Regents — once again — approve UCSC’s controversial Student Housing West plan after years of delays
It’s been the subject of years of debate and still-ongoing litigation. But in two meetings this week, the University of California Board of Regents gave Student Housing West a big boost, setting the stage for possible construction early next year.
University of California regents this week re-approved Student Housing West, a massive UC Santa Cruz student housing development that has been tied up for years amid litigation and intense opposition.
Regents had approved the same project before in 2019. Considering it once again following a judge’s order, the board governing the UC system doubled down on the planned development.
First, the regents’ Finance and Capital Strategies Committee voted 8-2 in favor of the project Wednesday following a back-and-forth between regents and campus leaders. UC regents chair John Pérez and regent Richard Leib were opposed.
Then on Thursday, the regents concurred with the committee’s recommendation by a 15-3 vote, with regents Pérez, Leib, and Laphonza Butler in opposition.
Two sites, and a red-legged frog
The development — a public-private partnership, led by developer Capstone — is planned across two on-campus sites and would include more than 3,000 student beds. After replacing or phasing out existing beds on the project site and elsewhere, it would allow for more than 2,000 additional students to live on the campus.
Those beds are necessary to meet the needs of existing enrollment, UCSC officials say, and are separate from the university’s long-range plan to accommodate future enrollment growth.
Most of the housing — about 2,900 beds — is planned on a 13-acre site on the western campus, at Heller Drive. But the project has faced widespread opposition since planners added a second site in 2017 to avoid disrupting a habitat for a threatened species, the red-legged frog.
At 17 acres, that second site sits in the southern corner of UCSC’s East Meadow, bounded by Hagar and Coolidge drives. It would house about 140 students who have families and include a new child care center for both students and staff.
Many project critics say they support building more housing. But they also insist it should be done elsewhere, telling UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive that the meadow should continue to be preserved as part of UCSC’s heritage of natural resources — and that Larive could get behind alternative plans that would leave the meadow untouched.
UCSC officials respond that consultants analyzed the cost of a dozen alternative projects — some with fewer beds, or on different sites — and found the Student West proposal in its current form to be the most affordable version by at least $35,000 per bed.
Enter the lawsuit
Nonetheless, a wide coalition of alumni, faculty and former UC and campus officials have lined up against developing the meadow, some organized under the banner East Meadow Action Committee. One petition to save the meadow garnered more than 88,000 supporters.
Former campus architect Frank Zwart is among those making the case to leave the meadow undisturbed (Lookout founder Ken Doctor, a trustee on the UCSC Foundation board, has also been among the project’s critics.)
After regents first approved the project in 2019, the East Meadow Action Committee sued over the project’s approval process and environmental analysis.
In October 2020, a Santa Cruz County superior court judge delivered a mixed ruling in the case. The judge ruled UCSC’s environmental impact report was valid — but overturned regents’ earlier approval of the project, ruling the UC board had failed to adequately review cost estimates.
That ruling set the stage for this week’s re-consideration. Meanwhile, the East Meadow Action Committee is appealing the judge’s decision to uphold the environmental review.
Both sides of the debate were well-represented heading into the decision, with hundreds of pages of written comments submitted to regents in advance of Wednesday.
Robert Singleton, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Business Council and a UCSC alumnus, urged regents to approve the project, saying it would have a “profound impact on our community for the better.” Rejecting it would be akin to “condemning existing and future students, as well as other members of our community, to housing insecurity,” Singleton said.
Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane also voiced support for the project in an email to regents.
Sen. Laird weighs in
One of the region’s most veteran politicians saw it differently. John Laird is the state senator who represents Santa Cruz County as part of his 17th District. He’s also an UCSC alumnus, former Santa Cruz mayor and former state secretary for natural resources.
Laird advised regents against approving development of the meadow, citing the joint opposition it has faced from two camps who are usually at odds — those who support, and oppose, campus enrollment growth.
In a March 10 letter to regents, he wrote that the project has a “long and tortured history.” And the development, Laird wrote, is the “worst way” to enter the broader conversation about UCSC’s longer-term growth plans.
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“There are a number of us in the public realm that would like to bring the parties together about mutual interests,” Laird wrote. “That can only be helped by signals from the University of California that you are interested in that outcome.”
Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis expressed strong support for the project, as did regent Lark Park, who said the concerns raised had largely been addressed in 2019. But a handful of regents who had previously supported the project expressed new concerns.
The 30% promise
In Wednesday’s committee meeting, Regent Hadi Makarechian said he would only support the project with a commitment that the housing would be offered to students at a cost of at least 30% below market rate. Leib, who ultimately voted against the project, cited Laird’s letter in particular and asked if approval could be delayed until May to allow the kind of dialogue the state senator proposed.
Larive opposed any additional delay. And, in light of the ongoing litigation and rising costs due to prior delays, Larive at first resisted making the commitment to deliver units to students at those rates. But she eventually relented and said she would ensure the project meets that mark.
“I will make a commitment to you to bring this project in at 30% below market,” Larive said. “I’m pretty confident we can do that. I don’t have the bids yet so you can understand why, as a person who who values my word above everything else, it’s a little bit of concern to do that, but I’ll make that commitment to you.”
Makarechian ended up joining the majority to vote in favor, and another skeptical regent, vice chair Cecilia Estolono, said she was also swayed by Larive. “Chancellor Larive, your impassioned commitment to bring this in — that is the only reason I’m voting ‘Aye,’” Estolono said.
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If the entire project can escape further delays, development of the East Meadow site is expected to begin early in 2022 and be completed by spring 2023, while the larger site would be completed in two phases, in 2025 and 2028.
UCSC’s existing family-student housing currently occupies the primary site, and would need to be demolished.
To avoid the need to provide other accommodations during development, UCSC is proposing to build on the meadow first, then relocate those students and their families before breaking ground on the larger site.
A wild card is the East Meadow Action Committee’s appeal of the judge’s decision that set the stage for regents’ reapproval of the project this week. It is unclear when that appeal will be decided.
5:30 PM, Mar. 18, 2021: A version of this story published Wednesday night did not clarify that final approval to move the project forward was forthcoming Thursday.