By Thomas Sawano
Last year, the news that the UC Regents had approved UCSC’s 2021 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP)—a document which outlines the campus’s goal to swell enrollment to 28,000 students, and build housing for 100% of new enrollees and up to 25% of new faculty—sent a wave of anger through Santa Cruz County. Like water in Mad Max or spice in Dune, housing in Santa Cruz gets people justifiably riled up. Critics of the plan pointed out that since the university’s commitments are not legally binding, it could theoretically enroll all the students but build none of the new housing it envisions.
On Feb. 22, these concerns led to a new lawsuit filed by the City of Santa Cruz against UCSC, alongside a separate complaint by the County of Santa Cruz. The suit, which lists the UC Regents, UC President Michael Drake, UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive and UCSC as defendants, alleges that the 2021 LRDP and its accompanying Environmental Impact Report (EIR) don’t prepare for scenarios where the university fails to live up to its ambitious plans. In doing so, the university is in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the suit alleges.
As a result, the city says, the documents underestimate the impacts that enrolling a host of new students might have on its surrounding community, including displacement of other renters in Santa Cruz, worsening city traffic, increased water consumption and heightened risk for wildfires.
And in the city’s opinion, this scenario is much more likely than one where the university actually meets its commitments. The 2021 LRDP includes provisions to construct up to four new residential colleges over the campus’s current 10, swelling its housing space from 9,283 beds to 17,783. But these plans are relatively vague, mostly amounting to areas on a map where the campus could build these new colleges.
“It’s not just one of multiple scenarios that could play out,” says Santa Cruz’s Assistant City Attorney Catherine Bronson. “We really do view that as the most likely scenario. Because there really hasn’t been any indication that the housing is coming—that there’s a specific plan.”
But the university remains firm that it would provide housing for its new students without a legal mandate to do so. Campus spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason says that in recent years, the university has recognized an increasing need for affordable, on-campus housing options. If the university does not build housing to match its enrollment growth, he says, more students would be left to fend for themselves in an increasingly unaffordable off-campus housing market—guaranteeing that some will drop out of college entirely.
“It does nobody any good to have students come and leave the university without earning their degrees,” Hernandez-Jason says.
He added in an email that the school was “disappointed” by the city and county’s lawsuits, and that it had hoped to reach an out-of-court settlement agreement with the plaintiffs last fall, both before and after the 2021 LRDP’s approval.
Chancellor Larive declined to comment on the new litigation, citing its ongoing nature.
The More Things Change
The first discussion of a potential city and county lawsuit over the LRDP issue came back in September of last year, shortly after the UC Regents approved the final versions of the 2021 LRDP and EIR. At that point, the parties entered into a tolling agreement that put a freeze on the 30-day statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit against the university on CEQA grounds, promising to engage in mediated talks.
The outlook among local leaders, at the time, was comparatively rosy. County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty told Good Times last year he was optimistic that the local government could hash out an agreement with the university without fighting the sort of costly, years-long legal battle that followed the approval of the 2021 LRDP’s predecessor, the 2005 LRDP. In that agreement, the university was required to cap enrollment at 19,480 until the 2021-22 school year, and provide housing for 67% of the students it enrolled over 15,000.
By all accounts, says Coonerty, the university met the letter of that portion of the agreement. And it prevented the parties from engaging in any further litigation related to housing and enrollment for the span of time it was in effect.
“From my vantage point, it worked for both sides,” Coonerty says.
But meditated talks in December between the city, county and UCSC failed, putting the parties back on track for a repeat of the 2005 LRDP proceedings. At a Jan. 25 meeting, the Santa Cruz City Council quietly announced that it had greenlit the initiation of a lawsuit against UCSC alongside the county in the days prior.
“It’s incredibly frustrating, because the university made a bunch of promises, and all we’re asking is that they commit to those promises,” Coonerty says. “And because they’ve been unable to do so, now we have to spend time and money on lawyers instead of working collaboratively to create a path that will work for both UCSC and the community.”
The issue of building housing at UCSC is not just a question of will and dollars, though. The campus has a long history of environmental litigation and student protests that have scuppered numerous projects—particularly those proposed for its natural scenic and environmentally sensitive areas, of which there are many.
For example, three lawsuits have stalled groundbreaking on Student Housing West (SHW), a 2,700-bed housing project aimed toward upper-division undergraduates. There, the sticking point has been the project’s placement of a shared childcare and housing development for students with families on the East Meadow, a scenic field of grass that sits near the base of the UCSC campus.
Given the realistic possibility of new housing projects facing litigation, Coonerty says obtaining a binding commitment is all the more important.
“Because of budget challenges and development challenges, we know that unless it has a binding commitment, the university may not live up to its promises,” Coonerty says.
What is an LRDP?
Flipping through the 193-page 2021 LRDP and its 780-page EIR, one might be amazed at the sheer scope of development it envisions on the campus. Under it, the university would nearly double its housing capacity. All told, the plan calls for expanding the total accessible square footage of campus construction from 3.7 million square feet to 9.3 million square feet.
Ambitious as this vision may be, campus leaders are quick to point out that LRDPs, in general, are more vision than plan—a “what could and should be” instead of a “what shall be.”
Essentially, explains Frank Zwart, who was UCSC’s campus architect from 1988 to 2010, an LRDP is a map of what types of buildings can go where on the UCSC campus, providing guidance on how the campus should expand per a given enrollment level.
“For example, if the campus anticipates the need for a new science building—a new laboratory of some sort—typically in the back of the minds of the people who worry about this stuff like the campus architects or the campus planner, they know the LRDP designates a piece of the campus for what’s called the Academic Core,” Zwart says. “So that pretty much limits where one would look for sites for that sort of project.”
This means that in conceiving a new project, university planners look more to the immediate needs of the campus than the general needs laid out by the LRDP.
The reason for this, Hernandez-Jason points out, is that things change. Looking back to the campus’s previous five LRDPs, what the campus actually built on its grounds often diverged from the letter of these documents. For instance, the 1963 LRDP set UCSC’s target enrollment at 27,500 by 1990—which, due to the combination of Reagan-era budget cuts, the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and other factors, never came close to materializing.
Hernandez-Jason says that the way the university has operated during the Covid-19 pandemic suggests ways it may detour from the 2021 LRDP: with Zoom instruction on the table, he says the campus may find itself needing fewer new academic buildings in the future.
“The LRDP, it’s not a to-do list,” Hernandez-Jason says. “It’s sort of a framework for how we would grow if that growth is needed and funded. And if it’s not, we don’t do it.”
But in some sense, the inherent vague qualities of LRDPs lie at the heart of the lawsuits. None of the new housing envisioned in the 2005 LRDP, for instance, was constructed. In fact, no new housing has been constructed on the UCSC campus since 2002, when College 10 (soon to be rechristened John R. Lewis College) was built.
Instead, the university has expanded its undergraduate bed capacity by subdividing its already-existing construction: refitting rooms that previously housed two students to house three, and converting lounge spaces into rooms housing four or five students.
Now, Hernandez-Jason says, the university has effectively hit a ceiling on the number of beds it can squeeze out of its current construction, both in terms of safety code limits and student comfort.
“The way to add more housing space for students is to build new housing,” Hernandez-Jason says. “Is there another lounge somewhere that could be converted? Maybe, but that’s not going to solve the problem.”
A Tale of Town and Gown
Running parallel to the city and county’s new litigation is a separate lawsuit filed last October by the Habitat and Watershed Caretakers (HAWC), a citizen group that has been involved in a number of environmental law cases against the university since its founding in 2008.
Like the city and county, the group alleges that the university failed to analyze the full scope of environmental impacts that could arise from the 2021 LRDP. They also argue that the university did not examine feasible alternatives to its plans, as mandated by CEQA, and that the LRDP’s consideration of drawing groundwater from beneath the campus to supplement water provided by the city could exceed the replenishment rate of its subterranean aquifers.
Don Stevens, one of HAWC’s leading members, says the Santa Cruz community has likely already hit its upper limit when it comes to accommodating campus growth. Unlike the city and county, Stevens says he would be in favor of placing lower caps on university enrollment, in addition to the stipulation that it houses all its new enrollees.
“The thing that the city and county are most adamant about is that the university make a commitment to house 100% of its new students,” Stevens says. “That would not mitigate all of the negative impacts.”
On the other side of the debate are housing activists like Zennon Ulyate-Crow, who point toward declining admissions numbers across the UC system as an indication that current Californians have less access to education than their predecessors—and that this issue stems from slowing growth at the campus level. Ulyate-Crow, a first-year at UCSC, leads the Student Housing Coalition (SHC), a campus organization involved in a wide range of housing policy initiatives in California.
Recently, the group successfully campaigned to bring a new piece of legislation that would streamline the approval process for student housing projects. Called the Student Housing Crisis Act, SB 886 would exempt such projects from completing certain time-intensive environmental review processes, so long as the environmental impacts of these projects are accounted for in a general planning document like an LRDP.
Still, Ulyate-Crow is skeptical about whether the campus can feasibly construct enough housing to meet its enrollment projections, with or without a city mandate. His organization, he says, is pushing for a “shared responsibility” model to handle the effects of campus growth, where both the university and local officials hold each other accountable for addressing these impacts.
“We need to advocate for a model where both the university and the city are stepping up to do as much as possible about the student housing crisis, because a crisis only happens when everything goes wrong,” Ulyate-Crow says.