UC Santa Cruz’s sloping East Meadow — the pristine, grass-covered gateway to campus — is a local treasure and should not be developed, when there are many better alternatives for sorely needed housing, argues Christopher Connery, a longtime community activist and a professor in both the literature and history of consciousness departments. Regents of the University of California are set to meet starting Wednesday to discuss UCSC’s long-stalled plan to build family housing and a child care center on the East Meadow. Connery believes this is a short-sighted “folly beyond comprehension” that risks destroying the campus’ beauty and the integrity of the founders’ vision.
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Environmentally sustainable, culturally sensitive and beautiful public space is less common than it should be. It is born of vision, imagination, care and forethought, plus a certain vigilance.
Destruction, as we all know from the leveled mountains, suburban sprawl and organic communities bisected by eight-lane superhighways that plague our country, can come quickly. So it seems a miracle that UC Santa Cruz — a public university — has for 60 years grown and thrived while maintaining design integrity and harmony with its stunning site. The university’s publicity and fundraising mailings commonly include photographs of the meadows sloping down from the forest toward Monterey Bay.
This is the very landscape that the university now plans to destroy.
When the University of California acquired the site in 1960, initial plans for campus followed the suggestions of Santa Cruz’s city fathers: build high, including a towering campanile, and build on the meadows. Vision, care and stewardship won out, thankfully, and six decades of campus development has followed renowned landscape architect Thomas Church’s 1962 design principles: attentiveness to the site; no buildings taller than the redwoods; keep the meadows free and open.
Church’s short document guiding campus design, which for decades was given to every architect involved in a project on campus, concludes:
With the exception of areas preserved in their natural state, the general effect in the main campus must be one of sensitive collaboration between the designer and this spectacular environment with the intent that neither shall impose unduly upon the other. The wall-to-wall forest carpet will disappear and in its place must come — not the standard campus we have always known, not an automobile under every redwood — but a vast area in which to live and study. It must be magnificent in conception, daring and forthright in its architecture — but gentle be the hand it lays upon the land.
In 2016, the university began making plans to address a housing shortage that had been growing for over a decade. It was about time.
In 2009, the campus had canceled its planned 600-bed East Campus Infill Project. That project had passed all approval and review processes and had come in at 19% under budget. Failure to build led to three students in double rooms, lounges converted into sleeping space and insufficient on-campus housing for all who wanted it.
UCSC now houses only 50% of students. The rest are left to the vagaries and outlandish prices of the current Santa Cruz market. Housing is key, but the question is how and where to build.
The 2017-18 plan, Student Housing West, would house 3,000 students on the west side of campus, and would also include a child care center and family student housing, all of which the campus badly needs. As originally planned, the site was big enough to accommodate this necessary expansion while keeping fidelity to design and stewardship principles.
Unfortunately, the process was guided by the Division of Business and Administrative Services — people who had probably never heard of the campus’s design principles.
When the planning hit its first snag — over half of the land was listed as California red-legged frog habitat and thus protected — the California Department of Fish and Wildlife indicated a willingness to work with the university on mitigation measures, a procedure the university had followed earlier for the construction of faculty housing. This would delay the project by six months or so, but would have given the university a site over twice the size.
That six months was too long for the administration, which rushed to adopt a plan suggested by an Alabama developer: build the majority of the project on a much smaller site on the west side of campus. That means putting the child care center (to serve up to 140 kids) and 140 units of family student housing on the iconic East Meadow. That’s just 5% of the project’s total beds.
A hasty and incomplete environmental review process ensued. The administration’s design advisory board, comprised of architects and planners with longstanding ties to the university, voted unanimously against the modified proposal, an unprecedented step in the university’s history.
Alumni, donors, foundation members, students, faculty, staff and community members were up in arms over this needless destruction. Many alumni and donors made pledges to withhold future donations should the campus go ahead with the plan.
Lawsuits ensued, including by the East Meadow Action Committee, to which I belong. Many in the community insisted they would give no money to the university if it carried through with plans to build on the East Meadow.
In numerous presentations to the regents — the 26-member board of governors of the University of California — the university made repeated false statements about the costs of less destructive alternatives, about its ability to offer below-market rates on student housing, about its own review process.
As meeting minutes show, the regents were often skeptical.
But so far, they have deferred to the UCSC administration’s wishes.
The tragedy is if university officials had spent those six months with Fish and Wildlife back in 2018 on a mitigation plan, Student Housing West might be open now. With a much larger site, and with more input from planners and architects, it could have been one more great project.
The destruction we’re facing now, though, represents a folly beyond comprehension.
The UCSC administrators who originally pushed hardest for the East Meadow project have all left the university. Plans for the larger development on the west side of campus are on hold, subject to new financing.
Yet on Wednesday, the university will submit for the regents’ approval the Student Housing West plan to build housing and a child care facility on 17 acres at the southernmost section of the East Meadow, at the intersection of Hagar and Coolidge drives. Again, these 140 beds comprise a mere 5% of the project’s initial total. Most of the university’s original arguments for building on the East Meadow centered on costs, though the cost estimates they provided for alternative sites were vastly inflated.
The cost of the current proposal, however, is a whopping 59% higher than the amount originally budgeted for East Meadow development — costs to be borne ultimately by on-campus students.
Can this needless destruction be stopped? We don’t know.
More rational heads at UCSC could prevail. The regents could decide not to reward years of falsehood and misrepresentation from university officials and send this project back for resubmission.
The people of our county, along with others around the world who love our campus, could insist on rational and environmentally sensitive planning for this jewel of a university, either directly or through their elected representatives.
Or maybe UCSC’s current leaders could take a walk.
In the early 1990s, a large protest movement erupted over plans for construction on the Great Meadow. After listening to the arguments, Chancellor Karl Pister went out to the meadow himself. “I took walks down and back up again,” Pister told an interviewer. “I said there is no way that I’m going to be the one that wrecks the meadow.”
Christopher Connery has taught at UC Santa Cruz since 1990 and was a UCSC undergraduate from 1970-75. He is one of the founding members of the East Meadow Action Committee. For more information on the fight to build intelligently and sensitively and save the meadow, as well as details about UCSC administrative malfeasance. and suggestions for how to comment on this proposal, click here.