UC Merced

UC regents endorse plans to expand Merced campus

The end of Main Street is a bridge crossing into the eastern end of the Town and Gown District, as shown in this artist rendering.
The end of Main Street is a bridge crossing into the eastern end of the Town and Gown District, as shown in this artist rendering.

UC Merced is one step closer to building beyond its current footprint.

The campus' long-range development plan and environmental impact report were approved by the University of California Board of Regents at a meeting in Riverside on Thursday afternoon.

"Authorization of these two planning documents is a major step forward for UC Merced and a tribute to the many people at the university and in the public sector who helped to shape and fine-tune these plans in recent years," UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang said in a statement after the vote.

"The Regents' strong support renews our dedication to the challenging task we've undertaken and reinforces our determination to build a university that serves the people of California with great distinction," Kang added.

The plans must now be approved by a series of federal agencies before building can begin.

Associate Chancellor Janet Young said the four-year-old campus was fast approaching capacity at the 104-acre former golf course it broke ground on in 2002.

There are several building projects under way on that land: a social sciences and management building, early childhood education center and a third student housing complex. Plans are also under way for a second science and engineering building.

Construction of those buildings is expected to be done by 2012.

In the second phase, construction of the university community, a planned neighborhood that includes housing and recreational buildings, will begin on 1,951 acres directly to the south of campus.

Planning of the community is a joint effort of UC Merced and the Virginia Smith Trust under company called the University Community Land Co.

Other structures included in the second phase are an aquatics center, additional housing, several classroom facilities and a graduate school of education, according to the long-range development plan.

The first structure to break ground outside of the current bounds is a 1-megawatt photovoltaic solar array. The solar field is expected to cover nine acres and produce up to 20 percent of the campus' yearly electrical supply.

The fully built campus and accompanying student neighborhoods will stretch across 2,766 acres north of Lake Road, bounded by Lake Yosemite to the north and Yosemite Avenue to the south.

While UC Merced's buildings have been heralded around the world for their environmental friendliness, choosing how to develop the land hasn't been a smooth process.

In October 2002, the university was sued by environmental advocates in an attempt to block development that would endanger fairy shrimp, small crustaceans that hatch after rainfall collects in the vernal pools within and near the UC Merced land.

In October 2007, the university announced a revised campus and community plan with 259 fewer acres of development and a new configuration that reduced impacts on vernal pool wetlands.

In November 2008, the university released the long-range development plan and accompanying environmental impact report for the new development plans.

The university must now wait for a land permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency allowing it to build on federally protected wetlands.

The Army Corps is accepting comments through April 4 for their review process.

Nancy Haley, project manager for UC Merced development at the Sacramento Army Corps office, said a record of decision will likely be issued in May.

If the corps approves the project, a permit would be issued next summer. If the corps does not accept the environmental impact statement, it will be back to the drawing board for UC Merced leaders.

"We have moved the campus three times," Young said. "The permit will be a significant milestone."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also must issue a biological opinion related to the project.

Brad Samuelson, director of environmental affairs, has been working on the long-term plans since 2003.

He said the Regents' approval was just another day in the office.

"We're not necessarily celebrating at any part of this process," he said. "After we get the (Army Corps) permit, it's not like we don't do any more land-use planning."

Still Samuelson looked forward to a "24/7 campus where there is a lot of energy."

He said the current plans wouldn't be the same had it not been for the years of input by local leaders and community members.

"We recognize that the campus is a new addition to an existing community," Samuelson said. "We want to be a good, solid neighbor."

UC Merced plans to enroll 25,000 students by 2035.

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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