Assault on the East Meadow: How We Got Here

First of all, much of the history of the campus is the history of the continual weakening of the planning and architecture functions, to the point where campus employees in those functions have no power and very little input.   Within the administration the most out-front advocates for this project are those with no professional background in planning or design and who have no long history with UCSC and therefore no great understanding of its uniqueness and its values.

In the UC system on-campus housing has traditionally been funded completely separately from the university’s general budget.  The State issues bonds specifically for university housing, then each of the campuses try to get a portion of the funds raised by those bond issues to build on-campus housing.  The problem is that recently the bond funds available have nearly dried up, and UCSC is under pressure from the system President (UCOP), as well as from the City of Santa Cruz and the students themselves, to provide more housing.

At the same time the Regents and UCOP have pushed the idea of public-private partnership (aka P3) as a way to do a lot of building when you don’t have money.  The idea is that you bring in a private developer who gets private financing for the construction and then the building is, for the next 30 or 40 years, managed by a private managers who reap the rents, and are in charge of the maintenance, -- and of course all these private entities need to make a profit.  At the end of that time the university gets the building back (or whatever is left of it) and can act as its owner.

The Regents have made an initial amount of P3 housing available system-wide on a hurry-up basis, telling campuses they should compete on the basis of being ready-to-go, in particular by already having a site lined up.  UCSC jumped at the chance of solving its housing problem and claimed to have a site all lined up.  They got the go-ahead to proceed with 3000 beds worth of housing, but then were up against the fact that they really didn’t have a site completely lined up.

What followed was a highly secretive and highly rushed process to try to launch this project before anyone really had a chance to understand the significance of all this.  They wanted as few other people looking over their shoulders as possible.

The first notion was to put it just west of Porter College, just off of Heller Drive, and they gave the overall project the name Student Housing West.  But then there were sensitive species/habitat issues there, flagged by California Fish and Wildlife, so they shifted the site slightly south and just west of Rachel Carson College, where Family Student Housing is now.  That meant they would raze Family Student Housing (relatively low density housing) and put up mammoth buildings, up to 90 ft tall, with 3000 beds.  That in turn meant they needed to find a new place to put Family Student Housing – no problem, the private developer was willing to do that too – bigger project equals more profit.

But a private developer needs to make the profit part of this pencil out, and among other things that means avoiding large infrastructure costs.  So he wants sites near an existing road, near existing utilities, and on land as close as possible to level.  It’s all about keeping his costs down, and not at all about the campus’s more than 50-year commitment not to build in the big meadow.  What is key to understand here is, when it came to finding a new site for Family Student Housing, the private developer was driving the site decision, not the planning professionals on the UCSC staff.

So the private developer looked around for where to put the Family Student Housing, and he saw bare flat land right next to a road at the base of the East Meadow.  Bingo.  He found what looked like the lowest cost place to build.   It was the private developer who first picked the East Meadow location for Family Student Housing.  Suddenly the Student Housing West project was going to build on not only the west side of the campus but also on its southeast side.

This happened around late October, and things were moving fast.  UCSC put out a hasty and vague document, buried in which is a vague reference to the possibility of a Hagar site.  We now know that what that actually referred to was a hasty but hidden plan for the private developer to build not only a replacement Family Student Housing but also a much-needed child care facility, which would also be run by an outside corporation (which causes concerns about cost and quality for a number of parents)  -- all of this in the East Meadow.

There were alternative sites on campus for this portion of the overall project, all of them less obtrusive and less controversial, but in haste they were never given serious consideration.  By late January much of the design work for the East Meadow project was completed, 140 units in a 40 quick two-story buildings packed over 16 acres, requiring a considerable amount of earth-moving to level the site.  Prominent near the entrance to the campus, at Heller and Coolidge, these buildings will sit up on an earthen embankment as high as 12 ft and be another 22 feet on top of that.  Yet this design work was not released to the public.

Only in early March did the administration start becoming a little more candid about what they were doing.  And they will now try to ram it through as quickly as possible, before the opposition they know will come has a chance to get organized.  Their plan is to race through the environmental review and break ground in the meadow this summer.

We need to keep in mind that the existing student population needs more on-campus housing and needs a child care facility with that housing.  The issue here is how the administration has gone about trying to meet those real needs.  The haste, the secrecy, the over-reliance on a private corporate developer who is not familiar with what makes UCSC special, and the management of that private corporate developer by a few administrators who seem to have no more understanding of what makes UCSC special than does the developer, and who largely leave the developer to his own devices – these are the issues that have led to a really bad decision to put a major development in the East Meadow.  There are other sites that would be less controversial and more in keeping with the UCSC tradition of how to site buildings on our unique campus.

-- Paul Schoellhamer ,  Cowell College, Class of 1969

Mr. Schoellhamer served for many years on the Democratic staff of the US House of Representatives, specializing in transportation, environmental, and building issues, including serving as Chief of Staff of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.