The southern corner of the East Meadow at UCSC
The southern corner of the East Meadow at UCSC is one of two sites proposed for the controversial Student Housing West development.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

UCSC’s controversial Student Housing West plan headed to court ... again

A coalition of UCSC alumni, faculty and community members known as the East Meadow Action Committee sued the UC Board of Regents in Santa Cruz County Superior Court on Thursday, alleging regents’ recent reapproval of the project — called Student Housing West — violates environmental law.

A massive, proposed UC Santa Cruz student housing project that had been tied up for years in court because it would infringe on part of the campus’ pristine East Meadow is suddenly facing another legal challenge.

A coalition of UCSC alumni, faculty and community members known as the East Meadow Action Committee sued the UC Board of Regents in Santa Cruz County Superior Court on Thursday, alleging regents’ recent reapproval of the project — called Student Housing West — violates environmental law.

“In their first approval of this project two years ago, the University of California acknowledged that there were environmentally superior alternatives for this project, but rejected them on grounds that they were so much more expensive as to be infeasible,” the East Meadow Action Committee said in a statement.

That helped ignite a 2019 EMAC lawsuit contesting the plan, which ended with a judge ordering UC regents to reconsider the project. Regents did so last month, reapproving it by a 15-3 vote and setting the stage for construction to begin next year.

But the lawsuit filed Thursday claims that based on new information made public in the reapproval process that “it is clear” that the university’s cost analysis “was biased, vastly overstating the cost difference between UC’s preferred project and the alternatives.”

As a result, the lawsuit alleges, the university should be required to go back to the drawing board and use one of those alternatives that would preserve the meadow.

A proposal to build family student housing, and a child care center for students at staff.
A proposal to build family student housing, and a child care center for students at staff, at the corner of Hagar and Coolidge Drives.
(UC Santa Cruz)

“Nearly every designer, architect, and planner ever associated with UCSC, including the UCSC administration’s own appointed Design Advisory Board, agrees with EMAC that there are far better ways forward for this project that do not include destruction of the East Meadow, and that would allow construction of student housing to begin quickly,” the EMAC statement said. “The university’s obstinacy is causing needless delay.”

A UCSC spokesperson said Thursday evening the campus had yet to review the new lawsuit.

Student Housing West — 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.

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 an environmentally sensitive habitat for a threatened species, the red-legged frog.

At 17 acres, that second site sits in the southern corner of the 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 the university could get behind the alternative plans that would leave the meadow untouched.

Rendering of primary site of UCSC's proposed Student Housing West project.
A rendering of the primary site of UCSC’s proposed Student Housing West project.
(UC Santa Cruz)

UCSC officials have responded 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.

The East Meadow Action Committee is now contending those numbers are off base.

Former campus architect Frank Zwart has been 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.)

Development of the East Meadow site was expected to begin in early 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.