University City

Let's help town, gown find common ground

Bonnie Cone rests beneath a polished granite slab in the middle of the UNC Charlotte campus, ringed by blooming pinxter flowers and flame azaleas. Her ghost, they say, still haunts the school she founded more than a half-century ago.

Legend says she has never missed a home basketball game, if you've ever wondered about those occasional unexpected drafts of chilly air in Halton Arena.

What would Cone think about University City today?

My best guess is that she'd be impressed - who wouldn't be? - with all the roads and buildings and people. But she'd probably ask a couple of tough questions, too:

Like, where's the "city" in all this sprawl?

And where, exactly, is the "university"?

Cone, the visionary and indomitable optimist, wouldn't merely complain. She'd seek solutions, not in grand schemes and more-of-the-same responses, but in practical, doable steps, pursued with tireless persistence.

Granted, it's a different world today. Where oak forests and cotton fields grew when Cone began her quest to establish a state college in Charlotte, 150,000 people now live and work. UNCC is a major and growing university, soon to add a football team. We boast a Trader Joe's, an IKEA and a NASCAR track the size of a small planetoid.

But you'd be hard-pressed to call the suburban tsunami swirling around the UNCC campus a "city." Roads and strip malls alone do not confer "city" status, and they absolutely do not create community.

Finding the university is another problem. Sure, the campus shows up on Google maps, but UNCC remains a cultural black hole in the center of its sprawling urban galaxy. Not that the school is dead; there are countless campus events each week. The problem is that the university's interaction with adjacent neighborhoods ends abruptly at the massive roads ringing the campus.

There is no cool, quirky college district in walking distance. True, things used to be worse. The brave soul who makes it across the street alive will find a few coffeehouses and ethnic eateries scattered here and there and even a used bookstore.

But nowhere is there the critical mass of shops, hangouts, and pedestrian and bike-friendliness that make a college neighborhood.

Until and unless the University City develops a sense of community, with UNCC as an engaged partner, it can never reach its full and rich potential as a place to work and live. Our best hope is a return to something closer to Bonnie Cone's inspired vision.

Sadly, we've turned our backs on the "town and gown" tradition that existed when Bonnie Cone lived next door to UNCC in College Downs, and opened her home to students, faculty and community alike.

Another University City pioneer, C. W. Clay, worked to create a mixed-use community around a manmade lake at University Place, just across from the campus, an idea wildly ahead of its time when first proposed in the 1960s.

In spite of its post-Cone isolationism, UNCC nevertheless has limitless promise. Having 25,000 students and 5,000 faculty right next door is like finding a very large beehive in the walls of your house - you can't ignore the buzzing of all that energy.

Cone and Clay had the right idea. The place to start building community and connecting neighborhoods with the university is right across the street, in UNCC's front-line communities. We need a third place, where community and university can meet on common ground. The obvious place to begin is Clay's University Place at Harris and North Tryon, what remains of it.

Currently, there's no food market there. How about organizing a weekly farmers market and community fair on one of its many vast parking lots?

We'd create a community gathering place, as well as open opportunities for artists, performers, entrepreneurs and local small farmers. At the same time, let's convert the rear ends of those big boxes lining the west side of Clay's lake into shop fronts and restaurant space.

These are just the kinds of things that would make Bonnie Cone's ghost smile. It only makes sense to keep her happy and on our side. Come to think of it, we are planning to reserve a seat for her in the new football stadium, aren't we?