UCSC last built student housing infrastructure in 2002 when colleges Nine and Ten were opened. UCSC has increased enrollment by almost 5,000 students since then, and plans to enroll a total of 28,000 students by 2040. This will be finalized in December with the release of the 2020-2040 Long Range Development Plan. 

Morgan Bostic, an advocate for the Santa Cruz City-County Task Force on UCSC Growth Plan, isn’t an outsider to the UCSC experience. Part of the Class of 2018, she still vividly remembers the universal struggles that come with being a UCSC student — getting drenched in the rain while endlessly waiting for a bus that never seemed to take a wrong turn somewhere, being packed like a sardine while commuting in icky, overcrowded buses to get to class, or having to overpay to secure a roof over her head. 

“Housing affordability, the rising cost of living, environmental degradation, natural resource scarcity, [and] equity in our community,” Bostic said. “All of these will be exacerbated, because the students who come on campus will not have the resources they need to have a successful academic experience.” 

Experiences like these, in her view, are evidence that the university has enrolled too many students. 

The UCSC Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) is a guideline for land use over 15-20 years that plans infrastructure for new housing and academic buildings and designates land for natural reserves and open spaces. Since the first LRDP was written in 1963 with the opening of the campus, cooperation with the city of Santa Cruz has been key to expansion plans towards the projected 28,000 students.

The city of Santa Cruz and UCSC signed agreements detailing what services the City would provide for the new campus, and its later expansions, in 1962 and 1965. Water services, transportation, and sewage were included in the agreements. 

Over half a century later, UCSC’s right to water access is being contested. After months of deliberation with the City, UCSC filed a lawsuit on Oct. 13 alleging that the City is breaching their 1962 and1965 contracts by withholding water access for upcoming expansion projects. 

Water access has always been a critical part of the planning process for campus expansion. Without guaranteed water services for prospective developments, this planning process is on hold.

According to the lawsuit, UCSC argues that its 1962 and 1965 agreements with the City supersede state government codes that require the Santa Cruz Local Action Formation Committee (LAFCO) to approve city council decisions that will provide water service outside of city boundaries. UCSC argues that the City must honor its agreements that were made before the need for LAFCO approval became state law in 1971. 

Without water access, UCSC won’t be able to develop the North Campus parcel of land that spans 240 acres outside of Santa Cruz city boundaries. Despite being included in LRDPs since 1963, the land is still undeveloped redwood forest. 

The proposed 2020-2040 LRDP includes four new colleges and student housing, some of which will be located on the North Campus parcel in order to accommodate higher student enrollment. In 2018, former Chancellor George Blumenthal announced that plans to enroll 28,000 students by 2040 were still underway. He stated this figure was the ultimate enrollment goal since the campus’s first LRDP was approved in 1963. 

“Importantly, I am asking for a strategy of phased investments to accommodate future growth,” he said in a 2018 press release. “In other words, there would be no sudden jump from the roughly 18,000 students we accommodate today to 28,000. Growth would be incremental, proceeding only if identified impacts are mitigated. Maybe that will be water use, or the number of on-campus beds we provide.”

Members of the UCSC Growth Plans task force worry that issues like houselessness and rent burden will only worsen as enrollment increases. Ryan Coonerty, the third district county supervisor, opposes UCSC’s plans to expand without resolving existing housing problems. 

“Our preference would be the university not to grow, but we understand the need to expand higher education opportunities in a knowledge economy,” Coonerty said. “But we want to make sure that growth, if it happens, is done in a way that serves both students and the community. It doesn’t make an already difficult situation worse. Essentially, we want a binding agreement with UCSC that they will not grow until there’s adequate housing and educational infrastructure for students, faculty and staff.”

Meetings to finalize the 2020-2040 LRDP have been attended by students, faculty, developers, environmental action organisations, and community advocacy groups. These meetings show that a majority of students prefer to live on campus in centralized groups, and that there is concern for environmental impacts and disruption of the nearby communities. This feedback is informing the placement of five new housing developments, four of which will cluster around existing residences, with the fifth falling over the city boundary. Some land in the North Campus parcel will be set aside for environmental protection with the establishment of a new UC Natural Reserve and new research sites. 

Water access is necessary for any further campus expansion, both on the main campus and the North Campus parcel. The city and UCSC remain positive that their partnership, and campus expansion, can continue despite the lawsuit.

“This decision to involve the court does not signal a break in our strong and productive relationship,” read a joint statement by Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings and UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive, regarding the lawsuit. “Instead, it demonstrates a shared desire to resolve this disagreement, allowing the university and the city to plan for the future.”