October 26, 2002 - From the October, 2002 issue

Master Planning UC's New Merced Campus: Woodie Tescher Opines On The Promise & Challenges

As UC Merced proceeds with construction in anticipation of a 2004 opening date, the complexity of planning the university and the surrounding community continues to manifest itself. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Woodie Tescher, Director of Urban Planning and Design at EIP Associates and consultant to the University of California, in which he discusses the challenges of planning a ‘town and gown' community from scratch and the development of housing capacity to meet the needs of UC Merced.

What are the unique land planning opportunities presented by starting a new university from scratch in the Central Valley? How has the UC Merced campus planning process taken advantage of these opportunities?

After the site was selected, the first step was to create an entity called the University Community Core Group. That group included the University of California and involved the two property owners-the two educational trusts-the county of Merced, the city of Merced, and the Merced Irrigation District. So, all of the key players in creating the future of this area were represented.

That conceptual process required consensus of all of the parties. This was an opportunity to create a planning process that would be very collaborative. Decisions on the direction of the plan had to be agreed upon by consensus-one party rejecting the concept was the basis for a veto of the proposal. So, this has been a collaborative process from the get-go.

The other opportunity was that this is a very depressed region in the state of California. Even when California was performing at its peak, this is a county that still had double-digit levels of unemployment. Over the long term, the campus could provide a higher level of education for local students and initiate an economic turnaround for this county. The planning anticipates this type of a change.

In addition, the revenue from the private-side development for the educational trust is earmarked to go back into scholarships for local Merced students to attend college. Theoretically, it will be like taking all of the profits off of Irvine Ranch and instead of funneling those into all of the issues that Irvine has invested in, this is a case where that revenue would be 100% funneled into scholarships.

How do the campus planners envision the "town & gown" interface? And what are University's student and faculty housing and the development objectives?

Planning from the start has been for both the campus and the community and I'm not sure if this has been done at other UC campuses. The planning process takes into account the anticipated development of the community as the university fills out-it's planned to be a 25,000-student campus. The planning for the community is a creation of new development capacity that would not have been there without the presence of the University of California. So, the planning of the anticipated community incorporates the additional growth that would be triggered by the introduction of this scale of activity above and beyond the natural growth that is occurring for other reasons in the region.

The planning also recognized that this is the opportunity to break down the physical barriers, the edges, between town and gown. So the plan, as realized, calls for a somewhat seamless integration and a sharing of uses between town and gown. For example, the bookstore for the campus might be in the community. Some of the administrative facilities, performing arts center, and cultural facilities might be integrated into the fabric of the community.

The notion from the start was that there was a need to create capacity for housing. The housing calculation that the economists worked on was for all induced housing, including both the housing needs of the students, faculty, and staff, as well as the community's growth from the ripple effect of the campus.

UC Merced Vice Chancellor Cliff Graves told TPR in a June interview that the university housing plan will provide beds for 50% of the student population and 50% of the faculty on the campus site. Can you elaborate?

The housing program in Merced recognizes that the other campuses have a pretty substantial housing deficit. Intuitively, we know that adjacent to many of the campuses there is a housing crisis. Housing rents and the housing stock are not adequate to meet the needs of the students, let alone the faculty. We've all seen studies on the difficulty of attracting faculty to the campus-UCLA is a classic example of where many of the students live in Santa Monica instead of living adjacent to the campus. So this has been an attempt to create the capacity up front.

The other issue we dealt with in the community plan is how to maintain the affordability of that housing. You now see some very marginal housing in Isla Vista that has $2000 monthly rents. You end up with a lot of problems associated with this increase in the cost of housing.

As the planning proceeded, the question became, within the legally defined campus boundary, how much housing couldn't be physically accommodated? The amount of housing built on campus would, in theory, reduce the amount needed in the community. The plan as drafted creates capacity for the totality of that induced growth that there will be in the community. So, depending on which edge it's on, the physical plans provide a buffer for additional increments.

Now, the original concept in the creation of the community capacity was based on the presence of two educational trusts, one of whom donated the land to the UC. That donation was being made contingent upon the creation of a planning process for development capacity on the remaining land that was not being provided by the educational trust for private-side development. What has occurred over time is that the physical campus location, because of environmental reasons, has shifted to the extreme southwestern portion of the site. In effect, the campus is now occupying and exhausting what would have been much of that private-side development capacity.

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The lost private-side capacity for community uses was being replaced by this transfer to the south. In that package, the university entered into an LLC with the trust for these 1400-acres to the south to attract a master developer to ensure pursuit of community planning. This will preempt a series of fragmented developments that could occur under a normal buy and sell situation of private development.

There is an actual application, an invitation for proposals, that is on the street right now seeking developers to submit interest for the development of the private-side non-campus properties that are off-site and consistent with the plan. The intent is for the campus to provide up to 40-50% of the housing on the campus per se. The university and the trust are also engaged in the process to see that the balance of housing in the private-side of the community will be created.

What are the master planning lessons learned from UC Merced's experience?

This is an extremely difficult process because of the priority that has been placed on the development of this campus. When we started, we were requested to look at the time that it would take to walk through the various steps in planning, design, environmental permitting-all of the steps that would allow for rational, thoughtful discussion and analysis. We originally identified 2005 as a target. That was pushed forward to 2004. That created such a speed to our planning process that some of the innovation that would have been incorporated into the design and construction of the campus has been pushed aside. The speed has been a real dilemma.

Another issue is that the university is in the process of education. And, I think the reason why Cliff (Graves) came into the process, albeit maybe a little bit late, is that when you create something new like this-a physical development-there is really the need to bring in someone who has an understanding of the development process. I think that was missing here.

Why is it that most public K-12 school districts, which are now engaged in the largest new facilities program in two generations in California, reject master planning or collaborative engagement with their communities?

It's frustrating to me. Most of my work is looking at general plans and community revitalization plans. I am so frustrated by the lack of innovative thinking in this era of scarce resources. I was out at Otay Ranch last week when I was in San Diego, which is being hailed as a wonderful model of new urbanism. But, I looked at the schools and they are the same old schools-the 50-acre high schools and cookie-cutter suburban K-6 school-and they are not integrated with the community parks, not integrated with the network of libraries, which is a very inefficient way of providing public uses. There is no entity to coordinate these uses. So, the school district tends to be very independent, trying to forge through its own agenda of facilities development. And, I don't see anybody out there pulling these entities together.

We had a very fortunate experience working on Edison Park in Glendale over the last few years. The city of Glendale, the parks department and the school district created a new community center that is a school, a park, and a community facility. We were able to work with the community to put together a project that serves the needs of the neighboring public. But, it took some innovative thinking and the city had to put up some seed money that wouldn't have been available through the traditional school district process. The project is now under construction.

Lastly, how would you make the case to city managers, school superintendents and local school boards that a like master planning process for the development of new, mixed-use neighborhood schools is value added?

I'll use the Glendale example. Glendale has poured lots of money into the revitalization of its downtown. Most people would say they have done a pretty good job in downtown. They have increased pedestrian movement and sparked economic activity. There is recognition in Glendale that the adjacent neighborhoods needed to be improved so that there would not be a long-term negative impact on the development of the downtown area.

Glendale created a Model Neighborhood Planning Program to gain control of these neighborhoods and increase the sense of ownership by community groups. The residents of this particular area were not typically part of the planning process. So, there was an extensive effort prior to the development of Edison Park to create a comprehensive inventory of the strategies available for these neighborhoods to improve. These strategies included the addition of new community facilities to other programs like neighborhood policing, social youth programs, and 175 pages of other potential neighborhood improvement programs.

The focus then became the financial investment needed to make this happen. The facility would become the center of the neighborhood and would be looked upon with pride by the surrounding residents. The benefit back to the city is that the neighborhood looks at this facility as a place that everyone identifies with, a common turf of the people. And, this facility also helps raise the value of the property in the area. So, the value to the community is in local identity, pride, and crime reduction from the enhanced sense of community.

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