Plans to expand and redevelop Shaw University’s campus will move forward this year after the Raleigh City Council approved the school’s rezoning request Tuesday in a 5-3 vote.
The split vote brings a temporary halt to months of heated debate between Shaw University alumni, who are concerned about the future of the historically Black college, and administrators, who say welcoming private developers onto campus is the only way for the school to survive.
The redevelopment plan includes leasing some land on campus to developers—who could build new apartment or office buildings up to 30 stories high—to bring a much-needed influx of cash to the school. The possibility of new commercial construction on campus worries some alumni and nearby residents, though, who are concerned it could erase the college’s history and eventually, the institution itself. The neighborhood has already experienced rapid gentrification.
Still, Shaw University’s land in downtown Raleigh is its best resource, valued at between $160 and $270 million as of 2019, according to reporting from The Assembly. Shaw University President Paulette Dillard says the redevelopment will include campus improvements to serve students, such as a new research center, urgent care facility, or library. In an attempt to assuage concerns, the university attached an additional condition to its rezoning request this week: any new development is now required to include housing for students
The vote on Shaw’s rezoning was decided by city council newcomer Jane Harrison, who was elected alongside three other new council members in November. Her fellow newcomers—Mary Black, Megan Patton, and Christina Jones—each voted against the rezoning.
Their three votes alone, however, weren’t enough to overrule those of Mayor Pro Tem Corey Branch (who made the motion to approve the rezoning), Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin (who seconded), and established city council members Jonathan Melton and Stormie Forte, who each also voted in favor.
“I don’t come at this lightly, because I think this is a very emotional case for so many people at so many levels,” said Branch. “With that said, I have come to my conclusion on where I would like to move this.”
The vote that followed was unclear, with council members Melton and Forte raising their hands only slightly, and audience members applauding at one point as they thought the rezoning had failed. Harrison appeared hesitant to cast her “yes” vote. When she did eventually speak, it was after a long pause and a comforting gesture from Baldwin.
“I’ve just got to say a couple things,” Harrison said, visibly emotional. “I want to thank everyone that’s here. This has been the absolute hardest case that has come to us. I care about what you all bring to the table. You have affected what this case looks like. You have affected me.”
Harrison, like many other council members who voted in favor of the rezoning, said her decision wasn’t easy, citing the “many points of view.” She also read a letter from a former citizen advisory council chair, Frances Lonette Williams, about the Prince Hall Historic Overlay District.
During the rezoning process, many residents argued that approving the request would endanger several historic buildings on and near campus, including Rogers-Bagley-Daniels-Pegues House and the Charles Frazier House, located in the nearby Prince Hall Historic Overlay District.
Shaw University leaders pushed back saying they had never wanted to be included in the district in the first place, an argument that was backed up by Williams’s statement. Williams’s letter also mentioned how many property owners had not wanted to be included in the district but said that removing themselves from it turned into a contentious and burdensome process.
“I only read this letter to share just one other opinion that happens to be out there,” Harrison said. “We have received hundreds. I don’t see this is as a win-win-win-win. I want all the communities to be a part of this.”
Harrison went on to say that she’s putting her hope in the idea that Shaw University will continue to work with the community to reach an agreement, specifically on plans for the campus mosque, which has been closed since March of 2020 (even after the campus chapel reopened its doors following the COVID pandemic). Community members, however, find that unlikely.
The city council’s decision was met with boos, criticism, and widespread skepticism that Shaw University would take any action to include community input. Despite that, plans to reshape the campus will go ahead. As a result of public pressure, the university did add nearly 20 conditions to the rezoning request, rules it will have to follow when construction begins.
Significantly, those conditions include a requirement to hold community meetings once a quarter for the next three years; a requirement to rezone any property that is sold (although Shaw says it won’t sell any of its property); and the requirement that one of the first three new buildings must include housing for Shaw students.
The university has also agreed to allow an independent third party to check if the university’s historic buildings are impacted by construction. Readings from vibration-sensitive equipment will be sent out for review.
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