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Demolishing History

By Anthony Mercando

As the city council scrapped over the budget, word came that, a mile or so down 5th Street, we’ll be seeing a different kind of development. East Carolina University wants to expand the chancellor’s residence to such a degree that they’re going to have to displace or demolish five (count’em five) houses along adjacent Summit Street.ECU Shot

The concept of a historical district isn’t very accommodating to the idea of carting homes out of the district itself, though those won’t be the only historic homes being relocated. Just a month ago a deal was reached that would relocate a home designated as historic out of the downtown district. At this rate, we’ll be seeing sleek new buildings everywhere and the actual historic ones will be rotting out in the fields on the other side of the river next to tobacco barns.

Those of you willing to take a trip to Wilmington should spend some time in their historical district, packed with blocks of well maintained but period-appropriate homes–many adorned with markers denoting their historical context. Not only is it a decent tourist attraction, but it’s creating livable space for the populace (even if it’s for the affluent, mainly) and carrying on the historical legacy of the city.

ECU is moving forward with another project to keep students on campus. The massive new student union building isn’t bad in and of itself, nor are the new buildings the University intends to build elsewhere. However, these large projects shouldn’t come at the expense of non-ECU development. The University will need more space; it’s searching for more office space downtown; it will surely put down roots along the new and improved Dickinson Avenue; and, much like Vidant, ECU will continue to sprawl relentlessly.

But if Greenville itself is to grow, expand, and appeal to both current and potential residents, there should be a higher priority:  creating affordable or market-rate housing, not just in the historical district or the city center, but everywhere. And ECU needs to try harder to give back to that end.

The slow consumption of land by the University isn’t the only issue. While city council consider ways to retain graduates market-rate housing takes a back seat to complexes geared to students. The removal of the city’s historic legacy indicates a desperate hope that ECU will bring prosperity no matter what.

But instead of kicking houses out of the historical district, instead of acquiring space like kudzu vines, the University could do something truly unique and not only save the historical district but enhance it. It could set up housing for specific programs beyond basic dormitories, and use them as the centers for student groups, with extra office space built right in.

ECU could even use acquired real estate in the area to house notable and involved students or teachers. It could help push through a similar program to what is currently going on in Connecticut, where graduate students’ income tax revenue funds a savings account for an eventual home in the state.

While a number of my old friends would deny it should they be asked today, many of them regarded ECU as nothing more than a “party school.” Sadly, the University is still struggling to shake off this reputation. If the college is truly going to enrich the community, it needs to lead its students to take part in the community. It seems the ECU Real Estate Foundation is more keen to lead the acquisition of property, and the University seems to think that’s a fine way to lead. But where administrators fail to lead, the students still have the chance to take the reins. Instead,they both could push for a reinvestment of community involvement, brush shoulders with other groups in the city, and put sweat and experiences into the city. We can hope that providing some lucrative jobs will retain our graduates, but people also want to feel like they belong and have a stake in things.

Grit and determination are important factors for new residents, especially if the area doesn’t seem to be improving. Greenville is no Detroit. New citizens aren’t fixing up flooded homes they bought for a few thousand in the hopes of halting nature’s reclamation of Dickinson Avenue. But as part of our overall plan to develop the city, we’re leaving out the chance to have graduates set down roots here—and the historical district is the perfect carrot to lure them in.

Many homes there are under renovation now, and could serve Greenville’s future educators, entrepreneurs, artists, and workers. To clear almost an entire block of the district for “additional parking . . . A kitchen large enough to provide catering for events . . . [and to] make the property more suitable for a chancellor’s residence” is a slap in the face of people who want to live near the college or city center.

After living in Eastern Pines for four years, where cookie-cutter subdivisions sprout and sprawl towards Winterville and Simpson, Greenville’s historic district is a breath of fresh air. It reminded me of learning to drive in Winterville—the stark contrast between homes on Church and Mill Street against the new subdivisions in Primrose Lane and Barrel Drive. The homes had character, they had beautiful gardens, the homeowners looked like part of a community.

The Historic Preservation Commission meets on June 28th to talk about the plans, and I hope they reject this request flat out. For this city to lead the region down a far more progressive and equitable path, sometimes we’ll have to tell our beloved Pirate, “No.”

Anthony Mercando’s work is what happens when a next-generation activist who is also a finely tuned cynic writes about what the government is up to.

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