A look from above the UC Santa Cruz campus. (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

UC Santa Cruz and its host city are nearing another collision over the impacts of campus growth.

The university’s recently unveiled 2021 Long Range Development Plan seeks to prepare the campus for a projected enrollment of 28,000 by 2040, which is about 44% higher than enrollment last year.

While university officials have repeatedly emphasized that the plan isn’t a mandate for more students — but rather a framework to prepare the campus for potential future needs — the prospect of more students, faculty and staff is being met with concern among Santa Cruz residents and government leaders.

It’s happened before. More than a decade ago, a lawsuit over UCSC’s 2005 Long Range Development plan ended in a landmark settlement that caps undergraduate enrollment at its current level of 19,500 until the 2021 long-range plan takes effect. The settlement also required UCSC to house most of its new students on-campus.

A draft of the 2021 LRDP and its accompanying environmental impact report were released in January, opening up a two-month window for public review that closes on Monday, March 8. It’s a milestone in a state-mandated planning process that has already been in the works for years.

After UCSC first announced the enrollment projection of 28,000 at the start of 2018, Santa Cruz voters overwhelmingly endorsed Measure U, a ballot measure opposing further enrollment growth at the UC campus. Its passage led to the formation of a joint city-county task force, made up of four elected officials, to organize a coordinated effort to combat unmitigated enrollment growth.

Since then, the local governments have keyed in on one central point: seeking a binding commitment from UCSC to provide on-campus housing for any additional students, faculty and support staff. Without one, city and county officials are concerned that a flood of students, faculty and staff would continue to drive up housing costs in the Santa Cruz area.

As for the housing side of the equation, UCSC officials say they’ve delivered: The draft LRDP includes the goal of building housing to accommodate the growing number of additional students who might be enrolled — 8,500 new beds over two decades — along with housing for 25% of new employees. (Separately, the university on Friday announced plans to reignite Student Housing West, a project to meet existing student housing demand that is not part of the LRDP.)

UCSC, for now, is balking at local governments’ demand that this gets codified through a legally enforceable agreement. Sarah Latham, UCSC’s vice chancellor of business and administrative services, said negotiating that kind of commitment would be premature before bringing the plan to UC regents.

Community, student concerns

“We can’t legally bind the regents to something before they’ve had the opportunity to review the plan,” Latham said. After their review, Latham added, “we can see what opportunities exist in terms of follow-up.”

Regardless, the housing affordability issues driving the tension are “much worse than last time,” said Mike Rotkin, a UCSC lecturer and former longtime Santa Cruz City Council member, who was involved in the lawsuit around the 2005 LRDP and is advising the city-county task force this go-around. UCSC’s plans are also more ambitious, he said.

“This is the most dramatic, major planning document of any kind the campus has done in its whole history,” Rotkin said.

Students have voiced their own concerns.

Graduate students who set out on a wildcat grading strike in 2019 cited the gulf between housing costs near UCSC and those near UC Riverside to justify their demand for a raise.

“I just want to say that students are not for this,” Rebecca Ora, president of UCSC’s Graduate Student Association, said at a public hearing on the plan’s environmental impact report last month.

“This can’t fall on Santa Cruz,” Ora added. “We are not other campuses. And our administration just has to put its foot down and stop this growth.”

UCSC’s undergraduate student government came out against enrollment growth in 2017, citing high housing costs, overcrowded classes and issues with campus transportation, food and support services. The current undergrad government so far hasn’t taken an official stance but is encouraging students to make their voices heard by the close of the March 8 public comment period, according to Student Union Assembly President Shivika Sivakumar.

University’s point of view

Administrators say that any stop to potential growth would go against the university’s mission. Demand for a UC education has continued to rise, as a larger and more diverse generation of Californians set their sights on higher learning. “That’s the future of California, and those are the students that we really want to serve,” UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive told Lookout late last year. “We have to take the path that we think is the best one for the university, for the people of California.”

Even amid the pandemic, applications for UCSC’s fall 2021 class are at record highs, mirroring a trend across the UC university system.

After the public review period closes, campus officials will be tasked with responding to all comments that raise relevant environmental concerns. The finalized plan is expected to head to the UC regents for approval in the fall.

In advance of the deadline at 5 p.m. on Monday, March 8, both the city-county task force as well as departments within both governments are finalizing their own comments.

The Santa Cruz City Council heard an update on those efforts at its Feb. 23 meeting, with Mayor Donna Meyers urging community members to consider submitting their own comments. “It’s a big — huge — thing for our community, so please get involved,” Meyers said.

How the conflict ends remains to be seen. UCSC is already suing the city of Santa Cruz over a related water access question, and advocates on both sides are digging in for what could be another legal challenge to the campus plan.

John Aird is a Santa Cruz resident who joined in the lawsuits against the last LRDP on behalf of a small community group that opposes university expansion. “If the university thinks they’re going to steamroll this thing, I think they’re going to find themselves right back in a very litigious situation,” Aird said.

Larive, UCSC’s chancellor, said she, too, wouldn’t be surprised to see the campus’ growth plan once again taken to the courts. “I think it is unfortunate that so many things end up being litigated in the courts, but that seems to be the environment we find ourselves in.”

Rotkin, the former city council member, agrees that another legal challenge is likely in the cards. But lawsuits, he said, can only serve to delay the process and apply pressure for UCSC to come to the bargaining table. Political pressure to the state Legislature will be another important factor, he said, and it’s a strategy the task force is already pursuing through talks with local lawmakers.

In the end, Rotkin hopes the back and forth can — once again — result in a compromise that represents a better balance of the competing interests than if “we just leave the university to follow their own nose on this.”

Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.