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Which Way, Santa Cruz?

Times Staff Writer

At first glance, this eccentric beach town and the UC campus up the hill in the redwoods would seem made for each other.

On campus, students are proud to claim the banana slug as their mascot. Deer wander freely around the grounds. In town, prominent Santa Cruzans push a low-key campaign to “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.” Some of the town’s street people certainly qualify, such as the former Silicon Valley engineer who spends his days inching along the main commercial street dressed in frilly pink and carrying a pink umbrella.

But despite Santa Cruz’s peculiarities -- or perhaps because of them -- a classic California battle is taking shape between the city and the university.

The question is this: Should Santa Cruz be compelled to grow -- and risk losing its quirky, small-town charm -- to accommodate the UC system’s vision of a larger, research-oriented university?

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And, if Santa Cruz must grow, should the city of 56,000 be required to pay the tab for the new roads and water supply that university expansion would require?

“What kind of town do we want this to be?” asked community activist Don Stevens, who until recently played saxophone in a sextet known as the Nuclear Whales. “Do we want it to look like San Jose?”

Last month, the UC Board of Regents approved a long-term plan to expand UC Santa Cruz’s enrollment by 30% over the next 14 years, increasing the student body from 15,000 to 19,500.

The plan calls for cutting down an unspecified number of redwoods to make room for new structures and increasing the total building square footage by as much as 66%.

Much of the construction would occur on a part of campus outside city limits, but Santa Cruz would be required to extend services beyond its boundaries. The university is exempt from local land-use laws.

Santa Cruz, one of California’s oldest cities, has resisted growth for decades. Many residents already complain about student party houses and traffic caused by the campus, which can be reached only by driving through residential neighborhoods.

In hope of blocking the expansion plan, the City Council has placed two measures on the Nov. 7 ballot that would require the University of California to pick up the city’s tab for future and past growth -- a potential cost of many millions of dollars.

“If they are going to grow, they need to pay their own way,” said outgoing Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt, a former mayor who drafted one of the measures. “We can’t afford to subsidize the state of California.”

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If approved, the measures could help set a statewide precedent by forcing the UC and California State University systems to pay for roads, water systems and other facilities in communities up and down the state -- a cost that could total billions.

In light of Santa Cruz voters’ long-standing aversion to development, backers predict the measures will easily win approval.

Neither side is waging much of a campaign -- university supporters neglected to submit a ballot argument -- and many residents are unaware that the matter is on the ballot.

Acting UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal argues that the city has an obligation to accommodate the campus’ growth based on the original agreement between city leaders and UC regents in the 1960s.

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The university is prepared to pay to mitigate the effects of expansion, Blumenthal said, but to require UC to pay for all past and future growth “is not reasonable.”

He contends that the campus needs to grow to help fulfill UC’s mission of educating young Californians and so that UC Santa Cruz can become a world-class research university.

“I want to continue the upward trajectory for this campus,” he says.

When the school opened, Santa Cruz was a sleepy, conservative beach town whose leaders were eager for development that would boost the economy. Santa Cruz was known mainly for its surfing and Boardwalk tourist area, but the arrival of the university changed the town.

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The campus, with buildings artfully scattered among the redwood groves, was designed on the Oxford model with students living and studying together in intimate surroundings. From its opening in 1965, the campus was one of the most leftist in the UC system and has continued to maintain that tradition. It was the only campus in the UC system not to give grades.

Many students and faculty members found housing in Santa Cruz and many alumni stayed on. They grew to like the town the way it was and became reluctant to support new development. The university brought diverse cultural opportunities and greater environmental consciousness. Today, easily a third of the city’s residents have some connection to the university.

Santa Cruz became known for its tolerance and as a magnet for street people. It is not unusual to see homeless men sleeping on the lawn at City Hall -- even right outside the mayor’s window.

Pacific Avenue, the city’s most popular commercial street, is a haven for street performers and panhandlers. Some accost tourists demanding money. Others, like Robert “Pinky” Valentino, the pink umbrella man, use the venue to draw attention to themselves.

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The city has adopted numerous rules -- no aggressive panhandling, no excessive noise, no lingering in parking garages -- in the hope of maintaining the uneasy balance between business owners and street people.

Not known for being friendly to business and facing a shortage of revenue, Santa Cruz seems seedy in places, especially down by the Boardwalk.

The campus, meanwhile, has changed from its original concept as it has grown. Though the individual colleges remain, the idea of studying entirely within a college was abandoned long ago. The campus grew into a research university, making significant contributions to such efforts as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Human Genome Project.

Five years ago, the university joined convention and abandoned its hallmark no-grade system.

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Of the 10 colleges, most are named after donors. Three are known only by their numbers -- 8, 9 and 10 -- as the university awaits donations sizable enough to merit naming them.

Members of the Santa Cruz City Council have close ties to the university. Three of the council members are employed as university lecturers. A fourth, the mayor, is married to a professor. Two others are alumni. The only member not connected to the campus teaches high school.

Still, all seven voted to place the anti-growth measures on the ballot.

“It’s gridlock now,” said Mayor Cynthia Mathews. “If you add 4,500 students and faculty and staff, there’s no way you can make a bad system work better.”

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Both sides agree that the real fight will be in court.

The university has filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the measures from taking effect even before the vote, a move some residents criticize as undemocratic. The UC contends that the city did not provide the required 30 days’ notice before putting the measures on the ballot. The city has allocated $100,000 for the coming legal fight.

Blumenthal, who took over less than three months ago after the suicide of his predecessor, said the university and city should avoid “lobbing lawsuits” at each other and sit down to negotiate a plan to accommodate the expansion.

But many residents see the university as arrogant.

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Neal Coonerty, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, who began the “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” campaign by selling merchandise with the slogan, complains that the university can act unilaterally because it has no obligation to follow local wishes.

“They have a real regal outlook,” says the former city councilman, who was recently elected to the county Board of Supervisors. “They don’t call them the regents for nothing.”

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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