UPDATE: Board of Regents approve UC Merced expansion plans

05/15/2013 5:17 PM

05/15/2013 6:44 PM

A plan to develop more buildings on UC Merced’s campus while using less acres of space was approved during a Tuesday meeting of the UC Board of Regents.

The decision is a green light for officials to begin planning for the university’s expansion, which they say is crucial to accommodate a growing student population.

“By the year 2016, we will have exhausted our capacity to take additional students without having identified additional facilities,” Chancellor Dorothy Leland told the UC Board of Regents’ Committee on Grounds and Buildings.

The solution involves several steps, which Leland presented in an amendment to the university’s long-range development plan, adopted in 2009.

The amendment pertains only to the next phase of development through 2020, known as the “2020 Project.”

Among the changes, officials propose condensing the campus from a projected 355 acres to 219 to reduce costs.

“We’re reducing the footprint because we save infrastructure costs and the number of new roads,” Leland said. “We will simply build more compactly than we have the in past.”

To get the most use out of each building, they’ll construct mixed-use facilities — used for classroom, office, research labs, housing, dining, and even parking.

“It allows us more flexibility in terms of land use,” said Phillip Woods, UC Merced director of physical and environmental planning. Developers will utilize vertical mixed-use — taller, more densely placed buildings. The facilities would be built in clusters, rather than one-at-a-time, to save development time and project costs, Leland said.

A lack of space has already caused the campus to expand to several off-site locations, including the Promenade in Merced and the former Castle Air Force Base.

Under the plan, research facilities at Castle would move back to UC Merced. “Our students and faculty spend a lot of time and money driving back and forth,” Leland said.

“It’s very hard for people to work effectively spread out in multiple sites, and it increases our public safety and transportation costs,” she added.

Administrative support and outreach staff would also be consolidated to a single downtown Merced location, reducing travel costs and providing a boost to area businesses.

When it came to funding the proposed campus facilities, Leland and other UC Merced officials became innovative amid a difficult economic climate.

“It’s no secret that one of the consequences of the recession has been the relative unavailability of dollars for capital development,” Leland said.

“Currently, we can’t depend on state funding,” she added. “Funding has been slow for a number of years, and we can’t afford to fall behind any longer and expect to keep growing.”

Instead of relying solely on state funding, Leland is proposing that UC Merced look for some private-public financing approaches to try to get the buildings completed more quickly.

It’s a move that the Regents called “innovative,” “cost-effective” and “realistic” on Tuesday.

Regent Hadi Makarechian, chairman of the Grounds and Buildings Committee, said the plan is a “great idea,” especially using public-private partnerships to reduce costs.

Makarechian asked Leland how the UC Merced community feels about the proposed changes. “This obviously changes the whole look and feel of the campus and makes it more condensed. Is everyone in support of it — the students and faculty?” he asked.

Leland said the campus has been well-informed, and the students, faculty and alumni association are supportive of the plan.

More than 17,000 students applied for admission to UC Merced for the coming school year; UC Merced will have room for about 1,600.

There were more than 5,700 students on campus this year.

The next step in the process is to release a bid to recruit firms and developers to oversee the project. Construction for the first phase could begin a year from next August, Leland said.

UC Merced officials will provide updates to the Board of Regents at least two more times throughout the process.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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