NC Central needed a new student center. Students themselves helped make it happen.

Administrators and student leaders at N.C. Central University put on hard hats and dug shovels into the ground Wednesday to celebrate the construction of a new student center and three new residential halls. The $170 million expansion at the historically black campus is student-driven and partially student-funded.

“It has a tremendous impact for our university,” NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye said. “We want to provide our students the most powerful learning experience through housing units and through the new student center.”

The $47 million center is set to open in 2021 near the corner of Nelson and Fayetteville streets and will feature a food court, game room, performance venue, a convenience store, a coffee shop, and student and administrative offices. It’s quite an upgrade from the historic Alfonso Elder Student Union, which was built in 1968 and is the oldest student center in the University of North Carolina system.

In 2019, N.C. Central University will break ground on several large construction projects could reshape the campus near downtown Durham. DIscoverDurham.com

“Our campus is space-compressed,” Akinleye said, “and in order for us to grow we have to expand our footprint.”

Akinleye said the new student center will provide a space for the university’s 8,200 students to socially engage and learn. He praised former student body leaders’ efforts to make it happen.

Student funded

In 2014, NCCU student body leaders wanted to leave a legacy. So they launched a campaign for students to pay additional fees each year that would help pay for the construction of a new student union building. Students voted in favor of the increased fees, even though many of them wouldn’t be enrolled by the time the new center was built.

“It is important that we champion such campus developments that continue to provide organizations with collaborative spaces, performance venues and a resource center to call our own,” said Tymia Atkinson, a rising junior at N.C. Central.

She said in addition to helping pay for the building, students had a voice in deciding what it would look like. They took surveys about the plans, sat through administrative meetings and expressed their ideas to the design team.

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The new $47 million student center will replace a 1960s-era student union building at N.C. Central University Courtesy of North Carolina Central University

“It was important for us to contribute and know that it wasn’t just an administrative decision that we did have a say,” Atkinson said. “The people before us had these goals and now we’re making them happen. It sets a precedent for the people that come behind us. It’s about unity and empowerment.”

Durham firms Duda Paine Architects and O’Brien Atkins Associates and MHTN Architects of Salt Lake City designed the center. Balfour Beatty, Holt Brothers Construction and Structure Building Company teamed up for the development and construction.

New residence halls

The three new residence halls — Chidley South, Lawson Street and George Street — a represent monumental shift in residential living, Chancellor Akinleye said.

They will add a total of 1,247 new beds in semi-suite and apartment-style units to accommodate the growing demand for housing on campus. Part of that demand comes from the recent requirement that all freshmen live on campus.

For the past three years some students had to live in a Doubletree Hotel in Durham because of overflow, Akinleye said, and had to take shuttles to get to class. This new housing should alleviate that.

These developments will expand the university’s housing inventory, which enhances its ability to recruit and retain more students from freshman year to graduation, Akinleye said.

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Chidley South residential hall is scheduled to open in 2020 at N.C. Central University Courtesy of North Carolina Central University

About 35 percent of NCCU students live on campus, the News & Observer previously reported. The university hopes that rises above 40 percent.

Jordan “Jo” Smith, a resident assistant on campus, said all students should live on campus at some point, and more housing helps keep them connected. She said it eases transportation struggles and give students a better opportunity to be involved in campus activities that will benefit their academic and future professional careers.

“We wanted to end the race for housing, and this is the start,” Smith said.

She’s not upset that she won’t be able to live in the new dorms but is proud to be part of making them happen.

“The work we all do now is for those that come after us,” Smith said.

Chidley South and George Street residential halls are scheduled to open in 2020 with 800 beds and will include a space for a dining facility or convenience store. Lawson Street Residential Hall will add 470 beds in 2021. The residential halls were designed by Vines Architecture of Raleigh. Corvias Development and Metcon Inc. are the contractors for the residence halls construction project through a public-private partnership with the university.

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George Street residential hall is scheduled to open in 2020 at N.C. Central University Courtesy of North Carolina Central University

Aaron Thomas, president of Metcon Inc., announced that this is the largest contract that has ever been awarded to an ethnic minority owned construction firm in the state of North Carolina. It’s also the largest contract that has been designed and built by minority businesses. And more than half of the subcontracts have been awarded to North Carolina certified historically underutilized and represented firms, he said.

“You guys are blazing the trail for others to follow in years to come,” Thomas said. “We’re not satisfied if we can’t lift up the community and the local underrepresented groups in the construction of this facility and helping to raise them up.”