Stuart Leavenworth

Stuart Leavenworth: Will county be duped by college bait?

Published: Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 - 8:34 am

Supporters of the Cordova Hills development in eastern Sacramento County seem to have settled on a strategy for blunting criticism of this leapfrog project as they head to the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 29:

If you are against Cordova Hills, then you are against higher education.

We saw some of that in a Jan. 11 op-ed in The Bee by Jonathan Brown, president emeritus of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. Brown suggested that by opposing Cordova Hills, The Bee's editorial board was against the kind of visionary leadership that led to the development of Stanford University, St. Mary's, the University of the Pacific and other private colleges in California.

"Universities are not like mushrooms, they don't pop up after a heavy rain," Brown wrote. "They require vision, time, distance."

It's undoubtedly true that universities don't sprout overnight, and it's undoubtedly true that the Sacramento region would benefit by having more in the area.

Yet should Sacramento County rezone a vast swath of rural land for a retail and residential subdivision on the prospective chance that a university might locate there, somehow, someday? That's ludicrous. If the county said yes to that, it would have to say yes to every developer who – in wanting to enhance the value of ranch land by getting it entitled for urban development – dangled the prospect of a future community amenity.

If you are catching up to this story, developers of Cordova Hills have been trying for years to get approvals to build a new regional shopping center and housing for 20,000 people on a 2,700-acre site east of Grant Line Road, in unincorporated Sacramento County.

Originally, the Legionaries of Christ, a Catholic group, had planned to build a university on 223 acres of the site. But it backed out of the project in 2011.

Until then, all previous county approvals for Cordova Hills had been based on the assumption it would come with a university project. Now, with no university in hand, lead developer Ron Alvarado wants county supervisors to approve the project anyway, on the condition that he will commit to donate the 223 acres for a future university.

Alvarado says he is determined to land a campus, and I have no doubt he is sincere. But can he do it? There is reason to be skeptical, especially if you consider trends in higher education and the fact that there already are several approved and prospective sites for new universities within the region.

Consider the case of Drexel University. Until 2011, this prestigious East Coast university was planning to build a new campus near Roseville, on land owned by Angelo K. Tsakopoulos that Placer County had approved for development in 2008. Yet as the recession lingered and Drexel took a fresh look at its financial situation, it downscaled its plans, backed out of the project and is focusing on its satellite campus in Old Sacramento, in a building owned by Tsakopoulos.

At least two other sites in the region are readily available for a university. One is in South Placer County, where developer Eli Broad once offered to donate 300 acres for a satellite California State University, Sacramento, campus. County maps show part of the former Mather Air Force Base could be used for an employment center, including a new university.

All three of these sites became prospects for brick-and-mortar campuses before the recession. Yet so much has changed in recent years. Many universities have realized they can attract students and "brand themselves" through online education, without the costs involved in building new campuses. Some are in fiscal crisis.

In a report released Wednesday, Moody's painted a bleak picture for the finances of universities, public and private. Philanthropy is expected to show "little or no growth," said the report, and government funds for student aid and research grants could drop, depending on actions by Congress. In addition, the recession has reduced household incomes, making it harder for families to pay for college tuition, especially at the higher-priced private institutions.

"The U.S. higher education sector has hit a critical juncture in the evolution of its business model," wrote Eva Bogaty, Moody's assistant vice president and the report's author. "Most universities will have to lower their cost structures to achieve long-term financial sustainability and to fund future initiatives."

On Jan. 29, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors will decide on final permits for Cordova Hills. Undoubtedly, supporters will label supervisors as anti-education if they vote against Cordova Hills, even without a university. But supervisors need to remember that the county's reputation is at stake with this vote.

If built without a campus, Cordova Hills could add to the region's problems of long-distance commuting, traffic and air pollution. It will violate the region's "Blueprint" principles by destroying vernal pools. It will add to a glut of unbuilt but approved retail and residential development – including sites designated for campuses – making it harder for the real estate market to recover.

Perhaps Alvarado will prove me wrong. Perhaps in the next week he will announce a university ready to develop a campus at Cordova at a potential cost of several billion dollars. But if he doesn't, supervisors should hold off on final approvals. They should send a polite but direct message to Cordova Hills developers: Come back and talk to us when you have a real university partner.

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Read more articles by Stuart Leavenworth, Editorial page editor

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