The Munger housing project is a billion-dollar project in which Chancellor Yang has let billionaire Charlie Munger (Warren Buffet’s vice president at Berkshire Hathaway) donate $200 million in exchange for total architectural design control over a new piece of undergraduate housing. The designs stopped being just a rumor and actually materialized this August with the public notice for the building being posted as required for the environmental impact review process. The designs display a 4,500 person, single-room occupancy (SRO) dormitory, with no windows or natural ventilation for 96% of the bedrooms. Much of the anger and controversy from students, parents, alumni, and pundits have centered on Munger’s design for donation quid pro quo and the lack of windows in the design.
I am a class of 2021 alumnus in political science and a former member of multiple campus design committees including the Design Review Committee (DRC), the same committee that architect Dennis McFadden resigned from. I am deeply passionate about undergraduate life and urban planning. I specifically wanted to include that I acknowledge that I published Mr. McFadden’s letter on Reddit without his consent, and I have since exchanged emails with him to apologize for the disruption it has caused. I ask that other activists learn to not burn the bridges that they plan to use.
I have a plethora of substantial design concerns about this building, but I am intentionally trying not to dwell on the “no windows” frenzy, which is so alarming that it has been heavily covered throughout nationwide media. Because of this, I want to examine some of the design nuances of the project more critically than what the narrative has been. I also want to be explicitly clear on the need for housing everywhere and anywhere, even SRO housing which our society does not build much of anymore. However, as I will lay out below, there are significant and unaddressed issues regarding this building project, especially in the context of student housing.
When first met with the floor plan of Munger Hall, a few questions immediately came to mind. Why is the surfboard storage area at a building not near the beach bigger than the theater/lecture hall? When some rooms could have windows, why are they the mechanical rooms/pumps/custodial rooms when they instead could be offices for faculty or multipurpose study rooms? Why is the ‘Cafe, Juice Bar, Grab and go market’ on the top floor rather than the bottom floor where people enter and egress? I love cooking and I want to know why money is being spent on a huge “demonstration kitchen,” which is twice the size of the 40-person theater. Why is there a gastropub? Why was I later emailed by the UCSB project director and told that, unlike the definition of a gastropub, it will not serve alcohol? Then why is it called a gastropub? Why is there a gastropub to begin with? These are just some petty, little examples that lack common sense that paints a broader picture of the designer’s ignorance. All of my questions come from the floor plans viewable here.
The rooms in Munger Hall are designed to be first-year dorms, and I do not think first-year students should be living in singles. When I hear Munger say, “it coaxes people out of their room,” I could not be more dismayed at the inaccuracy of that statement. As someone with firsthand experience with suicide and depression, I have had a direct look at the way that the environment and design of a space, a room or a building can impact our mood, feelings, and happiness. My deep worry is that this building design allows students who are not good at socializing right out of high school or who are depressed or suicidal to self-isolate. It is well known that undergraduates have very high rates of anxiety and depression. Living with a roommate your first year can be messy, complicated and uncomfortable but, in my opinion, it is also critical to a student’s social development — both in making a friend and learning to live with other people. It is important to have students keep an eye out on each other for both physical and mental health reasons especially considering new proximity to alcohol and drugs.
One of the main complaints heard from University of Michigan graduate students who live in the 900-person, windowless Munger housing project is that the fire alarm goes off very often — which makes sense seeing there are no external windows. That building has 900 students, and they are all at the graduate level. However, the UCSB project is for undergraduates. Consider how many times the smoke alarm will go off when you acknowledge how much cannabis UCSB students smoke combined with the chaos of first-years cooking and multiplied by 4,500 eighteen-year-olds.
At UCSB’s Santa Catalina residence hall, lovingly referred to as FT by its current and past residents, the fire alarm went off eight times in the span of my first year. FT houses 738 people per tower and does have external windows. Imagine 4,500 people and no windows. This is one of the most understated poorly thought-out parts of the plan.
Not to mention the further complications that would arise in the event of the HVAC system breaking or a power outage. In his Op-Ed to the LA Times, former DRC architect Dennis McFadden speculated, “This total reliance on energy-consuming artificial environmental systems, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, also means that the building is not passively habitable: In the event of a power outage the entire building — all 4,500 residents — would have to be completely evacuated.” Yikes.
This building has no cafeteria or dining commons but instead has one kitchen for eight people — a poor ratio but sadly not unusual to be seen in Isla Vista housing. I think leaving first-year students with no option but to cook is a bad idea. They are getting adjusted to a new life, trying to make friends, adjusting to an advanced academic course load and figuring out bike-based transportation — and on top of all that, they have to cook, grocery shop and do dishes. When I was a first-year, I met at least three people who did not know what a lint trap was in a dryer, and these same people are expected to cook for themselves each day and not set off the fire alarm while they do so?
The point of a dorm, as opposed to an apartment or a house, is to support students’ learning and social development by creating a focused and fun learning environment with fewer additional stressors. I am unconvinced that not having a dining hall facilitates that goal for new students.
This building is at the bottom of a hill and has no amenities or student services in the immediate area besides the UCSB police station, the Recreation Center tennis courts, and the SB County hazardous waste disposal site. If you think of this spot and its distance from campus in terms of a short car ride to class, then Munger Hall is very close and convenient. But when you scale your thinking to bicycle-commuting and pedestrianism, this location is awful and inconvenient.
At the bottom of a hill and currently lacking bike lanes and sidewalks, each trip to class entails students biking straight uphill. Since Munger Hall is not centrally located, it does not encourage walking or even biking. And all of the complaints listed so far seem nothing more than inconvenient if you are able-bodied, but how are we going to be a school that can champion being accessible to differently-abled people who are blind, use wheelchairs, etc., when we make a dorm that is in no position to serve them?
This building is also far from the two most interesting parts of the area: the beach and Isla Vista. This makes me incredibly sad. I know that my favorite parts of my college experience were podcasts on the beach, November sunsets at Sands Beach, living with my friends and random parties in I.V. The best was a “sauce party” where everyone invited had to bring or make a sauce and the host supplied veggies, crackers, and chips to dip in the sauces — and we got trashed, too.
Munger Hall is also slated to have a market at the ground level so students can grocery shop. This monopolizes students to that one single market owned and operated by UCSB as this building is far away from the diversity of other food options that Isla Vista has when you do not want to cook or grocery shop elsewhere. This distance also gives it no viable way to have students substantially support the Isla Vista Food Coop (which COVID hit hard so please support it!) and Isla Vista Market — which are both small businesses that add value to Isla Vista.
When I lived at FT, I used a food delivery service about 12 times the entire year because I was stuck with the old Portola Dining Commons, and Tenaya Market did not yet exist. And that was the average; some people never used a food delivery service, and some used it every week (and this is back when these services were not that common, it was just a creepy guy who ran iV Menus). When I lived at San Rafael dorms, I ordered food maybe once or twice that entire year because living on the main campus right next to I.V., I now had the option of either being in proximity of three other dining commons or walking to Isla Vista. Proximity matters.
So let’s multiply my 12 food delivery meals a year by 4,500 potential Munger Hall students. All because of the location alone, this would cause 54,000 food deliveries. That is 54,000 vehicle trips (not to mention Lyft or Uber) that could have been mitigated with better urban planning.
In a more perfect world, I think this building should have a dining hall and go between the San Rafael dorms and the Student Resource Building (logic would dictate that we actually want students near the resource building right?). If this was the case the project would not have to build and spend part of its 1.5 billion dollar budget on supporting infrastructure like bike lanes, grocery stores, theatres, etc., because all of those amenities already exist in the area. Students would have more diverse food options. Students would actually be near the beach and I.V. The university could get away with fewer bike racks because walking would be an equally viable way to get around (the current project has 3,000 bike racks planned for 4,500 students).
In sum, if this project was in a better location, if this project had a dining hall, if this project had double-occupancy rooms — I may still be grumbling about the no windows, but I could see hope and promise in this building. In that case, I could at least praise it for adding 4,500 units to the housing market and potentially breaking the landlord monopoly in I.V., but sadly this building will live on outside of the original state of affairs and be a detriment to students well being for decades if not centuries to come.
Marc Vukcevich is a class of 2021 political science alumnus of UCSB and a former member of several building design committees on campus. He currently bartends and is on the board of a walking, cycling, urban planning advocacy nonprofit in Orange County.