Also keep in mind that if the Smith Center moves, it opens up a good deal of land strategically located near the hospital and research labs.
One intriguing off-campus idea came up more than a decade ago during brainstorming discussions on the Horace Williams property, now known as Carolina North. The basic idea was that it made more sense for a major venue to be closer to I-40.
That would be a tough sell today, but it does represent the kind of broader thinking that this pause in the action affords us. I think it’s interesting because an arena at Carolina North could be one of the few things compatible with the airport, which stubbornly refuses to close.
I wouldn’t put money on the Smith Center moving, but I’m sure whoever was in that jet that flew out just after the game the other night would just love it.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org