For now North Carolina is “waiting for a better time,” athletic director Bubba Cunningham said, to renovate the Smith Center or build a new basketball arena, but a physical vision exists of what the future home of UNC basketball might look like.
One plan would leave the Smith Center with a large video board suspended from the ceiling, with a wider concourse and with ample premium seating. Another would leave UNC with a new arena, built practically next door to the Smith Center, with the most modern amenities.
When the time comes for UNC to revisit its plan to renovate or build – and that time will come, eventually – it has a starting point that includes renderings of what the finished product could look like. Before UNC put its plans on hold, recently-released records show it was considering two concepts:
▪ A renovated Smith Center with three levels of premium club seating and an overall capacity of 17,612, reduced from the current capacity of 21,568.
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▪ And a new on-campus arena with 600 premium seats and an overall capacity of 16,050.
“You’d probably start with that,” Cunningham said of the renderings during a recent interview. “You have something that has already had a lot of consideration. You may or may not use it, but I think that’s probably at least a starting point for some dialogue.”
The firm 360 Architecture, which was based in Kansas City, provided UNC with the two concepts in November 2013 as part of a “basketball arena study” that UNC commissioned. Cunningham estimated the cost of the study to be between $75,000 and $100,000.
HOK, a larger architecture firm, acquired 360 Architecture earlier this year. Records show UNC and 360 worked together extensively in the fall of 2013 through the spring of 2014, with the firm providing concepts of a new arena and a redone Smith Center, and with 360 personnel accompanying Cunningham and others at UNC on tours of various arenas.
One of the primary motivations behind renovating the Smith Center or building a new arena, Cunningham has said, is the desire to generate revenue from premium seating – such as luxury suites or club seats. The Smith Center, which opened in 1986, lacks luxury suites and premium seating space.
The Smith Center renovation plan 360 Architecture provided includes three levels of premium club seating on the west side of the arena, behind one of the baskets, above the lower level seats. To accommodate that, the upper level seats that exist there now would be removed.
The first level of what 360 described as “the premium tower section” would include premium seats and a premium club space large enough for 740 people. The second level would accommodate premium seating for 275 people and the third level would seat 440 people with restaurant style seating.
The third level would not include seats overlooking the court. The renovation plan also calls for another premium club on the north side of the arena, at the main concourse level, that would accommodate 400 people. That premium space would not overlook the court, either.
If UNC eventually decides to renovate the Smith Center the renovations would have to allow the men’s basketball team to still play there, through the construction.
“We didn’t want to disrupt the season,” Cunningham said. “So we had to create a plan, or we were wanting them to create a plan, that would allow us to play through the construction.”
Cunningham said the project never reached a point that allowed UNC to determine how much it might cost to renovate the Smith Center, or how much a new arena might cost. He has said, though, that if the renovation cost were high enough, it might make more sense to build new.
The new arena that 360 Architecture proposed would be built next to the Smith Center, at the corner of Skipper Bowles Drive and William Blythe Drive. That area is now a parking lot.
The new arena would include a ring of premium seating between the lower and upper levels. It would also include support facilities, such as practice courts, administrative offices for the men’s and women’s basketball teams and what 360 described as “greatly enhanced fan amenities.”
Additional amenities in the new arena proposal include a courtside club, team store and a hall of fame.
“What I think I liked about it is you’ve got modern efficiencies in an on-campus venue,” Cunningham said.
He said he favors the idea that a new arena remain on campus but that an off-campus site wouldn’t preclude UNC from building new.
“Maybe the parking or the egress is so much better that you would say, oh, I’d be willing to trade location for this opportunity,” Cunningham said. “And it’s hard to answer one question at a time. I think you kind of have to look at the whole package, and say which one ends up being better for you.”
Overall, Cunningham said he liked that both proposals would leave UNC with a modern facility capable of meeting fans’ needs and generating more revenue.
“The increased guest services and more options for fans, either a club or suites, I think are things that are important to us,” he said. “I think over time, we’re going to make some of those enhancements. Just the building codes of 1986 and 2015 are just so vastly different and the fan experience and fan expectations are different.”
It’s unclear when UNC will revisit its plan to renovate the Smith Center or build a new arena. Cunningham said in August 2014 that any plans to renovate the Smith Center or build new had been put on “the back burner.”
Cunningham then cited the uncertainty surrounding the future of college sports – what autonomy among major-conference athletic programs might look like, for instance, and how much universities might have to pay athletes if they are to receive full cost of attendance stipends.
In addition, UNC is awaiting the results of an NCAA investigation into suspect African Studies paper classes that benefited athletes and non-athletes alike. Plus, Cunningham said, the athletics facility that needs the most work isn’t the Smith Center but Fetzer Field.
That’s home to UNC’s soccer, lacrosse and track teams.
“I think Fetzer is the weakest facility that we have,” Cunningham said. “... We’re also still thinking about what are going to be our priorities at some point when we get into a university (fundraising) campaign.”
So it’s likely to be a while before the Smith Center is renovated or, if it’s not, UNC begins building its next basketball home. There is a vision, though, for how it all might look one day.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter