Is Dormzilla Dead in the Water?

Dick Flacks Ruminates on UC Santa Barbara’s Munger Hall in Wake of Scorching Faculty Senate Report

Munger Hall’s latest redesign brought the structure from 11 stories down to nine. | Credit: UCSB

“How much leverage does anyone have over billionaires? That’s one of the mysteries of our time in history.” That was the question posed by Dick Flacks, retired UCSB sociology professor, affordable housing advocate, and mainstay of the local progressive community for more than 60 years. He was musing on the Faculty Senate’s recent 200-page dissection of the proposed Munger Hall, also known as Dormzilla.

Released two weeks ago, that report concluded that the mega-dorm named after billionaire Charles Munger — who pledged to donate $250 million to its construction so long as he could design it — posed a likely health and safety risk to its inhabitants even in a scaled-down version from what Munger and the university first proposed. For it to be acceptable, the Faculty Senate panel concluded, Munger would have to make the building considerably smaller, contain considerably fewer people, and provide far more exterior windows than the relatively small number currently proposed.

Dick Flacks | Credit: Courtesy

When word first leaked out about what was proposed, the news generated a firestorm of public and professional condemnation by those in the architectural world. At that time, Munger Hall would have stood 11 stories off the ground and contained rooms for 4,500 students, thus solving the campus’s housing obligations in one fell swoop. Since then, Munger and his design team have dropped it to nine stories and 3,500 residents. 

Flacks, who has emerged as a thorn in the side of UCSB and its chancellor Henry Yang to satisfy the campus’s unfulfilled housing obligations, said the report effectively killed the Munger Hall concept. “The report makes the project impossible while holding out the hope it can be revised,” he said. “But I don’t see how it possibly can be. If it is, it won’t be Munger Hall anymore.”  

Flacks, who taught at UCSB for nearly 50 years, discounted the possibility that Chancellor Yang would or could simply go ahead with the plans Munger has proposed. “His whole time here, he’d been committed to collaborating with the faculty to an unusual degree, certainly more than his predecessors. I don’t see how he can just move ahead,” he said. “But then I don’t know what changes, if any, Munger is willing to agree to.” 

And that gets Flacks back to his initial question about billionaires. In a perfect world, he suggested, Munger and Yang could both be “heroes” if they agreed to a major redesign based not on what Munger wanted to build so much as on what the community wanted and needed. Like members of the panel, Flacks observed that the large kitchens and communal cooking areas — with eight refrigerators, eight stoves, and eight dishwashers per 64 students — were not remotely workable. “Everyone knows — or should know — how hard it is to get four people to get along sharing a common kitchen area,” he said. 

Chancellor Henry Yang, left, and Dilling Yang, far right, with Berkshire-Hathaway vice president Charlie Munger in 2014. | Credit: Courtesy UCSB

Flacks, who has nothing but praise for Yang’s environmental record as chancellor, suggested that Yang might have found himself at the mercy of Munger’s my-way-or-the-highway generosity because of structural problems that surround how the UC system finances — or doesn’t — the construction of new dorms. According to Flacks, the UC system hasn’t paid for the construction of new dorms in decades despite escalating student enrollments. 

That had something to do, he suggested, with the limited debt load individual campuses were allowed to carry. Only just recently has that restriction been eliminated. Prior that, all the new dorms the campus was planning on building were figments of the campus’s planning. 

And only this year did the legislature finally set aside $1.5 billion to create a revolving fund for student housing. State Senator Monique Limón had pushed for $5 billion, Flacks said, but did not prevail. Munger Hall is budgeted to cost an estimated $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. Of that, Munger has reportedly promised to contribute $250 million, although whispers emanating from campus administrators hint at the possibility he might donate more — or even all — of the money required. If there are legal documents attached to this pledge, no one outside the campus has seen it. Similarly, no one, Flacks said, knows how insistent — or flexible — Munger might be. 

Flacks is certain, however that the campus’s typical planning process was totally ignored. Had that not happened, he said, Chancellor Yang would not find himself painted into such a corner. But because he and the campus abandoned plans on the drawing boards to build dorm housing in favor of Munger Hall, Yang has recently been sued by both the City of Goleta and the County of Santa Barbara for failing to live up to the letter or the spirit of the campus’s Long-Range Development Plan. 

Flacks heads a nonprofit of his own — SUN — that’s been focused on pushing the campus to build more housing than the 1,500 units that it has. SUN has accused the campus of failing to disclose how it intends to comply and is considering a Freedom of Information Act action but has not yet filed one, Flacks said. 

Flacks noted that the high cost of housing was the root cause for the systemwide UC academic workers’ strike, which ended on December 23. “It was all about housing costs,” Flacks said. It’s notable that the strike settlement was vigorously opposed by union leadership on the UCSB campus, reflecting the acuity of the housing crisis in Santa Barbara.

City Councilmember Meagan Harmon | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

During a recent edition of Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts, Santa Barbara City Councilmember Meagan Harmon — also a member of the California Coastal Commission — said that the lawsuits filed by both the County of Santa Barbara and the City of Goleta against UCSB would loom large in the minds of her fellow Coastal Commissioners when deliberating over the Munger Hall proposal. While Harmon took pains not to telegraph where she was leaning, she suggested that the fact that two major government entities felt compelled to sue the campus for failure to provide housing could be used as a defense against some of the concerns about height, size, and scale associated with Munger Hall.

In the meantime, Flacks has more questions than answers. The environmental impact report for Munger Hall was supposed to be released in September, he said. “Where is it?” Why haven’t we seen it?” 

Likewise, he wants to know why the campus didn’t begin offering tours of the Munger Hall mockup it built much sooner. The campus began offering such tours — and surveying students about what they thought — about half a year ago. But the mockup itself was built — and the subject of much secretive whispering — several years ago. 

None of this, Flacks says, makes any sense. Which brings him back to his initial question about billionaires. “The idea of a 97-year-old billionaire designing living spaces for 18-year-old students without asking them what they thought,” he said, “well, that’s just ludicrous.” Find all of our Munger Dorm stories at independent.com/munger-dorm.

Correction: SUN is considering a Freedom of Information Act action against UCSB but has not sued the campus as was incorrectly reported in an earlier version of this story. Also, the Faculty Senate Report was released two weeks ago, not earlier this week as originally stated.


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