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Chula Vista Is a College Town in Search of a College

Despite years of setbacks, Chula Vista still has hope it will someday be home to a four-year university. In taking a “land first, school second” approach to making it happen, the city is charting an unusual course.

Chula Vista leaders and residents resolved decades ago to bring a university to town. It’s clear they aren’t giving up, though they’ve had plenty of reasons to over the years.

They’ve been passed over in attempts to get their own state school. They had a bill to study their request vetoed. They’ve struggled to attract a private school.

But last year, the city finalized agreements with developers, giving it enough land for a campus and enough money to keep up the fight. City staff is clearing environmental hurdles to building, it’s got studies demonstrating the need and it’s hired consultants to make the case.

And despite years of setbacks, they’ve got hope, after Assemblywoman Shirley Weber secured funding for studies in the next two years that could make way for a new school in the UC or CSU systems.

Nothing’s assured for the South Bay’s steadfast pursuit of a university. But through the fight, it’s charted a nontraditional path to founding a four-year school.

From the History Department

Other cities in San Diego County with four-year universities first had an existing institution, then found and built out the campus. In Chula Vista, city officials are providing the campus and hoping a university will find them.

South Bay residents longed for a four-year school of their own at least as far back as 1986.

In 1993, Chula Vista identified land near Otay Ranch for a university, though the city didn’t actually own the land. But that changed in 2014.

Several residential developers owned the property and additional land around the 375 acres that the city hoped to set aside for a college campus. Through several agreements, the city acquired the land and about $2 million in cash to make the university happen, in exchange for speeding up the permitting process for developers to build homes surrounding the campus area.

In 2010, the city commissioned a report to show the area needed a four-year school. The California Postsecondary Education Committee’s report showed demand for undergraduate enrollment in California was expected to increase 16 percent from 2008 to 2019, or by a total of 387,000 would-be students, and the UC and CSU systems’ demand were both expected to increase at the same rate.

More importantly to South Bay residents, the report said the area’s college-bound population would increase by 29,000 people, to 115,180 students.

In 2008, about two-thirds of the students who graduated from high school within the South Bay area attended some type of postsecondary institution, but most enrolled in community colleges. More than 90 percent of South Bay first-time college-goers stayed within San Diego County.

All of this, the city says, supports the conclusion that the South Bay needs a university of its own. And the city now has the land it would need for a university.

Finding a Tenant

The city now faces the daunting task of finding a university to occupy the land it’s worked so hard to set aside.

“That’s probably the biggest question,” said Scott Donaghe, the university project manager at the Chula Vista planning department. “We thought if we had the land, universities would come knocking at our door. But they actually want land and they want money.”

In other words, it’s not cheap to build a university, and most universities struggle to find the cash to start or expand – on top of finding the land.

Chula Vista has $1.4 million left from its land deals, after spending some of it on consultants that marketed the city to universities and analyzed who might fund a university there.

One consulting group is expected to finish a report by the end of the year that would spell out financial models for a university, proposing how to create a nonprofit-controlled land trust to govern the property and suggestions for potential universities. The city’s planning department is also working on a land use plan and an environmental report for the area that they hope to finish within a year.

At this point, Donaghe said he thinks it’s likely that the campus will end up being shared space between two or three universities that want satellite campuses. The city is looking to Mexican universities, counting on the fact its proximity will make it a prime location for a binational university.

A report by a city advisory committee laid out several options.

One is a model similar to the Claremont Colleges in California, which is made up of seven private institutions. Each owns its own land and buildings on the larger property, though the colleges share things like a library, student center and parking.

Another option is something like the Centennial Campus of North Carolina State University, a campus that houses a large research university and several corporate and government partners. The campus is divided into “academic neighborhoods,” that have teaching and research sections for various subjects, like biosciences and biotechnology, information and communication technologies and education.

Chula Vista City Councilwoman Patricia Aguilar would prefer a public university to ensure it’s affordable to area students, and to avoid recent scandals with for-profit universities.

But she recognizes the challenge of trying to start a public university there.

“The state has very little money,” Aguilar said.

Chula Vista has tried to get state funds before and it hasn’t worked out.

In 1995, the city was passed up for a new University of California campus – the university system’s governing board instead chose a location in the San Joaquin Valley, which became UC Merced.

In 2009, then-Assemblyman Marty Block, now a state senator, put forward a bill to study putting another CSU campus in Chula Vista. The governor vetoed it.

“When we look at the growth of California over the next 50 years, it’s clear we are going to need additional facilities for higher education,” Aguilar said. “But finding the money for a public university is definitely going to be a hurdle. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. San Marcos is a perfect example.”

A Different Path

Cal State San Marcos took a different path.

It was already a university before it found its current San Marcos campus.

North County residents pushed for a university and in 1979 the state budgeted for a “San Diego State North.” The university spent its first three years teaching classes out of a high school in Vista.

In 1988, the university purchased the land where Cal State San Marcos currently resides for $10.6 million. The university then put in a request to the Legislature for $51.8 million to plan and build the campus.

Nor did UC San Diego follow Chula Vista’s path.

The Scripps Institute of Oceanography was affiliated with the UC system and already in La Jolla before there was a full UC campus. It acted as an anchor for the new university.

Oceanographer Roger Revelle had a vision for expanding the area into a full campus and led the push. The campus was intended to be science- and tech-focused, to supplement Scripps, but officials quickly realized they wanted to offer other disciplines to provide well-rounded educations.

“It’s a completely a different set of circumstances between what happened here and what Chula Vista is trying to do,” said Lynda Claasen, director of Special Collections and Archives at UC San Diego Library. “It seems a little backwards to me. Normally one has a vision. It’s a huge undertaking to start a university.”

Even most private universities start with money and university leadership. Then they find land.

The University of San Diego’s founders, Bishop Charles Francis Buddy and Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill, had decided to start a university in 1949 and raised the funds before buying property.

Hope for Public Funding

Chula Vista may have another chance at public funding.

Weber, the state assemblywoman, this year got studies for a new university passed as part of the state’s budget.

In January 2017, that study will determine whether the state should invest in a new California State University. In January 2018, it will put out a similar study for the University of California system.

While the studies provide hope, they may find the state can’t afford another university. Or they may find that the state needs another public university, but that it shouldn’t be in Chula Vista. There have been pushes for a state university campus in Stockton and many existing campuses, like UC Merced, would like to expand.

“There’s a huge need for bachelor’s degrees in order to fill the labor market,” said Joe Kocurek, spokesman for Weber. “Clearly there is going to be some need for new public institutions. We’re confident they will see the need in Chula Vista. But ultimately it’s going to need some funding.”

Donaghe said having a public university would be the best thing for the city. But Chula Vista isn’t going to wait to see if it lucks out this time.

“It’s kind of a catch-22,” Donaghe said. “Sometimes the public universities come in and do whatever they want, and we’d like to have some of the planning we’ve done incorporated. But on the other hand, if we end up with a private university, we would’ve done ourselves a disservice by not making the process easier for them.”

Regardless of what happens, Chula Vista isn’t going to quit on its university dreams. At least not yet.

The land agreements explicitly say the city can hold onto the land as long as it’s used for a university. The residential developers who gave the land to the city had one major concern – that the city doesn’t use it to build housing that competes with them. The city could end up using the land for something other than a university, but it wouldn’t be easy.

“We’re not setting ourselves up for failure,” said Donaghe. “There are different thoughts. Some people would consider using the land for park land. To me, this is our goal – whether it takes 30 or 50 years.”

Aguilar said right now no one on the City Council intends to turn the land into anything but a university. But, she says, if 20 more years pass and they still can’t get a university there, who knows.

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