Explainer: Student Housing West construction could begin this year if UC regents approve budget this week

A proposal to build family student housing and a child care center for students at staff on UCSC's East Meadow
A proposal to build family student housing and a child care center for students and staff at the corner of Hagar and Coolidge drives on UCSC’s East Meadow has faced significant opposition.
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

At meetings Wednesday and Thursday of the University of California Board of Regents, UC Santa Cruz officials will ask for almost $146 million to fund building on the school’s East Meadow, at the corner of Hagar and Coolidge drives.

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UC Santa Cruz officials are scheduled to ask the University of California Board of Regents to approve almost $146 million for the school’s controversial and long-delayed Student Housing West project during the board’s meetings Wednesday and Thursday.

If the board approves UCSC’s request, construction could start on the project at the end of this year or in early 2024.

Opponents of the project say they haven’t given up yet.

They continue to call on the university to change course by relocating one of the two sites from what they say is an iconic and invaluable part of the university: a meadow located at the intersection of Hagar and Coolidge drives at the base of campus. (Lookout founder Ken Doctor, a trustee on the UCSC foundation board, has been among the project’s critics.)

From the rolling field known as the East Meadow on Monday afternoon, a group of about 10 alumni, activists and faculty hosted a rally to denounce the university’s decision to build on the site.

Two held a sign with the words, “Save the meadow,” next to another pair of activists holding a sign saying, “This is a false choice.”

Some cars honked in support, while others shouted in opposition, “Then where will we live?”

One of the activists holding a sign, Christopher Connery, authored an op-ed Sunday in Lookout’s Community Voices opinion section saying UCSC is making a short-sighted “folly beyond comprehension” by building there. The university responded in its own op-ed, saying it’s committed to maintaining its natural landscape and to providing students a place to live on campus amid the housing crisis.

Activists hold signs to oppose the Student Housing West project at UC Santa Cruz campus, on March 13, 2023.
Activists hold signs Monday opposing the development of the Student Housing West project, which aims to build 140 family student housing units on the East Meadow at the base of the UC Santa Cruz campus.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The regents first approved the Student Housing West project — which includes about 3,000 beds across two sites — in 2019, but several lawsuits have prevented the university from moving forward with its plans. Since the project was approved by the regents for a second time in March 2021, its design has stayed the same.

At the Wednesday and Thursday meetings, UCSC officials will be requesting that the regents approve a $145,615,00 budget for the Hagar Drive project, in addition to $6,071,000 in preliminary plans funding for a second site — known as the Heller Drive development — located on the west side of campus. The Hagar site will be developed and occupied before development starts at the Heller site.

UCSC officials say the majority ($128,113,000) of the Hagar development will be funded through external financing, with the rest coming from the campus’ general funds. Preliminary plans call for funding for the Heller site to come from external financing.

The Hagar development will provide two-bedroom apartment units for students with families, a child care facility for 140 children, a community building, a maintenance building and a wastewater treatment plant.

After the Hagar site is completed, the university will start the Heller project, which will provide apartment units for undergraduates and community living as well as studios for graduate students. The Heller site will also have laundry, study spaces and fitness rooms, among other services.

Several lawsuits filed against the project by local groups Habitat and Watershed Caretakers and the East Meadow Action Committee challenged the project’s financial plans and due process as well as its environmental impact reports. While most of the litigation ended in the university’s favor, there are at least two cases pending, according to a member of Habitat and Watershed Caretakers.

Lookout compiled an FAQ to clarify what the project is, its funding model and the challenges it faces.

What is happening at the board of regents meeting this week?

The UC Board of Regents already approved the project design in March 2021. However, UCSC officials are going before the board this week to request that the regents approve the budget for the Hagar site and a different financing model than previously proposed.

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

When does construction start for the projects and when will they be occupied?

If approved by the regents, construction for the family student housing development at the Hagar site is scheduled to start by the end of this year or in early 2024 and be completed by fall 2025.

After the Hagar site is occupied, the student and family housing and child care center currently located at the Heller site will be demolished to make way for the 950-unit student housing development. Students could move in to the Heller site as early as fall 2028.

What kinds of units will be available at the Hagar and Heller sites?

The Heller site will offer housing for about 2,700 upper-division undergraduate students and 220 graduate students in 950 units spread across six buildings.

Five buildings will provide 780 apartment-style units for the undergraduate students. Student facilities such as laundry, fitness rooms, study areas, a convenience store and social spaces will be spread out among the buildings.

Building 6 will offer 165 studio units and co-housing units for graduate students.

At the Hagar site, a total of 140 units will be available in two-bedroom apartments spread across 35 two-story fourplex buildings.

The university says it guarantees the projects will provide affordable housing. How affordable will it be?

At the Hagar site, the average monthly rate for a two-bedroom unit is projected to be $2,400 in Family Student Housing in fall 2025. The university says that based on projections for housing rates in 2025, that rate will be 53% below the market value of an equivalent unit — projected to be $5,105.

The proposed construction along Heller Drive on the west side of the UC Santa Cruz campus.
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

Similarly, the university says it projects it can offer between 41% and 44% below market value for the undergraduate and graduate student housing located at the Heller site. In fall 2028, undergraduates are projected to pay $1,849 and graduates are projected to pay $1,743 to live in the Heller development.

The community-living or co-housing units have rooms with beds, a small study space, and a bathroom, with separate common kitchens and living spaces

In contrast, the university says it projects that students are likely to have to spend $3,136 monthly (with utilities/commuting costs) to live in a private room in a two-bedroom apartment located off campus.

During the March 2021 regents meeting, Chancellor Cynthia Larive committed to offering the units at an affordable price.

“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 values my word above everything else, it’s a little bit of a concern to do that, but I’ll make that commitment to you.”

Why has this project been delayed for so long?

With the 2015 West Campus Planning Study, the university initially pursued building all of Student Housing West at the Heller Drive location.

However, environmental studies conducted at the site showed that in order to protect a threatened species — the California red-legged frog — the size of developable land had to shrink at the Heller location.

Then-Chancellor George Blumenthal ultimately made the decision to locate family student housing and the child care center at the East Meadow site in 2017 — setting off a wave of opposition.

“Campus planners considered many factors in evaluating alternate options, including the feasibility of the options from a programmatic, cost, environmental, and schedule framework,” officials wrote in a statement. “Moving the family student housing units and the child care facility to the eastern portion of campus near the entry and close to employee housing emerged as the best solution.”

Following the regents’ first approval of the project in 2019, the East Meadow Action Committee sued UCSC, arguing that there were errors in the project’s approval process and environmental analysis.

A Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge ruled on that case in October 2020, saying the environmental impact report was valid but said the regents failed to review cost estimates and overturned their 2019 approval of the project.

In March 2021, the regents and the university complied with the court’s order and the regents re-approved the project.

After the second approval, two new lawsuits were filed against the project. Now, one group has two cases pending.

Habitat and Watershed Caretakers filed an appeal in January for a case and have a brief due March 29. The lawsuit raised concerns about the cost estimates of the project.

Previously, Don Stevens, who chairs the group, told Lookout the case challenges the university’s promise to offer affordable housing.

The other case involves what Stevens says is UCSC’s violation of an agreement that required the university to conduct analyses of alternatives to growth on the main campus. The agreement required that the university do the analyses before making amendments to the university’s guiding document for campus developments, known as the Long Range Development Plan.

A new financing model

In addition to making the budget request to the regents, the university says it is switching from using a public-private partnership to a campus-managed capital project.

“Using the proposed campus-managed project delivery approach allows the project to move forward without further delay from ongoing litigation,” officials wrote in their request.

UCSC says that a range of circumstances in addition to the pending litigation led it to consider the change.

“Additional impacts include increased costs due to schedule delays associated with the litigation, a change in construction methodology resulting from the bankruptcy of the original design-build partner, and increased challenges caused by workforce and contractor availability in the Santa Cruz construction market,” officials wrote. “The campus is terminating the predevelopment agreement with the selected P3 [public-private] partner, and the existing work product will be transferred to the campus.”

Lookout asked UCSC officials for additional comment and clarity on the shift to the campus-managed capital project, among other questions, but they declined to comment.

“Student Housing West has been approved by the UC Board of Regents twice and courts have continued to uphold the Environmental Impact Report that guides it,” officials said in a statement to Lookout. “The request the Regents will consider this week is to approve project advancement. The university will not comment further on the project in advance of the Regents’ discussion.”


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