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University Place a radical concept 25 years ago

These days it may look commonplace, like any other suburban complex of shops, condos, offices and restaurants.

But 25 years ago, when plans for University Place were unveiled, the concept was radical.

It would become the Carolinas' first mixed-use development and one of a few in the country. And it would help launch University City, a town center linking UNCCharlotte with University Research Park.

That was the primary purpose of University Place: creating a magnet to bring Charlotte's growth to the university area.

Wednesday, to observe the 25th anniversary of the plan's unveiling, former UNCC Vice Chancellor Doug Orr, who helped create the “new town” complex, will tell the story of University Place at an invitation-only breakfast hosted by University City Partners.

His talk will be a prelude to a three-day conference later this month to explore the kinds of development to pursue for University Research Park's remaining 500 acres. To gather ideas for University Place, Orr and the late Jim Clay, then head of UNCC's Urban Institute, traveled to the few examples of “new urbanism” developments in America and then to European “new towns” that had started the movement.

“Growth around the university was happening slowly,” said Orr, recently retired as president of Warren Wilson College. “The primary goal at that time was to develop a town center that was mixed use.”

At the time, developers steered clear of northeast Mecklenburg. So Orr and Clay worked with Charlotte planners to persuade agencies like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Carolinas HealthCare System and state transportation officials to build schools, a hospital, roads and water and sewer lines long before the county's growth was redirected northward, away from southeast Mecklenburg. “Everything had to be ahead of the curve,” Orr said. “We had to figure out a way to draw the university closer to Charlotte by bringing Charlotte in our direction.”