UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phil Dubois questioned in September last year whether the Belk Tower might be protected from removal under a new state law.
Senate Bill 22, adopted in July 2015, says a monument, memorial or work of art owned by the state may not be removed, relocated or altered without the approval of the N.C. Historical Commission.
Ultimately, the commission’s approval was not needed, Dubois told the Observer. An exception in the law allows for removal when a building inspector or similar official has determined that the object poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition.
The tower was demolished in early January, triggering emotions for some alumni that ranged from lament to outrage. Before the tower came down, grads wrote letters to Dubois and took to social media to protest the demolition plan, especially without more effort to save it.
Dubois told the Observer that his distaste for the tower was well-known. The decision to remove it likely would have been the same even if a donor had come forward to cover the costs for repairs and rehabilitation, Dubois told the Observer.
“There was a wide variation of opinion about whether that was an attractive tower and whether it said the right things about the university,” Dubois said. “There were often jokes about its phallic character and the like. So I think it came down to the question of ‘Do you want to spend that much money to save something when we could take the opportunity to rebuild that whole plaza?’”
With the tower now cleared away, the university is moving ahead with public forums on Monday and Feb. 22 to get input on a redesign of Belk Plaza.
The Belk Foundation and Belk Brothers Co. donated $100,000 to the university in 1967 for the Belk Tower, according to Darrell Williams, a Belk historian and corporate communications manager from 1979 to 2014.
The nearly 147-foot structure, made of 20 tubular sections of concrete and quartz aggregate over a brick base, was dedicated in 1970 to William Henry Belk, patriarch of the Belk family and the retail chain’s founder, Ken Stanford wrote in “Charlotte and UNC Charlotte Growing Up Together,” published in 1996 by UNCC.
“It was dedicated to William Henry Belk to ‘soar in sight and sound as his achievements soared through his faith in God and man,’” Howard Covington wrote in “Belk, Inc.: The Company and the Family That Built It.”
Some believe that history gave the tower protection under Senate Bill 22, which is intended to preserve “monuments and memorials commemorating events, persons and military service in North Carolina History,” among other things.
But a strict interpretation of the law and its exceptions had not been applied to the Belk Tower, said Kevin Cherry, deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and secretary of the N.C. Historical Commission.
“This is a new area for us ...,” Cherry said, referring to provisions of Senate Bill 22. “Whether the Belk Tower is an object of remembrance could be a matter of discussion.”
The board of trustees unanimously approved removal of the tower in October. Dubois said he did not follow a formal process for seeking an exception to the new law, although it is unclear what that process might be based on language in the law.
“There’s no formal process established. but I would assume that the government agency overseeing monuments would enlist an engineer and have a signed and stamped report to ensure compliance with the law,” said state Sen. Jim Davis of Franklin, a primary sponsor of the bill.
Dubois follow the university system’s design and construction guidelines, he said, by notifying then-President Tom Ross about plans to take down the tower. The facilities management office notified the State Property Office, Department of Insurance, and State Construction Office.
Dubois issued a statement on Oct. 16 notifying the community about the decision.
“Although the tower is not an immediate risk to campus, it does pose a potential safety hazard and it is prudent to take precautions,” Dubois wrote in his statement.
The potential hazards that concerned Dubois and trustees are outlined in an internal report made by the university’s Facilities Management team in May 2015. The report described 30 deficiencies and labeled 28 as critical.
An August report by SKA Consulting Engineers, which did a structural analysis, recommended repairs that could extend the life of the tower for an estimated 40 years. To restore it to safe condition would cost close to $1 million, the report said.
“Overall, the 50-year-old precast concrete tower structure appears to be in fair condition,” SKA’s report said. “The observed distress is not an immediate safety concern, but if not addressed within the next 12 to 18 months could threaten the structural integrity of the tower.”
Dubois said he and trustees did not want to take chances.
“When you have somebody tell you that something could potentially fail, you have to take that seriously,” he said. “Who could say what would happen if we had a major weather event like (1989’s Hurricane) Hugo?”
While safety for the UNCC community was a concern, saving the tower was not a priority, Dubois told the Observer. Its design and location – no longer at the center of campus activity – made the expense questionable, he said.
Alumni launched a petition on Change.org to protest Dubois’ announcement; there were 873 signers. Dubois said his announcement was sent to about 90,000 people.
J.R. Hildreth said he has an emotional connection to the university and the tower as a 1976 graduate. During his years on campus, he came to see it as a symbol of the thriving university’s potential as the largest public institution of its kind between Greensboro and Columbia. It was also a symbol of the energy that was on campus at that time, he said.
Hildreth said the chancellor has a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the institution’s assets and prevent them from deteriorating to the point that they threaten safety.
“I’m really quite upset about this situation,” Hildreth said. “It was an asset of the people of North Carolina. Now we are having to expend taxpayer money to take it down and replace it. If it had been properly cared for during the years, we wouldn’t be spending taxpayer money to do this.”
Dubois said he believes the responsibility for maintaining the university assets lies elsewhere.
“The repair and renovation money that we have been receiving from the state is wholly inadequate to maintain our facilities,” Dubois said. “We have $111 million of deferred maintenance on this campus. I don’t believe I’ve breached my fiduciary duty; I believe the state has.”
Karen Sullivan: 704-358-5532, @Sullivan_kms
Belk Plaza Redesign
▪ Public forums about the redesign of Belk Plaza are scheduled for 4-6 p.m. on Feb. 8 and 22 in the Cone University Center Lucas Room at UNC Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd.
▪ A conceptual plan for the plaza is scheduled to be presented at 4 p.m. on April 4 in the Lucas Room.