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UC Merced wants to alter its expansion plans

Administrators from the newest campus in the UC system tell regents they want to build taller and more densely placed classroom buildings and dorms on less acreage.

March 14, 2013|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • Cattle graze on farmland surrounding UC Merced. University officials want to change the school's construction plan.
Cattle graze on farmland surrounding UC Merced. University officials… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

UC Merced, the newest addition to the University of California system, wants to dramatically alter its expansion plans by constructing taller and more densely placed classroom buildings and dorms on less acreage and move some offices off campus, officials said Wednesday.

In a presentation to the UC regents, Merced administrators said the proposal could save at least $500 million that otherwise would be spent extending electricity, water and sewage lines under grazing lands that comprise the bulk of the university's unused property.

A more compact campus still will be able to accommodate the San Joaquin Valley school's anticipated growth from its current 5,800 students to about 10,000 over the next six to 10 years, they said.

The seven-year-old campus now occupies 104 of the 840 acres it controls. Previous plans called for 355 acres to be developed over the next few years and much of the rest to follow in the future, along with preserving green belts. UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland said Wednesday that the school now wants to restrict construction to the current footprint and to another 115 acres immediately to the east.

With state construction funds scarce, the earlier, more spread-out plan "is just not financially realistic right now," Leland told the regents.

The board was not being asked to take a formal vote yet on the proposal, but many regents seem to like reshaping the future of the campus in a more economical way.

The 10-campus UC system has been meeting some enrollment pressures by referring more students to UC Merced, but now the campus is short on classrooms. Without more, the school soon will "flat line in terms of our ability to accommodate more students," Leland said.

UC Merced already has moved some back-office staff to rental properties around Merced. Leland wants to consolidate those — and transfer more employees from campus — in one building, either to be purchased or leased, in the historic center of Merced, five miles from campus. Besides freeing space for student services, the move could help Merced's economy and link the community to the school, she said.

In an interview, Leland said it was premature to discuss possible costs of building enough classrooms and dorms to double the student body. But she said the school is studying ways to decrease costs by having private developers involved in some projects, as other campuses have done, and by building clusters of buildings in a coordinated manner instead of one at a time.

In other matters, the regents approved designs for a new medical education classroom and lab building at UCLA, which is proposed for the southeast corner of the campus, along Le Conte Avenue. The 110,000-square-foot building would be six stories at its highest point and replace a driveway area next to the Botanical Gardens. About half of its $120-million cost is already in hand and officials said they are confident they will be able to raise the remainder from private donations by the time construction is slated to start next year.

UC leaders also announced that they would start an unusual social media fundraising campaign in the fall, targeting students and younger alumni in a series of contests and challenges to garner donations for financial aid.

Using Facebook and other sites, regents said they hoped people would promise, for example, to bicycle long distances or dye their hair purple if they obtain enough donations from friends and family. Regents Chairwoman Sherry Lansing, pointing to the two men sitting next to her, suggested lightheartedly that UC system President Mark G. Yudof and Gov. Jerry Brown might collaborate on a singing performance with enough contributions.

"It's a chance for all of us to give a dollar or to give a million dollars," Lansing said, adding that it's part of UC's plans to become less dependent on state funding.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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