This summer, UC Santa Barbara began offering guided tours of the Munger Hall Mockup, a full-scale model of one “house” within the proposed dormitory that has generated a considerable amount of commentary and controversy over its unique design. While the 11-story structure conceptualized by billionaire-philanthropist Charles Munger and intended for 4,500 undergraduates would feature spacious common areas and a host of amenities, the majority of its 10-foot-by-7-foot single-occupancy bedrooms would not include windows.
The walkthroughs are currently only available to students, faculty, and staff, said university spokesperson Kiki Reyes, and so far “several hundred individuals” have participated. “We have received beneficial feedback, including helpful constructive criticism from our students,” she said, most of which focused on parking, dining options, and the LED panels planned for the rooms without windows.
Not everyone who takes the tour fills out a survey provided at the end, Reyes said, but among those that do, “nearly eight out of 10” leave with a “favorable or neutral impression” of the space. Many students expressed enthusiasm over the privacy the single rooms would offer, Reyes said, as well as a promise from the university that Munger Hall housing costs would remain 20-30 percent below the market rate of nearby Isla Vista.
Cole McCarthy, a second-year undergrad, said he kept an open mind going into his tour of the model, which was built more than three years ago inside a warehouse on Los Carneros Way. “I don’t think it’s fair to be holistically negative going into it,” he said. But he left conflicted. “On the one hand, it’s really nice,” said McCarthy, who lived in the “funky” Santa Rosa Residence Hall his freshman year. “It’s indisputable. There are all sorts of features — air conditioning, game rooms, balconies, flat-screen TVs in every suite — that would make it the nicest dorm on campus.” He also appreciated the project’s bike-friendly infrastructure.
But on the other hand, McCarthy continued, “I just couldn’t get past the windows.” The LED panels are “pretty good,” McCarthy acknowledged, but just not enough to shake a general sensation of claustrophobia. “I personally would not want to live there,” he said. “I would feel trapped.” All the amenities under the sun can’t replace natural light and a view of the world outside, he concluded. “It’s not the students’ fault that there is a housing shortage,” he said, “so why are they being punished for it?” McCarthy wondered if the billion-plus dollars it would cost to construct Munger Hall might be better spent on expanding and upgrading existing dormitories or perhaps building atop single-story dining commons, as other universities have done.
Fellow tour participant Caela Erickson, who transferred from Ventura College to UCSB last year, was less equivocal in her remarks. “I felt like a pod person,” she said of spending time in the mocked-up bedroom. “Some people may be into that, but I’m not.” Erickson also didn’t like the idea of the structure being so self-contained with numerous food and retail spaces, a frequent selling point by administrators, as it would compel residents into UCSB-only “micro-transactions” that would pull money from the rest of the community.
Erickson said she was especially disappointed that her tour guide from the Campus Housing department was unable to answer many of her questions about the project, including its sustainability elements and the rationale behind its hyper-dense design. “I feel like UCSB should be leveling with us a little more,” Erickson said. “Or at least pretending to be leveling with us.”
Many of McCarthy’s and Erickson’s worries were echoed by more than two dozen fellow students during a public forum last month. Luna Moreno called her walkthrough “unconvincing.” The mockup, she said, failed to reflect the sheer size of the proposed 1.7-million-square-foot building with enclosed hallways as long as football fields and interior suites situated far from any outside-facing “Great Room” like the kind displayed in the model. “Any positive reaction to the tour fails to account for the massive scale of the project,” Moreno insisted.
Len DeBenedictis, a 1962 graduate and member of the board of trustees for the UCSB Development Fund, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by his experience inside the model. “The overall feel was very comfortable for a more socially oriented person,” he said. “The loner might prefer a different use of space, but you can’t have both large, windowed bedrooms and all the other accommodations without more than doubling the building cost and floor space.”
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“I don’t believe that it will damage students in any way psychologically as has been suggested by some,” DeBenedictis continued. “I don’t know about you, but I like it dark and quiet when I want to sleep.” Harold Marcuse, a professor of German history, was also “positively impressed” with what he saw. “Many aspects have been well-thought-out, and economies of scale are being leveraged in many ways,” he said. “I’d have to say, as a student, I’d probably prefer to live in a dorm like this than in a triple room in one of the older dorms, or in a multi-shared room in IV.”
Yann Ricard, Graduate Program Coordinator for the Department of Earth Science, said he had real concerns about the windowless bedrooms before his tour. He worried they’d feel “carceral.” But now that he’s experienced one for himself, “I think the whole question is not only overblown, but pretty much of a non-issue,” he said. “In great part, this is because of the considerable ceiling height, which makes the small room still feel airy, and the ingenious placement of the ‘clerestory window,’ which delivers natural-feeling light.” Compared to his son’s dorm in Boston and its view of a brick wall, or his other son’s apartment in Baltimore that faces a neighbor’s rusting AC unit, “I’d choose a Munger room in a heartbeat,” Ricard said.
The upside of private rooms also can’t be overstated, Ricard continued. “I don’t imagine I have to explain the value of privacy at an age when people experiment with their sexuality and have to focus on their studies,” he said. Still, Ricard does harbor some trepidation over how well the communal kitchens will be managed. “There will be issues with food storage and not everyone cleaning after themselves,” he said. “I also worry about UCSB running the grocery store, given the disfavorable pricing of food services on campus.”
“My parting feeling is that it’s a good project given the requirements of our campus but has been mishandled terribly by abysmal PR and a sad penchant for secrecy at UCSB,” Ricard concluded. “I can’t understand why this mockup was not opened up years ago and why it is still not fully open to the public. I wish UCSB were more transparent.”
Jaime Fior, a student affairs assistant for UCSB’s Gevirtz School of Education, said she came away from her walkthrough with “mixed opinions” but ultimately “can’t help but feel like people are entitled Americans when I hear them complain” about the proposal. “People live in much worse conditions all over the world (and here); I’d like to see their outrage about that.”
“I think the real issue here is that there wasn’t more forethought and planning by certain powers that be, and now we have almost no options at this point for meeting student-housing needs with the monies available,” Fior summed up. “Will anyone be held accountable for that?”
Find all of our Munger Dorm stories at independent.com/munger-dorm.