UNC in early discussions to renovate, or replace, Smith Center

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 21, 2013 

— Officials at North Carolina have been engaged in more serious discussions about major renovations to the Smith Center, and the university is considering the possibility of building a new men’s basketball arena, UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham said on Monday.

“That’s in the discussion,” Cunningham said, speaking of building a new arena, during an interview with The News & Observer. “I think you have to look at both. (The Smith Center) has been fabulous for 27 years.

“And I think as just part of your due diligence you need to look at renovation of existing facilities or even dreaming about a new facility and what that would bring.”

UNC has shared the most significant discussions, Cunningham said, with Kansas City-based 360 Architecture, a firm with a wide portfolio that includes more than a dozen sports arenas and stadiums. The discussions have been preliminary in nature, Cunningham said, and the first step is for UNC to receive conceptual designs before determining economic feasibility.

It is unclear how much the project might cost because it is so early in the planning process.

If the Smith Center is indeed renovated, the primary purpose would be to add what Cunningham has described as “revenue generators,” which would most likely include luxury suites, club seating or a combination of both. The Smith Center opened in 1986, several years before those amenities started to become common in basketball arenas.

Cunningham said he doesn’t have a concrete vision of what a renovated Smith Center might look like, but he has expressed interest in finding a Smith Center equivalent to the Blue Zone in Kenan Stadium. The Blue Zone, which opened in 2011, features three levels of premium seating, including club seats, luxury suites and a “concourse club” lounge.

“We’ve just started to talk about what that might look like (in the Smith Center),” Cunningham said. “And I’ve talked to a number of other (athletic directors) who have made facility enhancements in the last couple of years – whether they’re renovations or a new facility. And that’s kind of where we are.”

The challenge of renovating the Smith Center would be multifaceted. The most significant question is how luxury seating would fit into the building, and what would constitute that luxury seating. Cunningham said he’s interested in// the idea of a club level, and in the possibility of suites.

The concourse in the Smith Center presents another challenge. Both the lower and upper deck share the same concourse, and it can become difficult to navigate even when the building isn’t at capacity. The building seats 21,750.

“We only have one concourse for 20,000 people,” Cunningham said. “How do we try to expand the concourses so that restroom lines and concession lines aren’t clogging the circulation throughout the building?”

If UNC decides to renovate the Smith Center instead of building a new arena, Cunningham said the renovations would not interfere with the season and that the Tar Heels wouldn’t temporarily play in another arena. UNC moved to the Smith Center from Carmichael Auditorium – now Carmichael Arena – and the UNC women’s basketball team still plays there.

Still, Cunningham said playing in Carmichael – or anywhere else – wouldn’t be an option for the men’s team while the Smith Center is renovated.

“I think one of the first things we would talk to a contractor about would be no disruption to the season,” Cunningham said. “That we don’t want to play somewhere else. If we’re going to renovate, we need to stage it so that you can play through the construction. I don’t want to shut it down for a year and play somewhere else.”

360 Architecture, the Kansas City firm that has been the most involved in UNC’s preliminary discussions, designed the Sprint Center in Kansas City, where UNC lost to Kansas in the NCAA tournament in March, and the University of Missouri’s Mizzou Arena, which opened in 2004.

The firm also designed, among others, American Airlines Arena, where the NBA’s Miami Heat play, and the Kohl Center at the University of Wisconsin. Cunningham said he has sought advice from other athletic directors who have led renovation projects, and he said that he will soon visit the University of Michigan, which recently overhauled the Crisler Center – the home to Michigan’s men’s basketball team since 1967.

Cunningham will visit Michigan during UNC’s trip to play Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 4. The timetable for renovations or new construction at UNC is still a ways from being determined, but Cunningham said he’d like to start a dialogue with the UNC campus, and with boosters, by the spring.

Regardless of what UNC decides Cunningham said funding the project will come from donations and athletic department revenue.

“I certainly wouldn’t anticipate any state funding,” Cunningham said. “So it would be seat licenses, donations and operating revenue that would have to pay for it.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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