Set to begin construction as early as the summer of 2023, UC Santa Barbara’s Munger Hall Dormitory has been in development for nearly a decade, largely in private from the public and local governance.
Its unique design — a dense nine-story structure home to over 3,500 student bedrooms, most of which will lack windows — has been subject to national criticism; the housing crisis and lack of faith in the Munger Hall design ultimately prompted city and county government litigation.
Prior to the Munger Hall project, UCSB spent years developing a different student residence, an apartment complex known as Mesa Verde. That project was abandoned by 2019, with UCSB planning to construct Munger Hall at the site once slated for Mesa Verde.
Donor Charles Munger
The dormitory was designed by Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles Munger, who is expected to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to help fund the massive project.
His involvement with UCSB dates back over a decade, sparked by a conversation he had on a fishing trip with longtime friend and Santa Barbara resident Glen Mitchel, later recounted in Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics’s (KITP) winter 2015 newsletter.
On the fishing trip, Mitchel told Munger that the university was planning to construct a visitors residence for KITP. Munger met with KITP Director Lars Bildsten in the summer of 2012, per minutes of a Campus Planning Committee (CPC) meeting on Jan. 28, 2014, obtained by the Nexus.
The pair discussed fundraising options for the building, intending to house visiting scientists as well as their families. In the meeting, Munger offered to develop the residence himself and donate it to the campus upon its completion.
Munger had extensive input into the project despite having no formal architectural training, choosing an architect and settling on a three-story design in line with university standards and policies.
“He became so enthusiastic, he spent hours hand-drafting plans for a residence in accordance with his thoughts,” Mitchel said in the newsletter.
Munger’s donation totaled $65.4 million in stocks gifted to UCSB to fund the residence of his design: the Munger Physics Residence that opened in 2017.
The donation was the largest ever gift to the university up until 2014 and made up nearly half the private support the university received that fiscal year, which was its most profitable year ever at the time.
“Our campus is honored by the tremendous philanthropy of Charles Munger,” Chancellor Henry T. Yang said at the time in The Current. “His gift has crowned the record number of donations made to our campus during this fiscal year.”
Munger surpassed his own record four years later. The billionaire purchased Las Varas Ranch — an 1,800-acre property in Goleta that featured two miles of the California coastline — in 2018 from Kerry Mormann & Associates for an undisclosed amount estimated to be around $70 million.
Upon its purchase Munger gifted the ranch to UCSB, following approval of the UC Regents. Yang said the university would maintain it as a working ranch for years to come in a 2018 statement to the campus community.
“I am grateful to the Regents and our colleagues at the Office of the President for their advice and support,” Yang said in the statement. “And, of course, we are most grateful to Charlie Munger for blessing our campus with a gift that will benefit our University for generations to come.”
The property is currently maintained by the university as a working ranch.
Housing projects before Munger Hall
Prior to the Munger Hall project, UCSB worked for years to prepare an apartment project known as Mesa Verde that would house hundreds of students. The project was scrapped by 2019 for undisclosed reasons, and the site where construction was planned was taken over by Munger Hall.
The expansion of campus housing is dictated by the 2010 Long Range Development plan (LRDP) — a campus planning agreement the university signed onto with local government stipulating that UCSB add 5,000 student beds to the university by 2025.
Two apartment complexes — Sierra Madre and San Joaquin Villages — each predated the LRDP by several years and completed construction in 2016 and 2017, respectively. 1,500 bed spaces were added to the campus between the two projects, the only additions to campus housing since the LRDP’s ratification.
Planning for Mesa Verde, the third planned series of apartments, began in 2011. The project was set to provide 600 student apartment units in three construction phases, according to minutes of a CPC meeting on Nov. 29, 2011.
The project required the demolition and relocation of the existing Facilities Management center site, which is comprised of 18 buildings located on Stadium Road, to make way for the new housing.
The facilities management site was analyzed for the LRDP under the name Mesa Verde, according to UCSB Media Relations Manager Kiki Reyes.
“The site was incorporated into the 2010 LRDP with the name Mesa Verde,” Reyes said in a statement to the Nexus. “Besides capacity study analysis, there was no further study for the project.”
As part of plans to relocate its existing Facilities Management operations, the university purchased a property on South Los Carneros Road in 2013 for $12.5 million from the real estate firm Sares Regis Group, per minutes of an April 30, 2013, CPC meeting. The property housed a warehouse subleased by the Mammoth Moving & Storage company which would eventually be renovated to house the Munger Hall mock-up.
The Housing & Residential Services website displayed the Mesa Verde project through 2017 on a subpage that is no longer available. The page displayed a rendering of apartments at the site, which was set to host 550 students across 110-125 units at the time.
The subpage was taken down in 2017, but references to the project continued in budget documents. The 2018 UC Capital Financial Plan provided a lengthy explanation of the Mesa Verde complex, which was adjusted over the years to hold more students and aimed to house them by Fall Quarter 2022.
“Mesa Verde is the next student housing project and will provide 2,000 student beds in
apartment units,” the 2018 document read. “It is expected the project will be approved and built in phases, with the first phase targeted to open in Fall 2022.”
The university abandoned the project after several years of drafting architectural plans, preparing budget plans and purchasing property sites. The last mention of Mesa Verde on university budget documents appeared in 2019.
The unrealized pitch
By 2019, Mesa Verde stopped appearing on budget documents, replaced by “Donor Funded Student Housing.” The university had shifted its focus to a new housing project, one developed for years by Munger and Yang.
Following the planning of the Munger Physics Residence, the pair began discussing the possibility of Munger developing another campus residence — this time for students.
“Mr. Munger was interested in helping the campus with housing needs and engaged with Chancellor Yang in a number of conversations over the years,” Reyes said in her statement.
Yang already had a plot of land in mind for the student housing development: the 28-acre stretch of oceanfront land home to the Channel Islands 5 residence halls and De La Guerra Dining Commons. Both would need to be torn down for new structures to take their place, temporarily lowering the number of student bed spaces by over 2,700.
Yang reached out to Munger, inquiring what kind of project he’d be able to build at the selected site and how much of an investment he’d be willing to make, per Munger’s telling of events at a March 24, 2016, UC Regents meeting.
The billionaire, who has developed four housing projects for other universities as of 2022, accepted the invitation and set to work developing a new student residence.
It took Munger a year and a half to decide on whether or not to have single-student bedrooms, he told Architectural Record in an interview.
“How stupid I was,” he said in the interview. “Imagine taking years to decide that the kids should get their own bedroom.”
In opting for single-student rooms, his envisioned dormitories — planned to host thousands of students each — were rendered too dense for every bedroom to feature a glass window to the outside. Instead, Munger opted for artificial LED panels that would serve as virtual windows.
By March 2016 — years after Yang and Munger began discussing the project — preparation for Munger’s dormitory was well under way. The overall structure had been settled upon, a miniature of the buildings and surrounding environment had been built and Munger was preparing his pitch to the UC Regents.
At the same time, Building 994 — a part of the Goleta warehouse UCSB had purchased three years earlier — sat vacant. The university had quietly emptied the site ahead of major renovations, sending out a call for local design professionals on March 7 to assist with an estimated $2 million project to improve the “current building standards for accessibility, safety, and energy efficiency.” The warehouse would become the base of operations for redesigns to Munger’s dorm.
On the morning of March 24, 2016 — as the Regents gathered for a meeting at UC San Francisco — it was revealed that Munger would make a special announcement. Yang introduced Munger and touted his previous millions donated to UCSB.
Then, before the board, Munger announced his solution to UCSB’s student housing obligations: two six-story beachside dormitories packed so densely that not every student bedroom would have a real window. At this point, plans for the structure were still at the Channel Islands 5 residence halls and not at the facilities management site.
Munger initially committed $200 million to the project — a fraction of the at least $1.4 billion construction cost. More funds would be allotted, he said, should the price tag rise past initial estimates. The commitment did not constitute a firm donation, contrary to other reporting at the time. The Nexus later found that the actual amount, as well as overall source of funding, has yet to be settled upon.
UCSB stayed quiet about the project after Munger’s initial announcement, with no further declarations on the project or its progress. An acknowledgment of the project’s existence wouldn’t appear on university budget documents until 2019.
As abruptly as it was announced to the Regents, the project faded into the background, and plans to construct the massive beachside dormitories were ultimately scrapped. Reyes declined to say what led to the original dorm’s dismissal.
Though the initial dorm design at the Channel Islands 5 residence halls site had been discarded, Munger and UCSB’s plans were undeterred. Plans for the dormitory were overhauled, and the project’s location shifted to the Facilities Management complex.
The pair made use of the newly renovated warehouse on 389 S. Los Carneros Road — initially purchased to allow for the construction of Mesa Verde — and ultimately used the space to plan its replacement.
There, in response to the feedback to their original design, the university began construction on full-scale hallways, bedrooms and other spaces planned for a future dormitory. Operations related to the dormitory’s design have been entirely funded by Munger, according to Reyes, who said Munger’s cumulative donations to the campus have topped $125 million.
In the years that followed, Munger stayed firm in his preference for individual rooms at the expense of real windows.
“The minute I saw that, I realized that was the correct solution. And everything I thought before is massively stupid,” he told the Wall Street Journal in a 2019 interview.
Plans for artificial windows and fresh, filtered air in student bedrooms have been featured in the design throughout the entire project, Reyes said in her statement.
“The LED panels (‘artificial windows’) and providing 100 percent fresh outside filtered air for internal bedrooms have always been a part of the design. The architects have been keeping Mr. Munger updated on project developments as the review and design process continues,” Reyes said.
Munger and the university employed the Santa Monica-based architecture firm Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh to work on the design.
By 2019, the project was set to be built at the Facilities Management complex, usurping the spot from the now scrapped Mesa Verde apartments. The change was referenced in the 2019 UC Capital Financial Plan, along with a “TBD” price tag and the expectation that the project would provide around 4,000 new student beds, sorely needed at the time.
In the years the pair worked to redevelop their new campus residence, the housing situation in Isla Vista steadily worsened as rent rose and admissions outpaced new bedspaces — culminating in 2021 with a student housing crisis brought on by the pandemic. UCSB resorted to situating hundreds of students in hotels while they struggled to find permanent housing.
Despite the end to the hotel program as the crisis somewhat abated, the housing guarantees relied upon pre-pandemic have been put on a permanent hiatus, and a wave of students were denied spots in campus residences this academic year.
Reyes said all students on the university housing waitlist were eventually granted spots, though many others had sought out housing in and around Isla Vista.
By 2021, full-sized hallways, corridors, a kitchen, bedroom and common area were constructed inside the warehouse mock-up, largely in line with the university’s final design. Tours of the mock-up began over the summer of 2022 for community members.
“We have been running tours of the model House, and we hope everyone who can do so will take the opportunity for a walk-through and share their thoughts, suggestions, and comments,” Yang said in an Oct. 30 statement to the Nexus.
Santa Barbara County 3rd District Supervisor and President Joan Hartmann — who represented the university and Isla Vista for years until redistricting shifted them out of her district in 2022 — was only recently officially informed about the existence of the mock-up, unaware that the university had, for years, hosted invite-only tours, according to Hartmann’s District Representative Gina Fischer.
“We learned that there was perhaps some type of demonstration model housed off Los Carneros sometime around the public EIR Scoping Zoom meeting in July 2021. We did not know that UCSB was offering invitation-only tours for years nor that it was actually a full-scale replica until around July 2021,” Fischer said in a statement to the Nexus.
The announcement and backlash
In July 2021, the culmination of UCSB and Munger’s half-decade of work was announced.
Introduced as ‘Absolutely Stunning’ in a July 27 issue of The Current, the announcement detailed the university’s updated design, which had officially been dubbed Munger Hall.
What was once two towers had been consolidated into a single 11-story structure, with nine floors dedicated to 4,536 individual student bedrooms.
“The design of the project, as well as how it will be built, can be credited to Munger’s own sweeping and inspired vision for the university’s new student housing,” the announcement read.
A project scoping hearing — a short PowerPoint presentation — came the following day, presenting an overview of the project. Eight students, each with individual bedrooms, would share a suite that would branch into a hall of eight suites which all share a vast kitchen area and great room. Living in a bedroom twice the size of their counterparts, a residential advisor would oversee the 62 other students in their area. That pattern repeats eight times per floor, each holding 504 students.
It stood to be the largest student dormitory and eighth densest neighborhood in the world if constructed, according to one of the project’s former architectural consultants.
UCSB presented a number of goals for building preparations, seeking to approve its Environmental Impact Report by February 2022. Further approvals including by the California Coastal Commission by March had to be achieved before relocation of Facilities Management and Munger Hall construction could begin in April. None of the deadlines were met and each of those events have still yet to occur.
At the end of the presentation, community members voiced a slew of concerns, largely related to the density of the project and a lack of physical windows.
Munger’s updated dorm faced a degree of skepticism from the outset. Two petitions demanding Munger Hall be rejected totaled over 18,000 signatures cumulatively.
National backlash against the project followed the decision of Dennis McFadden to resign in protest of Munger Hall after serving for 15 years on UCSB’s design review committee. McFadden served as an architectural consultant on the project until his resignation on Oct. 25, 2021.
Until that point, coverage of the project had been limited to various local outlets. The resignation brought the project national attention, covered by CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post and others.
A week later, on the morning of Nov. 5, 2021, hundreds of students assembled on the library steps, making signs and preparing speeches in a unified show of protest. The event also coincided with Parents’ Weekend and led to chants of “Don’t send your kids here,” as marchers made their way across campus.
Following the mass of feedback and national attention, Yang created a Munger Hall Independent Review Panel, charged by the academic Senate, to glean public input and make a recommendation. The panel is said to be reaching a final recommendation after several months of work.
The university recently revealed that two floors had been cut from the project, brought on partly by community input on the project’s scale and density — now nine stories and 3,500 beds, the minimum to fulfill its LRDP requirements.
Santa Barbara County and the City of Goleta have both filed suits against the university for allegedly violating its housing requirements under the LRDP.
The Munger Hall project presently has no construction timeline and unclear funding. The project must get the approval of the UC Regents and California Coastal Commission before construction can begin.
Opportunity for public comment will arrive after the project’s Environmental Impact Report is released, expected to occur sometime in the near future. The university is continuing to gather community input about the process, according to Yang.
“We are still in the process of gathering input from our students, faculty, and staff regarding the proposed Munger Hall project,” Yang said in his statement. “The project team continues to seek input from our community on the building’s current design.”
News tips related to Munger Hall can be sent to the Nexus anonymously via text or Signal at: +1 805-380-6527, or at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Nov. 3, 2022, print edition of the Daily Nexus.