Placer land sold; satellite Sacramento State campus idea revived

Dormant for five years, a plan to build a Sacramento State satellite campus in Placer County was revived Tuesday after a development firm bought the land that would host the new campus.

Westpark Communities announced it has purchased the 2,200-acre Placer Ranch property from Eli Broad, the wealthy Los Angeles developer and philanthropist who struggled for two decades to develop the parcel. The purchase price for the land – west of Rocklin and north of Roseville – wasn’t disclosed.

While the land would be converted into offices, housing and other uses, Westpark Chief Operating Officer Jeff Jones said moving on the Sacramento State piece of the puzzle is an immediate priority. “We’re anxious to restart,” he said.

Sacramento State officials said they, too, are committed to the project, which could some day grow to accommodate 25,000 students. The existing California State University, Sacramento, campus serves 28,500 students and is gradually increasing its population.

Still, there’s no timetable for getting the project started. Westpark hasn’t secured any zoning changes, permits or other regulatory approvals for the CSUS campus. The same is true for the rest of Placer Ranch, which is envisioned as a mixed-use development with offices, retail, industrial and residential. The campus would occupy about 300 acres, donated by Westpark.

The residential part could prove controversial. When Broad first promoted the idea of a Sacramento State campus at Placer Ranch in 2003, environmentalists and some county officials complained that he was dangling the university component as a way of softening opposition to his plan to build homes on Placer Ranch’s northern edge – which is close to a landfill. The controversy became moot when the real estate market collapsed and Placer Ranch went into hibernation in 2008.

Jones said housing would be a critical element of Placer Ranch. Housing pays “for the upfront infrastructure that is necessary,” he said. “We will definitely have a residential component.”

Westpark has developed several residential and mixed-use projects in Placer County, including Westpark, Westbrook and Sierra Vista.

But Jones said Westpark hasn’t determined where the housing would be built, and how many homes would be involved. Broad’s plans called for as many as 5,000 homes.

County Supervisor Robert Weygandt, whose district includes Placer Ranch, said he still thinks the parcel “should be a jobs-oriented zone” but he wouldn’t necessarily oppose a project that includes some housing. “The devil would be in the details, for sure,” he said.

With the housing market recovering, and south Placer one of California’s demographic hot spots, Westpark officials said there’s ample evidence that the demand exists for new homes. It makes sense to build homes close “to where people work and go to school,” said Holly Tiche, president of Placer Ranch.

“We absolutely see it as a job center that would complement the university,” Jones added. The land is currently zoned for industrial use and sits in what is known as the Sunset Industrial Zone.

The idea of a big university in Placer County has been around for years. For more than a decade, land baron Angelo K. Tsakopoulos has offered property for a university on 1,100 acres he controls west of Roseville. Negotiations with Drexel University of Philadelphia and a new university named De La Salle didn’t pan out, although Drexel opened a graduate school in Sacramento. Tsakopoulos donated the land last December to a nonprofit headed by his son-in-law. Next month, county officials will visit England to tour the University of Warwick, which is considering opening a campus on that site.

For Sacramento State, the Placer project represents an opportunity “for extending our reach,” said university spokeswoman Kim Nava. Last year, nearly 2,000 CSUS students came from Placer County, she said.

“The county is the university’s second largest source of students, and it is also home to many of our alumni,” said university President Alexander Gonzalez in a prepared statement. “We continue to look forward to advancing our educational goals in this important part of our region.”

Gonzalez is a former president of CSU San Marcos, which opened in 1990 and had its origins as a satellite campus of San Diego State just 11 years before.

Besides donating the land to the university, Jones said Westpark would team up with Broad to pay for construction of the initial campus building. “Sac State isn’t going to pay for that,” he said.

Although the Placer campus could eventually rival the Sacramento campus in the size of its student body, development of the campus would proceed as demand dictates.

“It’s building by building,” Tiche said. “It’ll start with the first multipurpose building and go from there.”

Roseville Mayor Susan Rohan said a Sacramento State campus would be an economic magnet – and help alleviate the daily surge of traffic from Placer to the university’s main campus. “It’d be so convenient to get those cars off the road, have those students stay in our community,” she said. Placer Ranch includes land set aside for Placer Parkway, a proposed road linking Highways 65 and 99.

Separately, the city of Roseville is discussing building a “university center” that would offer programs from Sacramento State, the University of the Pacific, Drexel and others. Rohan said she thinks the center could coexist with the Sacramento State campus at Placer Ranch.

Broad developed the highly successful Stanford Ranch project in Rocklin but wasn’t able to get Placer Ranch going. In 1994 he sued the county after being denied zoning changes he sought. He lost. More recently, he was working on having the land annexed by the city of Roseville when the project stalled in 2008. Jones said no decision has been made on whether to resume the annexation process, but the company is talking to city and county officials.

In the meantime, Broad, who has become increasingly involved in civic life in Los Angeles, was ready to unload the property. “He’s focused on his foundation and his priorities have shifted,” said Doug Elmets, who has been a spokesman for Placer Ranch over the years.