After being stalled through legal action two years ago, UC Santa Cruz’s Student Housing West project (SHW) hit a nearly identical roadblock on April 15.
The East Meadow Action Committee (EMAC) filed their second lawsuit against the UC Regents, alleging that the reapproval of developing the East Meadow, in conjunction with SHW, violates the California Environmental Quality Act through representing inaccurate costs of alternative site proposals listed in the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR).
“I see this new suit as an appendage to the old one,” said EMAC member and UCSC professor emeritus James Clifford. “We’re now in a situation where we have the facts that we needed before in order to challenge the universities’ cost estimates and comparison methodologies, which were central to the DEIR in CEQA law.”
Initial litigation against SHW in April 2019 argued that portions of the project were hastily conceived and cut costs by disregarding other environmentally friendly site locations. The March 1 ruling by Santa Cruz Superior Court required Regents to reconsider the alternate sites before re-approving the project. The project was approved by the Regents on March 18 on the basis that the provided alternative sites had been considered.
The project would add about 3,000 beds to university housing and is designed across two sites. One site would be on Heller Drive, on the west side of campus where Family Student Housing currently exists — and would house over 2,700 undergraduate and 200 graduate students. The other would be on the East Meadow at the corner of Coolidge and Hagar near the base of campus and serve as a new location for Family Student Housing, featuring 140 two-bed apartments for students with families.
Both sites were chosen by the private project developers, Capstone Development Partners, but the latter has been heavily contested because of design flaws, habitat destruction, and discrepancies in site evaluations. Challengers include the campus design advisory board, campus architects, and environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Habitat and Watershed Caretakers, and EMAC.
The East Meadow location will create less than five percent of the total project housing, but take up over half of the total area used, including the East Meadow and Heller site on the Westside. The lawsuit quotes Thomas Church, the original landscape architect of UCSC, who said that the Meadow should not be built on. They state that the project will destroy over 17 acres of the Meadow, an area equivalent to about 13 football fields.
The university has not publicly responded to the lawsuit. UCSC director of news and media relations Scott Hernandez-Jason said that they are still reviewing the filing and are disheartened by the new legal challenge.
“This action only further delays our efforts to address the urgent housing shortage, provide much-needed housing support for students and reduce the housing pressure on the community,” Hernandez-Jason said in an email. “These are not hypothetical challenges. There are real, negative impacts on a significant number of individuals that such actions cause. Despite this opposition, we will continue to advocate for this important housing project for our current students.”
Other environmentally friendlier sites include infill around Crown and Merrill, next to the Coastal Science campus, southeast of the Arboretum, and opposite of the west remote parking lot. These plots of land were argued to be more expensive by the UC during the project’s initial approval in March 2019. However, a cost analysis to support the UC’s decision was not made public until the project’s latest reapproval, leading to recent litigation.
According to the UC’s cost analysis, done by AECOM, other alternate sites would cost at least $29,000 and up to $94,000 more per bed than the current proposal. EMAC alleges discrepancies in these comparisons, noting that alternate site price estimates include added costs such as parking structures and contingency costs that are not included in the East Meadow site.
Architect and UCSC alumni council member Matthew Waxman described Chancellor Cynthia Larive’s sentiment that SHW would be the university’s best course to secure the most beds as “misleading.” He also added that 2021 LRDP is “antithetical” to the value of the campus principles laid out in previous development frameworks like the 2005 LRDP.
“For one, it is preposterous that SHW/East Meadow, as it has been designed, can be the only solution, and secondly as a designer I can tell you with certainty that it isn’t the only solution,” Waxman said in an email. “All of that said, changing the design of the west side complex to improve it, moving FSH from the East Meadow, or simply using one of alternatives will have zero negative impact to the university’s ability to secure the most beds to serve its students. If anything it will make it better.”
Opponents of the East Meadow development share the same sentiment that UCSC can build more housing for its students, but all disagree with the way the university is choosing to develop the campus.
The first lawsuit by EMAC from 2019 already delayed the project into spring of 2022. The timeline to break ground on the SHW project remains unclear.
“There’s the legal struggle and then there’s the political struggle, political struggle has to do with mobilizing support and applying pressure on the university to reconsider,” James Clifford said. “The university would like there to be no discussion at all, that would suit their interests, and make it all go away, but it’s not going to go away.”