Dorothy Leland: UC Merced's Project 2020 -- An open letter to the community

May 24, 2013 

As UC Merced concludes its eighth academic year and prepares to award degrees to another outstanding class of graduates this weekend (today and Sunday), I am pleased to provide our neighbors and the greater Merced community with an update on our physical expansion plans in the face of rapidly growing student demand for admission.

In my last letter to the community on this subject (published Jan. 19 in this newspaper), I reported that, with 5,760 students currently enrolled, we're "bursting at the seams" and need to move quickly to add classrooms, research labs, student-support space, and faculty and administrative offices to reach our near-term enrollment goal of 10,000 students by 2020.

If anything, that need has become even more urgent in recent months, with student applications for Fall 2013 admission surging by 14.2 percent to more than 17,000, the second-highest rate of increase of any UC campus. We are extremely gratified by this strong expression of interest, and wish we could offer admission to all who meet UC requirements.

Unfortunately, our space constraints will force us to limit admissions to a net increase (after graduations) of about 300 students. This is about half the growth rate of recent years.

We are addressing this problem by "reimagining" the next phase of campus development to bring facilities online more quickly and cost-effectively than originally planned. With the assistance of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a nonprofit organization that specializes in land-use planning, we've come up with several potential approaches for accomplishing this goal, as briefly mentioned in my last letter.

I want to update you today on two of those approaches.

First, we are accelerating and simplifying the next phase of construction on campus by making more efficient use of available land. Rather than utilizing a full 355 acres, as originally planned, for Phase II development, we are limiting growth to just 219 acres, including the original 104-acre "golf course" plot on which the current campus sits.

This approach will allow us to sidestep many of the time-consuming and expensive infrastructure-development hurdles anticipated in our original plans.

In addition, our buildings will be designed and constructed as multi-use facilities, rather than for a single purpose, and will be more tightly clustered for greater efficiency. They also may be somewhat taller than originally planned, and they will be delivered in bundles rather than individually.

These changes will be part of an integrated, master-planned development, based on the recommendations of the ULI, and are strongly endorsed by the University of California Office of the President. They were approved by the UC Board of Regents May 16 as an amendment to the UC Merced Long-Range Development Plan.

While additional board approvals of alternative financing approaches, project-delivery methods and participating contractors will be required as our plans take shape, we are strongly encouraged by the board's continued support for our development goals, and hopeful that we can move rapidly through the revision, approval and financing processes in the months ahead.

Second, we are firming up our plans to relocate most of our administrative operations to off-campus facilities in or near downtown Merced. This move will allow us to devote as much on-campus capacity as possible to academic, research and student-support needs.

Our off-campus plans may include lease or purchase of existing facilities or the construction of new facilities optimized for administrative functions. While we are not able to identify specific sites under consideration at this point, we hope to narrow the field over the next few months with a goal of consolidating operations in as few locations as possible. Bill Hvidt of The Hvidt Group will lead this effort on our behalf.

We are excited by the prospect of establishing a stronger presence in the city and helping to support local businesses with our purchases. With approximately 900 people currently employed in administrative positions, we can have a significant positive effect on local commerce and building occupancy in a community still recovering from deep recession.

I will continue to update the community periodically as our growth plans evolve. Despite the improving economy, levels of state funding remain uncertain and could affect the scope and timetable of the project we envision. Our long-term plans to reach 25,000 students at full build-out remain unchanged.

From humble beginnings just eight years ago, when we admitted our inaugural class of 875 students, we've grown rapidly and invested heavily in the community that so graciously welcomed us here.

As always, we deeply appreciate the community's support as we strive to fulfill our mission of education, research and service to the San Joaquin Valley, the state and the world.

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