A rendering of the primary site of UCSC's proposed Student Housing West project, which would significantly expand existing housing on Heller Drive. (UC Santa Cruz)

University of California regents on Wednesday re-approved Student Housing West, a massive UC Santa Cruz student housing development that has been tied up for years amid litigation and intense opposition.

The regents’ Finance and Capital Strategies Committee had approved the same project before in 2019. Considering the project yet again following a judge’s order last fall, the committee doubled down — voting 8–2 to approve it following back-and-forth between regents and campus leaders. UC regents chair John Pérez and regent Richard Leib were opposed.

The development is planned across two on-campus sites and would include more than 3,000 student beds. It is a public-private partnership, led by developer Capstone.

After replacing existing beds, it would allow for an additional 2,000 students to live on the campus. Those beds are necessary to meet the needs of existing enrollment, UCSC officials say, as opposed to any future enrollment growth.

Most of the housing — about 2,900 beds — is planned on a 13-acre site on the western campus, at Heller Drive. But the project has faced widespread opposition since planners added a second site in 2017 to avoid disrupting a habitat for a threatened species, the red-legged frog.

At 17 acres, that second site sits in the southern corner of UCSC’s East Meadow, bound by Hagar and Coolidge drives. It would house about 140 students who have families and include a new child care center for both students and staff.

A proposal to build family student housing, and a child care center for students at staff, at the corner of Hagar and Coolidge Drives. (UC Santa Cruz)

If the entire project can escape further delays, development of the East Meadow site is expected to begin early in 2022 and be completed by spring 2023, while the larger site would be completed in two phases, in 2025 and 2028.

UCSC’s existing family-student housing currently occupies the primary site, and would need to be demolished. That’s why even though plans call for 3,000 new housing units to be built, only 2,000 new units will be added.

To avoid the need to provide other accommodations during development, UCSC is proposing to build on the meadow first, then relocate those students and their families before breaking ground on the larger site.

Critics of the project say they support building more housing but insist it should be done elsewhere, arguing the meadow was meant to — and should — continue to be preserved as part of UCSC’s heritage of natural resources.

Meadow of controversy

A wide coalition of alumni, faculty and former UC and campus officials have lined up against developing the meadow, some organized under the banner East Meadow Action Committee. A petition to save the meadow garnered more than 88,000 supporters.

Former campus architect Frank Zwart is among those making the case to leave the meadow undisturbed. (Lookout founder Ken Doctor, a trustee on the UCSC Foundation board, has also been among the project’s critics.)

After regents first approved the project in 2019, the East Meadow Action Committee sued over the project’s approval process and environmental analysis.

In October 2020, a Santa Cruz County superior court judge delivered a mixed ruling in the case. The judge ruled UCSC’s environmental impact report was valid — but overturned regents’ earlier approval of the project, ruling the UC board had failed to adequately review cost estimates.

That ruling set the stage for Wednesday’s re-vote. Meanwhile, the East Meadow Action Committee is appealing the judge’s decision to uphold the environmental review; when a decision might happen isn’t clear.

The southern corner of the East Meadow at UCSC is one of two sites that comprise Student Housing West. (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The critics had been urging UCSC’s chancellor to take the opportunity to choose another path, such as one of many project alternatives that would leave the East Meadow untouched.

Then, earlier this month, Larive announced she was bringing the same project back to the regents for re-approval.

In a March 5 campus message that alluded to the higher cost of alternatives, Larive said she continued to view the current version of Student Housing West as the best path for a campus that hasn’t erected any significant student housing in nearly two decades.

“I have come to understand that building anywhere on our campus is a tightrope walk,” Larive wrote. “We live, work and learn in a stunning natural setting. Regardless of where we build, there will be impacts and opposition.”

Consultants analyzed the cost of a dozen alternative projects — some with fewer beds, or on different sites — and found UCSC’s proposal to be the most affordable version by at least $35,000 per bed.

Wednesday’s discussion

Both sides of the debate were well-represented heading into the Wednesday decision, with hundreds of pages of written comments submitted to regents a day in advance of the meeting and oral comments heard earlier in the day.

Robert Singleton, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Business Council and a UCSC alumnus, urged regents to approve the project, saying it would have a “profound impact on our community for the better.” Rejecting it would be akin to “condemning existing and future students, as well as other members of our community, to housing insecurity,” Singleton said.

Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane also voiced support for the project in an email to regents.

Regent Hadi Makarechian said he would only support the project with a commitment that the housing would be offered to students at a cost of at least 30% below market rate.

In light of ongoing litigation and rising costs due to prior delays, Larive at first resisted making the commitment to deliver units to students at those rates. But Larive relented, offering her personal commitment to meet that cost, and Makarechian was among the eight regents to vote for the project.

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.