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California

Amid protests, UC regents weigh plan to build housing on beloved UC Santa Cruz meadow

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Deer graze above a beloved meadow targeted for UC Santa Cruz student housing in a controversial plan that UC regents discussed on Wednesday.
(David Royal)

A plan by UC Santa Cruz to build student housing on a beloved campus meadow sparked sharp disagreement — with no sign of compromise — at a University of California regents meeting on Wednesday.

The controversial project pits those who want to preserve the open meadow at the university’s main gateway against those who believe it’s the best way to address a severe shortage of housing.

Like many UC campuses, Santa Cruz is being squeezed by state demands to accept thousands of additional students despite limited public funds, a shortage of beds and community protests against growth. But the plan to build housing in the meadow has triggered particularly deep passions at Santa Cruz, where the university’s reverence for nature has long guided building decisions to work in harmony with nearby open vistas, rugged knolls, deep ravines and redwood groves.

More than 70,000 people have signed a petition urging Santa Cruz to drop the meadow housing plan. Prominent alumni have threatened to sue and to withhold donations. At the same time, many students have supported the plan and have criticized opponents for putting campus aesthetics over their needs.

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The UC Board of Regents, in an unusual move, allowed speakers from both sides to address members directly after campus officials presented their plan on the board’s first of two of days meetings in San Francisco.

Paul Hall, a Santa Cruz alumnus and former regent, told regents that the open meadow made “a very strong statement of the Santa Cruz campus and its environmental values.” He urged the board to consider alternative sites.

But David Soares, another alumnus, said opponents were viewing the meadow with a “rose-colored rear view mirror.” The location, he said, is no longer a bucolic country landscape, but now bustles with traffic and nearby faculty housing.

With its proximity to Silicon Valley, Santa Cruz consistently ranks as one of the least affordable housing markets in California.

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The proposed project would house about 420 students and their families on the meadow, and would include on-site child care. It is part of a $750-million plan to add 3,000 beds on campus to help ease the crunch of the last five years. UC Santa Cruz has added more than 2,200 students in that time, mostly accommodating them by converting lounges into dorms and squeezing three or four beds into rooms meant for two students.

Chancellor George Blumenthal said campus officials have hosted several public meetings and extended public comment periods. They also modified the plan — reducing the height of some buildings, for instance — to accommodate concerns.

“This project is respectful of our campus history,” Blumenthal told regents. “It focuses on the needs of our students in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country.”

Regents asked campus officials to research and report back with more information about the cost of alternative projects and video footage of the proposed landscape. The UC board is scheduled to vote on the plan in March.

In other matters, UC officials announced that the 10-campus system had set a new fund-raising record in 2017-18, bringing in more than with $2.7 billion. The haul marked the biggest annual increase in UC history.

UCLA led the way, raising $786.6 million as part of its $4.2 billion campaign to mark its centennial anniversary this year. The Westwood campus surpassed its fund-raising goal last year, 18 months ahead of schedule. UC San Francisco, which launched a six-year, $5 billion fund-raising campaign in 2014, raised $730 million.

Most of the donations were earmarked for research, campus improvements, endowed chairs and support of specific departments.

Newly elected Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond made their first appearances as ex-officio regents Wednesday. Kounalakis said public higher education would be a top priority, and that she would work to increase student access and fight tuition increases. The annual cost of the UC Berkeley MBA program she completed in 1992, she noted, has risen from $2,000 to $62,000.

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The state’s three public higher education systems are “the crown jewel of the state and the pathway to the American Dream for millions of Californians,” she said.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe


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