Public Hearing of SHW Report Draws Criticism

UCSC, Capstone face questions re: controversial Student Housing West

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Students, faculty, alumni and community members alike gathered at Hotel Paradox to once again voice their objections and concerns with the development of Student Housing West (SHW) at a public hearing of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). While each of these groups tended to give voice to their own specific concerns, they shared a common belief that the project is fundamentally flawed.

“This project has been created hastily and haphazardly,” said second-year UC Santa Cruz student Chayla Fisher. “[It] doesn’t adequately address the environmental impacts of densified housing, on fire and safety hazards and the need for additional transportation and resources for the projected increase in enrollment, given that such resources are not provided today.”

Associate Vice Chancellor for Physical Planning Traci Ferdolage began the May 3 meeting with an overview of the project, including scaled renditions of the proposed buildings that elicited gasps from the audience.

The Heller Drive site, where Family Student Housing (FSH) presently is, will have structures as high as eight to 10 stories with connective breezeways, Ferdolage said. Currently FSH is composed of five two-story buildings.

After the presentation, Ferdolage opened the floor for a Q&A session with two Physical Planning employees and two executives from Capstone Development Partners. Many questions arose from skepticism of the claims made by the university and Capstone regarding rents and visual and environmental impacts.

“If you’re not subsidizing this building, how do the developers or the public–private entity guarantee that [housing prices at SHW] will be at the same rate as today?” said former UCSC faculty member Gillian Greensite. “How do you anticipate that, given building costs, geology, soils and that height?”

Greensite said that in her time as UCSC faculty, from 1979 to 2010, the construction of new residence buildings generally caused on-campus housing prices to increase, rather than decrease or remain the same.

This is due in part to the debt incurred by a building’s construction necessitating that the university improve its revenue. Consequently, student housing costs are increased to pay off the debt. University officials have said that managing these debts was one of the motivations for pursuing a public–private partnership for the project.

Some of the questions in the Q&A highlighted construction details that were not included in the overview presentation. UCSC alumnus Paul Schoellhamer asked about the plans disclosed in the EIR to use “cut and fill” at the East Meadow site. Cut and fill is an earthmoving practice where a crest or hill is cut from the earth to fill a valley, creating a level plane.

Capstone Development principal Bruce McKee said that while the dimensions of the cut and fill have been reduced, it will still be utilized in construction. Schoellhamer later expressed concern over how the earthmoving at the site would affect stormwater runoff.

The Q&A session segued into a summary of the EIR’s findings by interim campus planner Jolie Kerns and senior environmental planner Alisa Klaus, which included an overview of alternative proposals for the project.

These alternatives included a reduction in size of the site from 2,900 beds to 2,100 beds, and a proposal to locate the undergraduate portion of SHW at a site near the north remote parking lot between Kresge and the trailer park, which had at one point been considered for the location of Rachel Carson College.

Afterward the public comment period began, for which a line of about 20 people quickly formed before the mic. While some voiced support for the project, the majority of comments were laced with criticism.

“The visual impacts have not been shown well enough,” said former faculty member Gillian Greensite. “It’s a very cute architectural trick to have the buildings in the simulations, and then in the foreground you put a person on a bike, or a family. It totally distorts the scale.”

Comments from faculty generally involved visual and environment impacts while residents were concerned with impacts on rent in town and traffic. Students were particularly critical of the mandate to bring more students to a campus that struggles to meet the needs of current students.

There seemed, however, to be a consensus across the different demographics of commenters, with few exceptions, against development in the East Meadow.

“The circumstances by which the East Meadow development has come into being are distinctly strange, and should be an embarrassment to the campus administration,” said UCSC professor emeritus of literature Michael J. Warren. “[…] What continues to appall me is that the project is still deceptively named ‘Student Housing West,’ when construction in the East Meadow is the most obviously controversial feature.”

By the end of the public comment period, more support had been expressed for the alternative proposals than the current iteration of SHW.