University lands deal for Rancho site
Developer donates 200 acres as part of master-planned project
Sacramento Business Journal - June 15, 2007
by Kathy Robertson
Rendering courtesy of Richard Henry Behr Architect PC
The University of Sacramento hopes to begin construction as early as 2010.
The nascent University of Sacramento has a new site for its full-scale residential campus.
After four years of planning for a private Catholic university at Mather Field, the Legion of Christ has landed a deal to go a few miles to the east -- possibly throwing a wrench in plans for a proposed master-planned community at the former Air Force base. The new campus is south of Highway 50 on a grassy hill just east of Grant Line Road in one of Sacramento County's few remaining spots suitable for a large master-planned community.
University officials are expected to announce today an agreement with landowner and developer Conwy LLC to build a 3 million-square-foot campus over the next 25 years on 200 donated acres in Cordova Hills. Conwy bought the 2,800-acre parcel four years ago for eventual development into thousands of homes, offices, schools and recreational space.
The donation is worth about $12 million.
In addition to the land donation, the property in Cordova Hills offers more buildable land than Mather and a nicer site, said the university's president, the Rev. Robert Presutti. Construction is expected to begin in 2010, with the first phase of the campus opening in fall 2012.
"We are happy to donate the 200 acres," said Ron Alvarado, Conwy's project executive for Cordova Hills. "This will be a tremendous legacy and opportunity for the Sacramento region," he said.
Ultimately, the university hopes to have 5,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students at two sites. A graduate program that opened in downtown Sacramento in 2005 now has 80 students.
The full campus could be a $1.2 billion bonanza for the area. Construction alone was expected to cost upwards of $350 million four years ago, with a ripple effect of a large local payroll from 2,800 new jobs and spending in the community by faculty, staff and students.
Development permits needed to accommodate the university could also propel the larger project, which is inside Sacramento County's urban services boundary, meaning that the land has been targeted by officials for eventual development. Vice versa, commercial and residential development by Conwy could accelerate full buildout of the university as amenities and housing draw faculty and students to the area.
"It will be a very positive step for Rancho Cordova to have a university, if not in our boundary, at least reasonably close by," said Mayor David Sander.
"It's great from an economic standpoint and we'll benefit from the quality of life that comes from having a university nearby."
The University of Sacramento is part of a global network of 15 universities operated by the Legion of Christ, a congregation of Catholic priests. The first, Anahuac University in Mexico City, opened in 1964.
The Legion evaluated cities throughout the United States for a potential American university campus for five years before it zeroed in on Sacramento in 2003. At the time, the region was one of the few big U.S. metro areas without a private university. William Jessup University, founded by evangelical Christians, moved to Rocklin from San Jose in 2002.
There's still plenty of demand.
California is projected to need an additional 700,000 higher education seats in the coming years to meet the needs of all its students, with a significant portion of the need focused in Northern California.
Once the Legion set its sights on Sacramento, talks began with Sacramento County officials about a 450-acre parcel at Mather Field that could house the university and a related commercial project. Plans went as far as a request for proposals from potential development partners for the site before a new offer from Conwy began to take shape.
The 200-acre site in Cordova Hills is better suited to the university's long-term vision, Presutti said. "It's on a beautiful knoll," he said, and the planned development is slated to have open space and biking trails in addition to residential, commercial and recreational space.
"It's a pretty piece of land and as the area continues to grow, the university can think creatively about what it needs," said Jonathan Brown, president of the Sacramento-based Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. Two hundred acres is a good footprint for a university, Brown said. "Good sized" means 75 to 250 acres, he said. The University of the Pacific in Stockton has 150 acres.
University of Sacramento will bring an international presence to Sacramento's educational lineup, Brown said. A second master's degree program, the Global Leadership MBA, is expected to kick off downtown in September 2008. It will link with an internationally known MBA program in Mexico City and the Management Institute of Paris.
Three years to campus ground breaking is a very aggressive timetable.
Conwy and other landowners with tentative designs on 6,000 acres east of Rancho Cordova city limits have filed to be part of the city's sphere of influence, but it's too early to tell whether the development will be annexed into the city or remain under county jurisdiction, Alvarado said. He's working with both.
The Conwy property has vernal pools and wetlands, but they could remain in the project as educational tools if the federal government and local planning officials agree to the notion, said Conwy spokeswoman Michelle Smira.
There are no plans to develop 413 acres outside the urban services boundary, including land north of the Kiefer landfill, Smira said. Conwy is in preliminary discussions with an adjacent landowner about purchasing another 846 acres north of the existing parcel, she added.
Grant Line Road is slated to become a major artery that connects Folsom, Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove. That would be a boon for the university, which is expected to draw students from throughout the region and beyond.
"The development plan is conceptual," Alvarado said. "But the region has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a master-planned development with a university as a significant component."
Race out of the gate
The folks at Mather aren't giving up.
"We are disappointed University of Sacramento has decided to look elsewhere," said Sacramento County economic development director Paul Hahn. "We are much farther along in the entitlement process than where they are headed and we still hope to find a four-year private university to step into their shoes."
The county is talking to other "interested players," he said, declining to name schools.
Centex Homes, the development partner that participated in talks with the University of Sacramento and has exclusive negotiating rights with Sacramento County for a planned master development at Mather, says that project is much farther along.
"It's a race to see who gets it first," said Brian Bergfalk, vice president for land acquisition and entitlement at Centex Homes. "Infrastructure? Cordova Hills doesn't have any," he said.
Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli applauded the University of Sacramento for its decision to locate in the region and said the opening at Mather provides an opportunity for more.
"They need to look at all aspects of their decision to have a university here long term, and a private developer offered some favorable terms," Nottoli said.
As to Mather, the county is still working with Centex on development of the southeastern portion of the former Air Force base -- and will try to land another university, Nottoli said.
"If we can double up and get another, we're all the better for it."