Last week, the Inside Carolina crew reported that a UNC group is studying a potential new arena to replace the iconic Dean Dome where the men’s basketball team plays. 

Building a new arena would get around a really strange problem: when the Dean Dome was built in the early 80s, the seats were paid for by donors who got a really good deal: lifetime tickets for both them and their future children. If you ponied up $10,000 bucks in 1984 – $30,000 in today’s dollars – both you and any future yous could sit in your seats for decades. 

It’s how the Dean Dome, despite being one of the largest college basketball arenas, developed a reputation for its staid “wine and cheese” crowd: students elected not to contribute student fees for its construction and thus the best seats in the house went to people who tend to arrive late and leave early to try to beat the traffic (for a sense of how different the Dome could have been, check out the UNC-Maryland snow game, when students were allowed to fill seats left empty by people who couldn’t make it to the game).   

Arenas have changed since the Dean Dome was built. They tend to seat fewer people and have more amenities, like luxury boxes for high-rollers (we are not holding our breath for an invitation to sit in the CHALT-PAC suite). That creates an opportunity to get students courtside, where they belong. 

Early rumors are that a new arena will be put at the Friday Center, which is both not surprising and a pretty terrible idea. It makes sense for some people, for sure, specifically those who want to drive over from Raleigh for a game without actually experiencing Chapel Hill. 

Every city in America has gone through a suburban arena phase in which they believe sticking one in a sea of parking near a freeway will reduce traffic congestion. If you’re lucky, they’ll toss in a new Chili’s or Cheesecake Factory close by. In actuality, the traffic will be terrible because there is only one way in and one way out and, other than for the three fans of Chili’s, there is nowhere to go to kill some time before or after the game. 

This got us to thinking: where could a new Dean Dome go? Where should it go? 

Per usual, we approached this question with our typical sober analysis, based only on cold hard facts and keen market analysis. We looked for sites large enough for an arena and along transit corridors, and close enough to downtown to support local Franklin Street businesses. But that got boring after five minutes and we started thinking about how a new arena impacts our access to pickle ball courts and chicken fingers. 

Our findings follow. Use the sliders on the images to see our irrefutable proof that a Dean-Dome-sized arena will fit in the selected locations. 

Friday Center (off Hwy 54, practically in Durham)

What we like:   Not much. There is certainly plenty of room for an arena, and there’s already a sea of soul destroying surface parking. It’s on a transit line. A few people might walk over from Meadowmont. 

What we don’t like: See above. Traffic will be worse than it is now to the Dean Dome because everyone will take the same road to get there. And while many of the 6,000 students who get tickets now walk to the Dean Dome, they’ll be driving here, adding more congestion. This location is a Franklin Street killer. No one will go there before or after games to eat, drink, or buy apparel like they do now. Storming the Friday Center for Continuing Education just doesn’t sit well with us. 

Dirty Coal Bowl (Cameron Avenue)

What we like: Chapel Hill has long struggled with what to do with its still-operating cogeneration plant. It’s cheap and beloved by former senators and current coal barons. It’s also terrible for the environment and humans. An important and eye-opening investigation by Reuters back in 2022 featured extensive reporting on UNC-Chapel Hill and tracked down what’s happening to Cameron Avenue coal ash today. The short answer is: it’s really, really, really not good.

But according to the university’s 2018-2019 recycling and waste reduction report, the Cameron Avenue cogeneration plant produces roughly 20,000 tons of coal ash per year. 

The NC DEQ website notes that “coal ash structural fill has been used to construct stable base layers for roads, bridges, airfields and large buildings across the state.” So there’s no reason it couldn’t be used to construct a stadium. Might as well make lemons out of toxic lemonade.

What we don’t like: Oh no. The Federal Highway Administration says “When dry, fly ash is cohesionless and considered by many as a dusty nuisance. When saturated, fly ash becomes an unmanageable mess.” Try not to spill any beer on your coal ash seat.

Former UNC System Headquarters (intersection of Raleigh Rd. and 15/501)

What we like:  NC Republicans love education so much they moved the UNC System headquarters to be closer to them in Raleigh, close to the intersection of West St. and their thumbs. But hey, we got an underutilized and aging building out of it, with plenty of room for a new arena. This site is not exactly close to campus or downtown, but you can imagine some students stumbling down Raleigh Rd. for games. 

What we don’t like: Much like the Friday Center, there’s not really anything around here. It would require an enormous amount of new parking. The Chancellor, who went to Duke, has a home next door. Will students destroy his car every time UNC beats Duke? …wait, this isn’t the ‘what we like’ section?

Bowles Lot (close to the Dean Dome and business school)

What we like: The people of Chapel Hill DO NOT like change. This is about as non-changy as it gets. Except for people who currently park in the Bowles lot and will be displaced during construction. This is of course a solvable problem but everyone should brace themselves for 4-8 years of bitter complaints from those who were once parking royalty.  

What we don’t like: We’d like the new arena to be a little closer to Franklin Street. But this is fine. Uninspiring, but fine. Like when you wanted a Cheesecake Factory to open at the new strip mall down the street but you got a Chili’s instead. It’ll do.  

UNC Hospital (Manning Drive, in front of the Children’s Hospital) 

What we like: ACC referees have taken what was once an elegant game of finesse and skill and turned it into a bloodsport. It makes sense to get the players closer to the emergency room. This location has good transit access, oodles of existing parking, and is closer to Franklin than the Dean Dome. 

What we don’t like: Have you ever tried to walk through, around or near UNC Hospitals? We’ve had less frustrating and more convenient trips to the DMV.

Odum Village (between Manning Drive and Mason Farm Rd. 

What we like: Odum Village, which once housed hundreds of students, has been partially demolished. What remains is a derelict eyesore. A new arena could easily fit in this part of South Campus, which UNC has reimagined for future expansion, and is near existing transit and parking options. People are often impressed by how Kenan Stadium is discreetly tucked into campus. The topography here could achieve something similar. 

What we don’t like: This arena is more appealing with a revamped South Campus, including Mason Farm Rd. rerouted to South Columbia Rd., as shown in the campus master plan. We’d also like to see new development in this part of campus, especially closer to South Columbia – and not just student housing and lab space, but affordable and market rate housing so UNC and UNC hospital staff can live near work (this would likely require a public-private partnership, like Appalachian State University is pursuing for on- and off-campus housing). An arena as part of a broader redevelopment strategy is exciting, but everything but the arena could be decades away. 

Ambulatory Care Center (intersection of South Columbia St. and Mason Farm Rd.)

What we like: Like Odum Village, the Ambulatory Care Center is flagged for  demolition in the campus master plan. This location is on the planned BRT line, reasonably close to campus and existing parking. Great location for a broader redevelopment. 

What we don’t like: A little closer to Franklin Street would be nice. If all that is built here is an arena, we would consider that a wasted opportunity. Like Odum Village, we like this site if it comes with new housing and other amenities nearby. 

Granville Towers (behind the Target on Franklin Street) 

What we like: Hear us out. This one requires some imagination and perhaps some Roger Perry wizardry. It would require demolition of the aging residential towers and probably a few other structures. But it would give us an urban arena, putting hundreds of thousands of people downtown throughout the year. Imagine if Chapel Hill had big name concerts again. Imagine some new housing attached, or street-level retail tucked in here. We know what you’re thinking, because it’s what you’re always thinking: ugh, traffic. But this site has many roads coming to it, not just one. It’s incredibly walkable. It has parking and all the transit. And people will linger before and after games, which will mitigate the crush of traffic you see around suburban arenas.    

What we don’t like: That there’s zero chance anyone will support this idea.  

Tenney Circle

What we like: Arenas are round and so is Tenney Circle. It’s tight, but a new Dean Dome would fit here. It’s super walkable to downtown. And while residents of the historic district generally don’t want things like duplexes in their neighborhood, or even new multifamily housing near their neighborhood, we anticipate they will accept an arena so long as it fits the character of the neighborhood. Just like their historic salt water pools, 3-car garages, and built-in outdoor grills do. To ensure this one breezes through town council, we went ahead and designed a tasteful arena befitting the agrarian roots of the neighborhood.

What we don’t like:  There is nothing not to like about this option. It’s so good we made another slider.

American Legion property (1714 Legion Rd.) 

What we like: OK, yes, for quite a while now we have been advocating for a mix of affordable housing and a park on this property, while some neighbors only want a park. We have come around. And nothing says park like a basketball court. A really, really nice basketball court. But we’re taking this park to the next level with 24 pickle ball courts, including what we believe will be the world’s first courts that float or are on top of the 19-story parking garages that will be needed for the arena. Transit is spotty but overflow parking is readily available at nearby Trader Joe’s. 

What we don’t like:  There is nothing not to like about this option.

Corner of Franklin and Columbia Streets

What we like: Raising Cane’s has taken Chapel Hill by storm and has the construction chops to take on a massive downtown redevelopment. In a time of fiscal austerity, we like the possibility of co-branding opportunities. We will be first in line to buy season tickets to the Raising Cane’s UNChicken Fingers Dippin’ Dome.

What we don’t like:  Zoning restrictions prevent a taller chicken and a ground floor Bojangles.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Stephen Whitlow lives in Chapel Hill. Trained as an urban planner at DCRP, he works for a research, evaluation, and technical assistance firm and focuses on the areas of housing affordability, fair housing,...