DEAN DOME: Smith Center was filled to capacity for the North Carolina State-North Carolina game on March 2. UNC is studying sites to potentially build a new arena. (Getty Images)

Study to consider off-campus sites

Sports architect Populous has won the job to study multiple sites for potentially building a new arena at the University of North Carolina, said sources familiar with the project.

As of this week, UNC officials in Chapel Hill have yet to finalize a selection, said Robbi Pickeral Evans, senior associate athletic director for external affairs and strategic communications.

Populous spokesman Weston Owen did not return an email for comment.

UNC officials have said publicly that all options are being considered, including the possibility of renovating 38-year-old Dean E. Smith Center over building a new facility.

Populous, which has designed dozens of college and big league arenas over the past 30 years, will serve as a consultant. The project started this month.

The selection of an architect to design a new arena for Tar Heel men’s hoops is a separate process, according to the proposal issued in February for the site study.

The study is tied to exploring three to five sites, both on and off campus, to accommodate a new arena. It would replace Smith Center, a 21,750-seat building, designed with no suites and limited premium seat options. The current arena is named for legendary UNC men’s coach Dean Smith, led the Tar Heels from 1961 to 1997.

A new venue could potentially be the home for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams, and extend to practice courts, team locker rooms, offices, meeting space and lounges. The women currently play home games at Carmichael Arena, which opened in 1965.

It would also be conducive for special events such as concerts in an era where arenas are now designed as much for live music as sports. Smith Center’s last concert was Boyz II Men in 2008.

The site study, per the proposal, encompasses parking, traffic and transportation analysis; the possibility of a mixed-use development surrounding the new arena with residential, retail stores, a medical clinic and student housing; and determining market demand for the proper mix of premium seats.

For more than a decade now, UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham has been mulling over the pros and cons of building a new arena compared with renovating Smith Center.

In 2013, concepts were completed that included upgrading Smith Center vs. constructing a new venue on a parking lot next to the existing arena. The plan called for eliminating up to 5,400 seats to make room for building suites and club seats, Carolina Alumni Review reported. It was put on hold after school officials decided to fund construction of Olympic sports venues on campus.

Over the past decade, Smith Center’s technology has been updated, with new videoboards, ADA seating and renovated locker rooms, but to date, no solutions have been found for a suite retrofit to generate new revenue streams for men’s basketball, UNC’s signature sports program.

Since Smith Center opened in 1986, the Tar Heels have ranked in the top five in college basketball attendance with the exception of the arena’s first year of operation, local media reported. This past season, UNC led the nation in average attendance at 20,593.

But despite strong attendance historically, some experts feel the “Dean Dome” is past its prime. The arena needs a lot of work and it’s expensive to keep it running. The concept of cutting the building essentially in half to clear space for a new suite level would be cost prohibitive and now is a great opportunity to build a new facility, they said.

Whether a new arena would have a fewer number of seats than Smith Center is part of the intrigue with the downsizing trend over the past decade for both college and NBA arenas.

As it stands now, Smith Center is the third-biggest college arena in the country, behind the JMA Wireless Dome (Syracuse) and KFC Yum! Center (Louisville). The way it was designed, size is a detriment to Smith Center with too much volume of space, which results in no intimacy or intimidation factor, experts said.

Populous designed Yum! Center, a publicly-owned arena in downtown Louisville which opened in 2010 with amenities on par with NBA venues, as well as improvements to the former Carrier Dome, which is also home to Syracuse football. Yum! Center alone, now 14 years old, has 75 suites in a 22,090-seat building that books 115 events annually.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.