Dormzilla Descends on UCSB

University Resurrects Plans for Massive, 11-Story Munger Residence Hall

The Munger Residence Hall would stand 159 feet tall, just below the height of Storke Tower. | Credit: Courtesy

Amid threats of litigation and increasing public pressure over its acute housing shortage, UCSB has resurrected plans for a massive, 11-story dormitory on the northwest edge of campus that would accommodate up to 4,536 undergraduate students. 

The structure ― to be named the Munger Residence Hall after its designer and financier, investor-billionaire Charlie Munger ― would replace an existing complex of maintenance facilities at the corner of Mesa and Stadium roads and provide a whopping 1.68 million square feet of work-live space, including single-occupancy bedrooms, communal “great rooms,” and plenty of amenities. No parking for the building is planned, but more than 3,000 spaces for bicycles would be provided.

A public review of the proposal is scheduled for later this month. For final approval, it must get the green light from the County of Santa Barbara, the University of California Regents, and the California Coastal Commission. If all goes smoothly ― an unlikely scenario given the scope of the undertaking ― the soonest the residence hall would be open for occupancy is fall 2025.

Above is a detailed look at two eight-bedroom suites that compose a “house” (six more suites fall out the frame) alongside their common areas. | Credit: Courtesy

While the project was first announced in 2016 alongside a $200 million donation from Munger, little progress had been made since then. That is, until an alliance of government officials and citizen housing advocates recently started pressuring UCSB to comply with its legally binding housing mandate, which the university has fallen far behind on, to the tune of some 3,500 beds for students and 1,500 units for faculty and staff. The group argues UCSB has repeatedly kicked the can down the road, with the shortfall exacerbating Santa Barbara’s existing housing crisis, manifested for local residents by rising prices, overcrowding, and longer commutes.

Campus planners announced the public review of the mega-dorm last Thursday, just three weeks after the citizen arm of the alliance ― who call themselves SUN, or Sustainable University Now ― sent Chancellor Henry Yang a not-so-veiled threat to sue if UCSB didn’t act, and fast. SUN gave Yang a deadline of July 18 to provide a detailed plan for how the school’s housing problem would be solved. The Munger venture appears to be part of that solution, though negotiations continue.

Paula Perotte, the mayor of nearby Goleta, said while she and her colleagues were glad to see UCSB moving forward with more beds for students, “we are disappointed in the lack of progress made in providing on-campus housing for faculty, staff, and their families.” The city is especially concerned “about the impacts to the regional housing supply and traffic,” she said. As part of the Munger project, UCSB said it would implement a new requirement prohibiting first-year students from bringing cars to campus.

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In response to questions from the Independent about UCSB’s long-delayed 540-unit faculty housing project slated for Ocean Road, spokesperson Andrea Estrada said the university is “currently working with our developer partner to complete campus consultation over the summer with the goal of seeking UC Regents approval in fall 2021 or early winter 2022.” 

Supervisor Joan Hartmann, whose district includes the university, said she and the county “look forward to UCSB and the UC Board of Regents making meaningful progress on this long-standing obligation to mitigate campus growth and prior student enrollment increases. They also, she said, “look forward to a clear timeline” for completion of the Munger project.

The new residence hall ― which would stand 159 feet tall, just a shade under the height of Storke Tower ― is not Munger’s first foray into college dormitory design. The Berkshire Hathaway vice president, whose grandson attended UCSB, planned and backed new graduate housing in 2013 at the University of Michigan, where he studied mathematics. In both instances, his multimillion-dollar gifts came with a catch ― the schools could only have his money if they followed his designs.

Charlie Munger previously donated $65 million to develop UCSB’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. Here he stands with Lars Bildsten, UCSB’s theoretical physics director, in 2016. | Credit: Courtesy

Munger, who is 97 years old, blind in one eye, and losing vision in the other, has no formal training in architecture, but over the last decade has developed a passion for creating unconventional yet highly efficient blueprints for college living. Most of the bedrooms in his UCSB residence hall, for example, don’t have windows in order to coax students into common spaces where they can mingle and collaborate. The rooms would instead be fitted with artificial windows modeled after portholes on Disney cruise ships.

The rectangular building’s nine residential floors, the plans show, would be organized into eight “houses” divided by a single interior corridor branched by smaller hallways. Each house would include eight suites, and most suites would contain eight bedrooms, a common area with tables and chairs, a small kitchenette, and a television. Each house in turn would have access to a large kitchen, a common dining area, a game area, and a laundry room.

In a 2016 interview with the Independent, Munger called the “house” concept “a minor revolution.” And in a 2019 interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said he was confident that students would rather have single rooms and comfortable communal areas than windows. “The minute I saw that, I realized that was the correct solution,” he said. “And everything I thought before is massively stupid.”

The ground floor, the plans also show, includes a mailroom, copy center, classrooms, study areas, two lobbies, a market, and a bakery. The top floor would feature conference rooms and lecture halls, as well as lounges, game areas, a grab-and-go market, and a restaurant with pub-style food and drinks. Those spaces would surround an open-air atrium with landscaping and seating. Planners say the project would aim for at least a LEED “Gold” certification with an all-electric heating and hot water design and other sustainability-minded features.

The public scoping hearing, which opens a 30-day comment period, is scheduled for Wednesday, July 28, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. via Zoom at bap.ucsb.edu/mungerhousing.

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