June 1, 2002 - From the June, 2002 issue

University Of California, Merced Campus Plans Seamless Town/Gown Physical Relationship

Seven years ago, the University of California Regents selected Merced as the site of the 10th campus in the UC system. Earlier this year, the Regents approved the long-range development plan and the campus is scheduled to open its doors to students in the Fall of 2004. In order to get an update on the planning and development of the campus and the adjoining community, The Planning Report was pleased to sit down with Cliff Graves, Vice Chancellor of Physical Planning for University of California, Merced.


Cliff Graves

Chancellor Graves, please give an update on UC's plans for a new campus at Merced. What did the Regents approve seven years ago and what is actually being built?

In 1995, the Regents selected Merced as the site for the 10th UC campus. The planning began in earnest in 1999 as the state was coming out of recession. The serious planning in 1999 really kicked off with a joint planning effort by UC, Merced County, the irrigation district and the city to come up with basic concepts as to how this university should work physically. One of the things that came out of that process was a decision that the campus and surrounding communities should be planned and built at the same time so the borders would, in effect, be seamless from an operational and physical standpoint.

In January of this year, the Regents approved the long-range development plan for the full build-out of a 25,000 student, 6-000 faculty and staff campus that would be a full research university comparable to any other campus in the UC system. The Regents also approved the site plan and infrastructure for the initial phase of development. At the same time, they stressed certain factors in that plan. One had to do with establishing a feel for the campus, a look to the campus that would be open, friendly and familiar, particularly non-threatening to kids who may be coming from first generation college-going families. A lot of work went into not just the overall plan, but the design features to evoke qualities of the valley and to make the campus open and friendly.

Another one had to do with the sustainability features. When you're doing something from scratch, it's relatively easy to build features into a project that would be very difficult to retrofit or backfill. This being a research campus for the 21st century and hopefully a model for growth management for the region, we placed a very high premium on environmental stewardship.

More specifically, we decided that this campus would meet all of the requirements for a LEED silver rating. This will be the first campus with that overall rating. Many of the buildings may be even higher rated than that. That becomes the floor. When you do that and you're starting with a blank sheet of paper, you can do everything from orienting your grid system, which is what we're using, making sure that the buildings are long and narrow so daylight penetrates them fully, providing for a lot of sun screening, and putting every building on an energy budget before the architect gets hold of it.

We're very pleased. On the energy side for example, phase one of the campus has an energy budget that is only 80% of the current standards at UC campuses for energy use. In other words, we're going to use one-fifth less energy than the best that UC does now the day we open in '04. We're going to ratchet that down to 65% in 2009, 50% in 2012.

What is the current status of the Merced Campus planning? What are critical timeline milestones that our readers ought to pay close attention to?

In May of this year, the Regents approved the designs for the first three academic buildings: the library, a classroom and office building, and an engineering and science laboratory building. Those buildings are all in the construction drawing phase now.

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he next milestone will come late this summer when dirt begins to move on the campus site. We start site preparations in late July. The buildings themselves will be starting work either late this year or the first of '03. We plan to have the campus open and thoroughly enjoyed and stimulating to 1,000 students and faculty in August of 2004.

You mention that plans for the new UC Campus call for a seamless relationship between "town and gown." Of course, many critics and smart growth advocates have suggested that is precisely the way new K-12 schools should be built, but typically aren't. What are the particular challenges in collaboratively planning a campus with a community? What are the benefits?

The benefits are, frankly, that there is a lot less hassle between a host community and a campus when you're working together. You have the classic cases in the UC system and elsewhere of uneasy relationships: UC Berkeley and Berkeley, Santa Cruz and even Irvine are beginning to have some tension.

One of the things that we learned from looking at the way those campuses developed, one of the reasons these tensions developed, is that these campuses were originally located in, what most people thought, was the middle of nowhere. They started construction in the center of whatever the site was and started working toward the edges.

Cal moved out of the city of Oakland about 100 years ago to get away from the congestion and went out to the farmland of Berkeley, where there wouldn't be anybody around. We all know what happened there.

What we were advised and have done is start our campus at one edge and to have the new community start at the same edge, so we start together and grow in opposite directions. That is very beneficial from the standpoint of infrastructure planning. It provides the community builders, as well as the campus, with a lot of flexibility as to where they locate things, so as to be most accessible to the public.

For example, we're planning to have the primary facilities that the public would come to-athletic facilities, performing arts facilities-located right on the edge of the campus so they're easy to get to. Similarly, we want to provide as many of our commercial services in the community, as to encourage faculty and staff to become involved with community affairs as well. Those are the advantages.

The problems you have, of course, are the university builds at its pace, with its own sense of requirement, in our case the state budget, statewide enrollment pressures and so forth. The community is market-driven, so it's a challenge to have this development occur in a systematic manner. But we're fairly confident we can make it happen.

Please address how the need for student and faculty housing will be met in plans for Merced. Many UC campuses now find adequate and affordable housing to be one of the more difficult challenges they face as they expand.

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The Chancellor set a goal, before we did anything in the plan, of a campus that housed 50% of the students at all times and could house as much as 50% of the faculty. We have taken the student enrollment projections and have built-in housing for essentially half that enrollment. So, when we open in '04 with 1,000 students, there will be about 600 student beds available. In order to keep up with the growth rate in the early years of 800-1,000 a year, we will we building about 400-500 units a year, at least for the first six or eight years.

Faculty housing is not that big of an issue yet. But we know that real estate gets pretty pricey in the vicinity of university campuses. We want to set aside sufficient land to be able to offer our faculty, particularly junior faculty, the housing which is of high quality that is close to, if not on the campus, and affordable at Faculty salaries.

Vice Chancellor Graves, the placement of the 10th and newest UC Campus in a generation in Merced is confirmation of the robust population growth expected in the next twenty five years in the Central Valley. How does your campus planning comport with how a new town in California might be planned to meet explosive demand and attendant environmental degradation?

If you take the campus and the community together, you're looking at what can really be a model for well-planned growth in an area that is going to see explosive growth in the next 20-30 years. If you were looking at it from the air, you would see a very recognizable grid system in both the community and the campus.

I can't speak for the community, since we're in a more primitive stage with our planning for that, but you would find very little automobile use on the campus-you'll see a campus using a fleet of alternative fuel vehicles. Hopefully by then, the intensive landscaping that's part of our sustainability program will begin to flower in more ways than one. You'll be able to begin to see what sound planning can do, in cases that have nothing to do with the university, but just how to manage these extra 10 million people coming into the San Joaquin Valley.

What are the regulatory/ approval hurdles that you must overcome in the next year or two to build out the campus?

The primary hurdles we have, have to do with federal agencies. The environmental impact report for the long-range development plan and phase one construction was certified by the Regents. It has been challenged, but we're confident that that will not impede our pace.

We are looking for one go-ahead from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is currently working with us on our full build-out plan. We're working with them to get what they call a "biological opinion," which is a statement [saying that] the campus development will not endanger any listed species of animal, bird or plant. This has been a challenge, as it would be for any project of this magnitude. But we're taking it very seriously.

Even though some further federal permits will be necessary before we can construct beyond the initial 100 acres, we will be able to satisfy our needs to about 2007 or 2008 before we need the further permitting.

Perhaps an even larger obstacle than environmental approvals is the state's present budget shortfall. How does California's budget deficit impact your immediate building plans?

The good news is that funds to build Phase I are already in hand. The bad news is our academic folks are really struggling to secure adequate resources to bring in the top faculty. Our budget challenge is more on the operational side than the capital side.

We do not expect the state budget issue to affect our opening or the development of phase one. It's certainly going to have an impact on our rate of growth after that, but these things do run in cycles.

Vice Chancellor Graves, with 20/20 hindsight and knowing what you know now, do you expect that there will be another UC campus built in our lifetime?

It's very tough. The last three campuses-Santa Cruz, Irvine and San Diego-were built before the CEQA, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act. I'm told that those were the good old days, at least from the standpoint of developing.

President David Gardner back in the late ‘80s, when he presented a plan for the expansion of the University to the Regents, felt that three new campuses should be started. The Regents agreed to do only one.

As long as the state's population continues to grow and more and more kids meet the standards for admission to UC, the University and the State have to do something. I don't think anybody at the moment is thinking about another campus. They want to make sure we're off the ground.

But the Regents will have to take into account the time, the brain damage and the energy required to get this one off the ground. At the same time, we've got kids to educate and most of our campuses are pretty close to capacity.

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