EDITOR’S NOTE – After two decades of searching, the University of California has settled on the location of its 10th campus: Merced, a city of just over 100,000 people in the middle of the Central Valley. This article, the first in a two-part series, looks at the developments that led to the selection of Merced. Tomorrow’s installment will examine what lies ahead in the construction process, which will proceed only over the objections of environmental activists.

By 2010, the University of California has estimated a need to accommodate 54,000 additional students from California’s booming population.

There is not enough room for these students at nine UC campuses.

Enter 2,000 acres of cattle-grazing land in the San Joaquin Valley, six miles outside of Merced and two miles from Lake Yosemite Park – about 45 minutes from Yosemite National Park. Rolling hills are covered in grass, wildflowers and very little else. Most of the year, the land is dusty brown, as is the horizon. When the air is clear, however, the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range can be seen.

This is the site of the 10th UC campus. Within the next 25 to 30 years, UC officials expect UC Merced to expand to accommodate 25,000 students. But to prepare it for 5,000 students by 2010 will cost $400 million, according to University estimates.

UC planners expect the campus to open in 2004. Right now, UC Merced is one administrative office in a downtown strip mall. This summer, however, the university will open its non-existent doors to offer six to eight courses at small UC extension sites in Fresno, Bakersfield and Merced.

Three and a half million people live in the San Joaquin Valley, which stretches from Stockton to Bakersfield. A primarily rural area, it has not seen many benefits of the new, computer-based economy.

“This area desperately needs positive growth, a university, to spur economic and education access for local inhabitants,” said James Grant, the director of communications for UC Merced.

“The San Joaquin Valley is a large area that has traditionally been underserved in many areas of education, healthcare, economic opportunity, etc.,” Grant said. “Currently, high school graduates from the San Joaquin Valley attend the UC system at half the rate of the rest of the state. Building a major new research university here will help transform the educational and economic access for the entire region.”

Compared to the rest of California, land in the valley is cheap. The average home in Merced costs $120,000, compared to $205,000 in Los Angeles or $365,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The University began looking at 85 possible locations for a site in central California during the late 1980s. After environmental impact reports, the UC narrowed the field to three locations: Table Mountain in Madera, Academy Avenue in Fresno and the 2,000 acres of trust land by Lake Yosemite next door to Merced.

Worries about the water supply in Madera eliminated Table Mountain, Grant said, while Fresno, with its population of 755,730, would have been cramped and expensive. Merced, with a population of 198,450 and land that will cost the University next to nothing, was left. For 2,000 acres of grassland, the UC will pay the Virginia Smith Trust $10,000.

The trust owns 7,000 acres of land around Merced and was founded by the estate of a wealthy California native named Virginia Smith to pay for San Joaquin Valley students to attend college. Terry Bates, the trust’s operations director, said the trust would have “a mutually beneficial business relationship” with UC Merced. The university would increase property values around Merced and, possibly, lease some of the 2,000 acres back to the trust as grazing land, which would increase the trust’s ability to fund scholarships.

If the new university increases surrounding property values, they will go up slowly, said Augustus Strotz, a managing trustee of the Cyril Smith Trust, another Merced-area educational trust.

“There will be nothing appreciable for the next five to 10 years,” he said. “This is a very long term planning endeavor.”

Anticipating an economic boom, Merced County is preparing for the newest UC by planning to expand its roads. In 1997, Rep. Gary Condit of California’s 18th District requested $55 million in congressional funds to build access roads to the university.

Construction is scheduled to begin this summer. Gov. Gray Davis allocated $162 million in the 2001-02 state budget to pay for the university’s first three buildings: an office building, a science and engineering building and a high-tech library.

Planners expect the buildings to be complete by 2004. By that time, Grant said, the university is scheduled to admit its first 1,000 students. Enrollment is predicted to increase at a rate of 800 per year, reaching 5,000 students by 2010.

The UC is planning to build the campus over 910 acres, holding 340 acres in reserve for future development and saving 750 acres as a natural preserve.

But there are a few bumps in the road. The 2,000 acres the UC plans to build on are pocked with puddles and swamps called vernal pools, home to endangered microscopic life forms, such as the fairy shrimp.

Vernalpools.org is a website maintained by environmentalists opposed to building UC Merced.

“The proposed project will have major unmitigatable impacts on endangered species, unique natural landscapes, important wetland habitats, and our irreplaceable natural heritage,” reads the website.

Despite opposition, Grant maintains that UC Merced will be built on time.

Tomorrow’s article will focus on the environmental debate surrounding the new university.