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Tuesday, Nov 28, 2023


By CHRISTOPHER WOODARD Staff Reporter With the cost of building a new college pegged at $800 million or more and the Cal State University system strapped for cash, it looked like Ventura County might have to wait decades for a long-needed four-year public university. But the closure of a former mental institution, some creative financing and an unusual partnership between the university and a private developer has led to the creation of California State University Channel Islands, which is scheduled to open this fall along the Ventura (101) Freeway corridor. The new campus is being developed at the former Camarillo state hospital, and the state government has chipped in $11.3 million to convert 100,000 square feet of former hospital space into classrooms. The university, meanwhile, has partnered with San Francisco-based Catellus Development Corp. to build a $170 million mixed-use project with housing, retail and office space. University officials hope that project will generate enough revenue to convert the remainder of the 1930s-era hospital into a modern campus. “We were told (by CSU trustees) to start a campus, but we have no money,” said Handel Evans, president of the new university. “Basically, we’re building a public university privately. I don’t know of it being done anywhere else.” Ventura County had tried unsuccessfully for years to get a four-year public university, but the area was repeatedly passed over during the college construction boom that began in the 1960s, said George Dutra, director of facilities and operations for Cal State Channel Islands. In the mid-1990s, CSU trustees purchased 260 acres of farmland near Camarillo with the intention of building the state’s 23rd Cal State campus, but the university system did not have any money left to undertake capital improvements on the land. As it turned out, then-Gov. Pete Wilson decided to close the state hospital in Camarillo, leaving vacant a picturesque campus with 900,000 square feet of potential classroom space and other infrastructure roads, physical plant, a swimming pool, gymnasium and mature landscaping. But the trick was finding a way to raise money to convert the hospital into a university. The answer, the CSU trustees agreed, was to partner with a private developer, in this case Catellus, to build a housing, retail and office project that could generate enough revenue to pay for capital improvements. To make the concept work, the state Legislature in January authorized the creation of a special site authority to oversee development on campus. The authority board, which is made up of CSU officials and local community leaders, is empowered to keep sales and property tax revenues generated by the project for the next 30 years, much like a redevelopment agency. The authority can then use the income stream to service tax-exempt bonds it plans to float to finance the rest of the transformation from hospital to university, Dutra said. “We have a marvelous environment and a product to work with here,” said Dutra of the hospital site and its striking Mission-style architecture. “We get to do something that’s never been done before.” The university and the developer last month unveiled the East Campus Community Plan, a proposal for a self-contained community with its own homes, stores, K-8 school and research-and-development park. Specifically, there would be 369 homes and townhouses for sale, marketed primarily to faculty and students, and 530 units of rental housing and dormitory-style housing to accommodate 1,000 students. The project also would feature about 40,000 square feet of retail space, including shops, restaurants and possibly a movie theater, as well as a 350,000-square-foot research-and-development park for lease to firms that have research ties to the university. Dutra said the university hopes to get the necessary approvals from Ventura County by the end of the year, with the first phase of development some of the housing to begin in January or February. Conrad Sick, a vice president at Catellus, said the goal is to create a “sense of place” on campus, where students and faculty can not only live but go shopping, dining or browsing in a bookstore. Because the university already owns the land, the for-sale housing can be priced so that it remains affordable to faculty and researchers, helping Cal State Channel Islands compete with other colleges in lower-cost areas. The homes will likely be priced at between $185,000 and $260,000, while a two-bedroom apartment might rent for about $800 a month, said Sick. The project, meanwhile, is expected to generate a revenue stream sufficient to service between $250 million and $350 million in tax-exempt bonds that can be used to complete capital projects. What Catellus brings to the table is the money needed to launch the planning process and the expertise to secure building entitlements, set up the financing, market and lease the project, Sick said. “If the campus didn’t have this opportunity, it would be built based on the funding available from Sacramento,” said Sick, noting that could take years, if not decades. “This allows the university to grow at a faster pace and deliver an education to people in need.” John Buse, managing attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, an advocacy group in Ventura, said that while his group supports the idea of a new college campus, he feels the pay-as-you-go approach makes for bad policy because it makes the university dependent on development. “Everyone was told from the start that (the university) has to have development or the campus isn’t going to happen,” said Buse. “It places the campus in the position of being reluctant developers, and I don’t think they like to be in that position.” Buse’s group, which has been active in the fight against the sprawling Newhall Ranch master-planned community among other projects, is opposed to the amount of residential development in the university project, saying it would overburden the two-lane agricultural roads leading into the campus. But Buse said it is unlikely his group will take the project to court. The group instead will continue monitoring the project to make sure concerns about traffic, air pollution and other matters are addressed. Supervisor Frank Schillo dismisses criticism of the joint venture. Ventura County has waited for decades for a public university, and this may be the area’s only chance, given the extraordinary costs of developing new campuses from scratch, he said. “(The joint venture) makes it a reality sooner,” said Schillo, who also serves on the new site authority board. “We’ll be producing an educated workforce and attracting businesses to the county. Lots of things will happen.” Technically, the new university initially will be a satellite campus of Cal State Northridge, which is currently offering courses to some 1,700 students at a community college in Ventura. The advantage of moving the satellite campus to Camarillo is that the program is already accredited, and it will give the new university a foundation on which to build, said university president Evans. Once it builds its program, Cal State Channel Islands will seek accreditation as a stand-alone university, possibly by 2002. The new university’s curriculum is still being worked out, but Evans anticipates it will concentrate on serving the demand for an educated workforce along the Ventura (101) Freeway corridor, primarily related to the biotech, health care, high-tech and agricultural industries. The public/private partnership, meanwhile, will allow the new campus to be built for about one-third the cost of a typical university and years ahead of schedule. “We’re very entrepreneurial because we have to be,” Evans said.

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