Plans for housing, hotel near UC Merced campus receive show of City Council support

A proposed plan to add over 900 new housing units geared toward UC students received a unanimous show of support from the Merced City Council Monday night. Titled UC Villages, the preliminary annexation application imagines 922 new — and sorely needed — apartment units situated near the main entrance to the UC Merced campus. A percentage of the development will include affordable housing units. “Obviously, we’re in a crisis with housing our UC students,” Councilmember Fernando Echevarria said before casting his vote of support during Monday’s City Council meeting.

The tenuous availability of student housing was made clear last year when UC Merced was forced to delay the first day of in-person classes due to roughly 1,000 students still struggling to secure homes less than a month before the start of the school year. Given the support shown by the City Council, project applicant and several residents who spoke during the meeting, all signs indicate so far that the project will move along toward fruition. “I’ve been the face of this project for 16 years and I’m here to see it through. I’ve been ready for a long time and excited to get going,” project applicant Sid Lakireddy told the City Council Monday.

Echevarria also lauded Lakireddy for being mindful of issues that stalled other similar developments. Three City Council members recently rejected another proposed pre-annexation project located near UC Merced, citing a lack of attention to affordable housing and hiring locally. The opposition resulted in the project failing to garner a show of support from the council when it came time to vote.

Lakireddy noted in a letter to the city that he intends to have the project’s affordable units built during the first phase. He also stated that he plans to hire local contractors and workers to build and operate the project. “That is going to assist a lot of people who are unemployed. It’s very important,” Echevarria said.

According to preliminary planning documents, at least 12.5% of homes would be designated affordable housing spread across all income levels. Affordable units have costs fixed so that lower-income occupants spend no more than 30% of their income on housing. bee-2020-2Aerial view of the UC Merced campus in an undated photo. Lake Road runs along the bottom of the photo and its intersection with Bellevue Road is in the bottom right.

Located at the west side of Lake Road, south of Bellevue Road, the 35.6-acre mixed-use development is one of several recently proposed annexation projects poised to build much-needed housing units near the college campus. Project includes retail space, hotel

The project also has plans to construct over 1 million square feet of retail and hospitality space, including a 161-room, five-story hotel. The council’s vote Monday represented an early step in the city’s annexation pre-application process. After reviewing a project’s overview, the City Council indicates general support or non-support for an official annexation application to proceed. The project applicants then decide whether to move forward.

Per the city’s annexation process, UC Villages can’t officially join within Merced’s boundaries until plans to annex UC Merced are completed first. Lakireddy asked the council to make annexation of the campus a priority so his project and other similar proposed annexations can move forward. “I think Merced’s time is now. I think it’s time to capitalize on it and this would be a good start by annexing UC Merced,” he said.

No residents or Merced officials spoke in direct opposition of the project Monday, but some concerns were cited over spreading city services like the water and wastewater systems too thin. Sheng Xiong, a Merced resident and policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, voiced concerns over how expanding north might come at the expense of drawing water away from south Merced.

Prior meetings with Merced County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) staff also raised concerns over the city’s ability to provide the needed infrastructure and services for UC Villages, along with the other proposed pre-applications and official annexations moving forward in north Merced. Wastewater concerns were noted in particular.

According to city documents, the UC Villages project and other similar annexations would exhaust the city’s wastewater capacity. That means the phasing of each project will be critical to ensuring there’s ample capacity for each project and that the wastewater system must eventually be expanded to accommodate the developments.

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