Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

UNF's Growth Plans Clash with Its Wetlands Research School's Growth Presents Challenge

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

UNF's Growth Plans Clash with Its Wetlands Research School's Growth Presents Challenge

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago, planners envisioned a new state university cut from the thick woods and wetlands in the vast area separating downtown Jacksonville from the beaches.

When the University of North Florida was planned, "this was the end of the universe," said Bob Fagin, a UNF vice president.

Three decades later, Butler Boulevard is a corridor of high-paying jobs and business-class hotels. A technology park is springing up in UNF's backyard. There are homes, apartments and a world-renowned Mayo Clinic in the neighborhood. Traffic on Florida 9A zips past the campus daily.

With all the growth around it, UNF is preparing to do some growing of its own. In the next 20 years, the state wants the school to double its enrollment -- to 25,000 -- to handle thousands of new graduates expected from Florida high schools.

UNF recently went public with its capital campaign, described as the largest ever in Jacksonville. The school plans to raise $65 million by the end of 2003, with $40 million already attained, organizers said.

UNF plans to endow hundreds of new scholarships, construct new buildings and strengthen the quality of faculty.

Yet, as it has done for years, the school will continue to focus on its mission of providing a top-notch education to undergraduate students and community college transfers seeking bachelor's degrees.

The anticipated growth in enrollment will mean twice as many students expecting the following: a place to park, ample classroom space, enough teachers to answer their questions, a dormitory room if they want to live on campus and -- more importantly to some students and faculty -- a campus just as environmentally sensitive as today's UNF.

"We know they're going to expand and have 25,000 students," said senior Dan Miller, president of the Sawmill Slough Conservation Club, a student environmental group. "We just hope they do it responsibly."

About 20 acres of developable land remains in the campus core, mostly where parking lots now sit. In the years to come, those lots will be replaced with classrooms and offices, and commuters will be forced to park farther away -- a familiar phenomenon at growing universities.

That leaves UNF to decide where to put the new parking lots, additional residence halls and other buildings it will need to support the 500 to 700 extra students forecastannually for the next quarter century.

State universities are required to maintain a 10-year plan for growth and construction. The master plan, as it is called, is updated every five years. The blueprint suggests if land should be used for academic space, housing or other functions.

In this year's planning process, the choice essentially boils down to one question: Should the university grow east or west?

One primary issue is the creation of an outer loop, a road or series of roads that would connect the north and south ends of campus without disrupting an already crowded circle around the campus core.

UNF has issued four proposals for growth, including two that would put a road through the northwest quadrant of the campus.

Faculty and student groups have told university officials that the road would be detrimental to surrounding wetlands. It would ruin ongoing and potential research in the area's plants and wildlife, they said.

"Why would we take $20 million to build a new science building and then drive a road through a priceless outdoor lab?" asked Aileen Miller, an instructor in the natural sciences department.

The road was mapped five years ago, during the most recent planning cycle, and was partially constructed to allow access to a new parking lot. …

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