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UC Santa Cruz Plans Laboratory, Housing on Controversial Site

Early this spring, University of California, Santa Cruz, officials intend to release a draft plan for new facilities that will greatly expand the school's marine biology research capabilities. Opposition to the project has come from nearby residents and some City of Santa Cruz officials. Opponents dislike the housing because of traffic and environmental impacts on the site. The rancor, however, appears to have diminished from the past, when several different private landowners tried to develop the site but crashed into Santa Cruz's slow-growth politics. Ironically, however, the city and community appear to have less control over the site now that the university has bought it from private landowners. University officials plan to build about 290,000 square feet of research space and support facilities, about 80 housing units, dormitory rooms for about 140 students, and 10 overnight beds for faculty members on portions of a 100-acre oceanfront site. The Long Marine Laboratory expansion will complement UCSC's existing marine laboratory, as well as research centers at the site run by the National Marine Fisheries Services and the state Department of Fish & Game. School officials see the facility as one bookend — with Monterey Bay Aquarium as the other — around the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The university's latest move comes after a lengthy battle between city officials and Wells Fargo bank, which owned approximately 60 acres of the site known as Terrace Point. The spectacular parcel lies at the northwest edge of Santa Cruz, just off Highway 1. Wells Fargo acquired it in foreclosure during 1989, after the previous owner failed to receive approval for a development. In 1994, Wells Fargo proposed a specific plan that called for a marine research center and about 300 homes. As with previous proposals, this one received an outpouring of opposition from residents and City Hall. Wells Fargo withdrew the draft specific plan and hired a team of respected consultants to craft a new plan, according to Larry Mintier, of J. Laurence Mintier & Associates in Sacramento. The team included Mintier, UCSC Environmental Planning program founder James Pepper, architect Matthew Thompson, former Santa Cruz City Attorney Gerald Bowden, and local biologists and engineers. The city had annexed the land in the 1960s. During preparation of a general plan in the 1970s, development of the site was so controversial that officials left a "white hole" on the land use map, recalled Bowden, who was a member of the city Planning Commission and chairman of general plan committee at the time. Over the years, a number of people tried to develop the site, but they got nowhere, said Bowden. Eventually, the city adopted its own specific plan for the site. "It was practically a development proposal. It gave the number of units and the number of low- and moderate-income units, the mix of uses," Bowden said. The Wells Fargo consulting team relied on that specific plan when drafting its proposal. "The bank said, we don't care — just give us something the city will approve," Bowden said. Over the course of 3 1/2 years, the team prepared three new specific plans and two full environmental impact reports, Mintier said. The final plan called for about 175 housing units — including townhouses for scientists and short-term rentals for graduate students — a public-private marine research facility, a 30-room inn, a restaurant and a public park. Mintier said the proposal matched the city's general plan. But the proposal went nowhere. City planners said they could endorse only about 80 homes on the site, even though the general plan called for about 200, Mintier recalled. The Planning Commission recommended no housing at all. The consulting team saw that the city was never going to approve the project. "It was such a nightmare. We were all so discouraged," said Mintier, who has prepared more than 30 specific plans, master plans and general plans. "At the same time, all of us agreed it was the best project we'd ever worked on, and it was the best client we ever had." Bowden said the whole mess was a failure of the planning profession. During endless negotiations, the city's planners refused to abide by the general plan, and instead took a political approach, he charged. "At least the planners ought to have the guts and the integrity to say, ‘This is the general plan. We don't make up the rules as we go along here. Now, it's up to you — the elected official — to decide,'" Bowden said. Santa Cruz Councilman Keith Sugar, who took office at the tail end of the Wells Fargo development conflict, has no sympathy for Wells Fargo and its consultants. "As bad as the university's proposals are, the Wells Fargo proposals were far more intensive. I'm happy they're gone," the councilman said. A land use law instructor at Santa Clara University law school, Sugar said he uses the project in class as an example of bad planning. In 1999, Wells Fargo gave up and sold the site to the University of California, which is not subject to local land use regulations — an irony lost on few people. "The city lost every scrap of control it had," Bowden said. "It could have conditioned the crap out of Wells Fargo. Now, it won't even see an application." Sugar and some other city officials are not so sure. He believes the Coastal Act provides a basis for the city to get involved. "It is questionable whether or not the city has jurisdiction over university lands in the coastal zone," he said. "Their plans to develop this parcel are anything but a done deal." Charles Eadie, UCSC director of campus and community planning, said the Coastal Act requires UC to prepare a coastal long-range development plan, which is the equivalent of an LCP, and the city has no jurisdiction. Still, UC officials have tried to include city officials and neighbors in the planning process during the last year and a half, he said. "We had a lot of work to do to dispel the notion that we weren't just going to go ahead with the Wells Fargo plan," Eadie said, a former Santa Cruz city planner. "We think we've had a good, collaborative relationship with the city at the staff level and with the City Council representatives." Housing remains the stickiest issue. Residents of the oceanfront DeAnza Mobile Home Park next to Terrace Point continue to protest any plans to build new residences, and at least some members of the City Council reportedly remain dead set against housing on the site. But Eadie said planners are trying to be sensitive, and they have designated a 500-foot buffer around the housing site. But, he added, housing is essential. "It's terribly difficult to get [scientists and students] in for six months to one or two years, and have them wade through the local housing market. That's pretty daunting," he said. Indeed, the rental vacancy rate in Santa Cruz typically hovers around 1%. And in January, the National Association of Home Builders declared Santa Cruz as the least affordable housing market in the country, with only 6.9% of locals able to afford the median-priced home. Besides the housing, UC plans to build a 250,000-square-foot marine research facility, about 21,000 square feet of support facilities such as an auditorium and workshop space, and about 20,000 square feet of equipment storage and maintenance facilities. Even with the housing and existing research facilities, the 76 buildable acres on the site will have only about 520,000 square feet of buildings. Much of the site will remain open space, although UC officials and Coastal Commissioner staff members disagree on wetlands delineation, which could affect building envelopes. Sugar said UC does not need the project because about a dozen similar research facilities already line Monterey Bay. Rather than continuing to expand, the school should focus on housing more of its current students, which would help ease the city's housing shortage, said Sugar, who fought Terrace Point development as a Sierra Club attorney before winning a City Council seat. "It's farcical to develop the least remaining coastal prairie terrace in the City of Santa Cruz. I think it should remain undeveloped," Sugar said. Characterized by grasslands and oak woodlands, coastal prairie terraces have exceptional habitat values, he said. University officials expect to release a draft plan in March, with an environmental impact report following soon thereafter. The project requires Coastal Commission approval. Cost estimates are not available, but Eadie said the research facilities alone could cost $75 million to $100 million. "It's going to take maybe 10 to 15 years to raise the money and build the individual components," he said. Contacts: Charles Eadie, UC Santa Cruz, (831) 460-3572. Keith Sugar, Santa Cruz city councilman, (831) 420-5020. Larry Mintier, J. Laurence Mintier & Associates, (916) 446-0522. Gerald Bowden, Dawson, Passafuime & Bowden, (831) 438-1221. UC project website: http://www2.ucsc.edu/ppc/planning/lml.html