UC regents approve budget for UCSC’s long-delayed Student Housing West project

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)

Construction could begin early next year on a $146 million project that includes 140 units for students with families as well as a child care center at the intersection of Hagar and Coolidge drives on UC Santa Cruz’s East Meadow.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Following years of litigation, design changes and multiple rounds of approvals from the governing board of the University of California, UC Santa Cruz can now move forward with construction of a controversial student housing project as soon as early 2024.

The UC Board of Regents on Thursday approved the almost $146 million budget for the first phase of the Student Housing West project — the phase that opponents have said will destroy UCSC’s East Meadow — finally allowing the university to start construction.

UCSC officials say housing is the university’s most critical issue and that this project, which will offer housing at 30% below market rate, will help alleviate the pressures for students and the Santa Cruz community.

“A UC Santa Cruz education is transformational, and studies have shown, time and time again, that for students to be successful, they need their basic needs met. Student Housing West will go a long way in helping us meet the housing needs of our students,” Chancellor Cynthia Larive said in a statement. “I’m thankful that we are finally moving forward with this project.”

The East Meadow site, located at the intersection of Hagar and Coolidge drives, includes 140 units for students with families as well as a child care center. The second site of the Student Housing West project is located on Heller Drive and includes about 2,950 beds for upper-division undergraduate students and graduate students spread across six buildings.

Paul Schoellhamer of the East Meadow Action Committee, a group against developing on the East Meadow site, said he’s disappointed in the university and the regents.

“They approved a project that consists only of destroying the East Meadow,” he said. “This was an action of maximum destruction and minimum benefit for students.”

Prior to the board’s approval, Larive briefly presented the university’s request Wednesday to the regents’ finance committee, which recommended the governing board approve the project. She attended the meeting in person at the Mission Bay Conference Center on the UC San Francisco campus.

During the committee discussion, Regent Rich Leib asked Larive if the number of opponents had remained the same since the board approved the project in 2019. He said at that time, he received “quite a few” comments and letters from “prominent elected officials” who opposed the project, whereas this time around, he didn’t.

Larive said it’s hard to quantify how much opposition to the project still exists, but said some longtime opponents have continued to denounce it. She added that there are many supporters.

Two groups that have long opposed the development of the project on the East Meadow have filed several lawsuits. Don Stevens of Habitat and Watershed Caretakers says there are still two ongoing cases.

One case challenges the university’s promise to offer affordable housing and the other 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.

Activists hold signs to oppose the development of UCSC's Student Housing West project
Activists hold signs Monday to oppose the development of the Student Housing West project on the East Meadow at the base of the UC Santa Cruz campus.
(Hillary Ojeda/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Several members of the opposing groups held rallies at the East Meadow on Monday and Wednesday. They held signs reading, “Save the meadow” and “This is a false choice.”

Larive said she thinks there could be several reasons that Leib received less opposition this time compared to 2019, including the regents’ approvals of the project in 2019 and 2021. She also suggested that UCSC has improved how it communicates the need for more student housing.

“The campus has been trying to be more proactive in the way that we communicate with our community, with our alumni and with others in our state about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it,” she said. “It’s possible that we’re making some headway.”

Regent-designate Keith Ellis asked if the East Meadow is land that, similar to UC Merced’s Natural Reserve System, is a protected natural landscape.

Larive responded that the East Meadow was considered the site for professional schools by founders of the campus.

“We have a 2,000-acre campus. And the northern part of the campus — which is more than 1,000 acres — is very pristine. It’s a campus natural reserve. It’s used for field-based research and instruction and that’s not likely to be developed in the future,” she said. “But this part of campus is really more of the campus core and I think it’s an appropriate site for the project that we have planned.”

Among the project’s supporters at the meeting was Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley. He addressed the regents in person Wednesday during public comment.

“We are in support of the Student Housing West project,” he said, speaking on behalf of the City of Santa Cruz. “It is a terribly important project for us in terms of housing and the impact that the university has on our community in terms of rental housing.”

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

Shortly after public comment, University of California staff gave presentations on basic needs challenges as well as the state of housing for students across the system’s 10 campuses — during which several comments were made highlighting Santa Cruz’s particularly challenging housing circumstances.

UC Santa Barbara student Alex Niles, who serves as the California Student Association president, said that while the universities try to help find housing for students, often the only housing found is beyond the budgets of students.

“I think what we’ve heard is that for some students in some of the toughest rental markets, I think particularly of UC Santa Cruz — though I don’t think that’s the only situation where that would happen — the housing options that would be available to them are not financially viable,” he said.

The cost for a room in a house averages $2,633 monthly, according to UCSC’s community rentals office. The rates are based on ads listed on the office’s website and could include having two or three people in a room in addition to utilities.

UCSC’s current on-campus housing capacity is for 7,058 students, but it’s housing 9,168. As it is, the university is housing 47% of its student population but is at 130% occupancy — the highest of all UCs.

The university hasn’t added new beds to its campus in more than 10 years but has increased density by converting double-occupancy rooms into triples and converting many lounge spaces into residential units.

The only UC campus to house a bigger percentage of its students is UCLA, at 49%.

In total, Student Housing West will add about 3,000 beds across both the Heller Drive and the Hagar Drive locations. With construction starting in early 2024 at the Hagar Drive site, officials say they hope the 140 units of Family Student Housing there can be occupied by fall 2025.

After that site is occupied, the university can go forward with demolishing the current family student housing and child care center on the Heller Drive site. Construction could then start for the approximately 2,950 beds for upper-division undergraduate students and graduate students. Those units could be done and occupied as early as fall 2028.


Be the first to know all the big, breaking news in Santa Cruz. Sign up to get Lookout alerts sent straight to your phone here or below.