What are letters from California senator John Laird and the Sierra Club, 88,000 signatures on a petition, and years of litigation to the UC Santa Cruz administration?

Gobbledygook, it seems, given the university’s refusal to budge on the layout of its ambitious housing development, Student Housing West (SHW), even when doing so may be possible.

Long mired by public and legal controversy, SHW was once more approved by the UC Regents on March 17. Its goal is admirable: to house over 3,000 upperclassmen and students with families while charging rates significantly below the market. Its funding scheme is attractive to some, too — UCSC will pay none of SHW’s upfront construction costs, with these absorbed by the Collegiate Housing Foundation, a non-profit lender that will hold the project’s lease. Sounds good, no? 

Details, details. At the center of SHW’s controversy is its planned development of the East Meadow, a picturesque carpet of grass that lies at the base of campus, circumscribed by Hagar and Coolidge Drive. While most of SHW would be contained on a site off Heller Drive — the current location of Family Student Housing — the Hagar Drive site would see the construction of a new, low-density family housing development, complete with childcare facilities and easy walking access to the elementary schools on High Street. 

City on a Hill Press has previously reported that the main opponents of the meadow’s dozing, a group of UCSC faculty and alumni known as the East Meadow Action Committee, have for years argued that placing such a development on the meadow would be a waste of its natural splendor. Instead, they say, the university should pursue one of the about half-dozen alternative location schemes it considered during the project’s initial planning phase — such as placing the entire development at the Heller Drive site, or moving the family housing portion to a different location.

But all these alternatives are prohibitively expensive, says the university. If the projects’ costs go up, then so must the rents it charges students to live there — impossible, given the university’s commitment to keep rents below market rate.

“The price tag is important, because housing fees are distributed across campus,” said Chancellor Cynthia Larive on March 17, before the Regents’ Finance and Capital Strategies Committee. “The cost of a more-expensive project would not be borne by the campus, but by students through higher housing fees.” 

Yes, pursuing any of the alternative building schemes studied by university would be a great deal more expensive. According to a March 2019 report generated by engineering firm AECOM, the cheapest alternative to the current Heller-Hagar scheme that maintains the same amount of beds would split development between the Heller site and one at Ranch View Terrace. It would cost anywhere between $740 million to $792 million, an $81 million increase over the project’s current $659 million price tag.

But whether these costs would be passed down to students is a different matter entirely. By the university’s own admission, the nature of its agreement with the Collegiate Housing Foundation leaves room for flexibility in how it charges rent. And at the March 17 Regents meeting, Larive’s commitment to price rents at SHW 30 percent below market rates at the Regents’ behest — where previously there was no specific commitment — seems to only support this notion.

It is an immense challenge, we realize, to plan a project that in one stroke stays in budget, is sensitive to its environment, and keeps itself free from litigation. But SHW seems to have run for the hills with the first goal and abandoned the others. 

We commend Chancellor Larive’s commitment to building additional affordable housing for UCSC’s student body, especially given her administration’s failure, many say, to meet certain benchmarks like delivering a cost of living adjustment to its graduate students. All parties agree that it is absolutely necessary to build more housing on campus, given Santa Cruz and the state of California’s acute housing shortage. 

But we call on her to negotiate more fervently with the project’s private interests, and listen to the thousands of students, alumni, and faculty members who say that the current project’s iteration is not enough.