One year later, campus-community relations 'fundamentally changed' by landmark agreement

Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta

Every time Santa Cruz City Councilman Ryan Coonerty fields a call from another college town mired in conflict with its local campus, he is reminded of how far Santa Cruz has come in its relations with UC Santa Cruz.

"We started off as the poster children for how not to have a city-university relationship, and now we're a model," said Coonerty.

One year after a historic settlement agreement resolved longstanding conflicts over campus growth and impacts on water, housing, traffic, and city services, all participants agree that the settlement ushered in a new era of cooperation in town-gown relations. The evidence is everywhere: When the City of Santa Cruz issued water restrictions this spring, for example, UCSC was directed to reduce water use by 15 percent. One month later, campus water use had dropped by a 27 percent.

That responsiveness to city mandates reflects a new era of collaboration.

"I think the agreement has been hugely successful," said Santa Cruz City Manager Richard Wilson. "We've built a foundation for a much better future."

Wilson, who described town-gown relations during his 30-year tenure with the city as "at best strained, and too often . . . direct conflict," said everything changed when Chancellor Blumenthal came to the table.

"When George Blumenthal was appointed acting chancellor, he invited me to his office, and we spent all morning talking about the issues," recalled Wilson. "He said he wanted to be able to articulate the city's issues from the city's point of view. He said he wanted to listen and then he would repeat what he'd heard. At one point, he asked me when the last conversation like this had taken place--I said, 'Never.' "

Old grievances resolved

That quest for understanding was shared by then-Mayor Coonerty, who is also widely credited with shepherding the talks that led to last August's breakthrough agreement.

"It's a model agreement," said Mark Dettle, director of public works for the city. "Both organizations are happy with it. There are financial incentives built into the agreement to encourage the city and the university to work together to mitigate the growth impacts. That's what makes this such a good agreement. We now have a very good structure to work out any problems that come up."

The agreement was the product of a seven-month-long discussion during which representatives of the city, county, campus, and neighborhood groups agreed to conditions that resolved litigation over UCSC's 2005 Long-Range Development Plan. But to get there, all parties had to resolve old grievances and longstanding differences of opinion.

"We couldn't even agree on a definition of what constituted a unit of water consumption, or a trip, or a housing unit, because the university has its own set of definitions that don't align with local governments'," recalled Wilson.

Dettle noted that representatives of the Coalition to Limit University Expansion, a neighborhood group, "added to the dynamics of the discussion and kept the city and university focused on outside interests that are also important to the community."

Blumenthal and Coonerty "displayed a lot of courage" during mediation talks, said Wilson. "They didn't have to, but they both chose to push forward."

"Now our vocabulary is the same," he said. "Whatever disagreements we might have, we'll be using the same vocabulary. I think we've fundamentally changed the basic relationship for the better. I'm really excited about it."

In the 12 months since the agreement was signed, "some great things have happened," said Dettle. "In terms of water conservation, the university has run with the requirements of the agreement and done a great job. It's a clear example of where everyone has benefited from this agreement."


On campus, Larry Pageler, director of Transportation and Parking Services, sees positive trends in traffic patterns, as well. The flow of traffic to campus remains at 1997 levels, despite the fact that enrollment has grown by nearly 6,000 students since then. Faculty, staff, and students share a commitment to alternative transit, and the campus offers incentives in the form of subsidized bus passes, carpools and vanpools, and a free bike shuttle.

"Our population wants to be healthy, they want to ride their bikes, they care about sustainability and climate change," said Pageler. "The fact that we have alternatives gives people options when gas hits $4 a gallon, like it did last fall."

Indeed, last fall the number of bike trips per day jumped to 1,800, compared to an average of 1,000 per day. "That's a good trend," noted Pageler. "It keeps getting better."

The campus has made agreed-upon payments of $1.4 million toward the redesign of several intersections that the city has targeted for improvement, and an additional $500,000 toward the repaving of Bay Street. UCSC has also secured a grant to fund the installation next summer of a traffic signal at the campus's west entrance.

"Even in a period of constrained budgets, both sides are bending over backward to honor their obligations," said John Barnes, director of campus planning.


On the housing front, UCSC is adding 300 new on-campus beds at Porter College and is working with the city and the Santa Cruz Neighbors group to address complaints from neighbors about rowdy student households in town.

"Housing is key, because so many other issues flow from it," said Coonerty, noting that if more students live on campus, city streets are less impacted.

As creative problem solving becomes the norm and memories of discord fade, city and campus staffers talk about a "shift in mindset" and "shared interests."

Economic development

Next on the agenda for the city and UCSC is "meaningful economic development that grows from the university," said Coonerty, a lecturer in the UCSC Legal Studies program. "If we can capture the ideas and companies that spin out from UCSC and keep them in Santa Cruz, that will help us build a more sustainable community."

To that end, the city and UCSC collaborated on a new Pilot Project on Innovation and Entrepreneurship to incubate business ideas that could become "the next Google," and the campus hosted its first-ever Business Plan Competition with support from the city. "There's a lot more that can be done," added Coonerty. "Keeping new companies here will really benefit the community."

Reflecting on the shift in town-gown relations that has taken place since the agreement was signed, Virginia Johnson, executive director of Ecology Action in Santa Cruz, said: "Truthfully, the city and university have so much more they agree on than not. The future of both is shared by the other. It's hard to believe it took so long."