Billionaire Montecito investor Charles Munger stunned University of California officials last week when he proposed to spend $200 million to erect two tall buildings on 28 acres at UC Santa Barbara. The innovative, oceanfront complex would be home to thousands of students.
The proposition is part of an ambitious, $1.4 billion Student Housing Initiative that could revolutionize the way the UC System approaches student housing on its 10 campuses.
“What fascinated me was 28 acres on the ocean combined with massive stupidity,” Munger said Thursday at the UC Board of Regents meeting at UCSF Mission Bay. “I like to fix massive stupidity.”
The UCSB site currently houses about 2,000 students in five undergraduate residence halls — Anacapa, San Miguel, San Nicholas, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa — and includes a dining commons area.
Munger, however, presented a broad, sometimes unwieldy plan, for his alternative housing project.
He said the bottom floors of the two buildings would be constructed out of pre-cast concrete. The top floors of the two buildings would stretch six acres and include common space.
In much of the proposed project, Munger would toss out the typical university cafeteria-style dining commons and instead create apartment-style units for up to eight people who would share a kitchen and cook together.
Because of the density of the housing, Munger could not put a window in every bedroom. His plan is to copy what Disney Cruise Line does on some of its ships, creating artificial windows with lighting that resembles “sunlight” to create the impression of a cabin window.
He said Disney created fake portholes where a “starfish comes by and winks at your kid.”
“No one looking at it can tell it isn’t a real window,” Munger said.
All of these ideas, he said, would create more housing, at a much lower cost.
“I think it will be the best undergraduate housing in the world,” he said. “In fact, if I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have the slightest interest in giving it any money.”
Munger, the 92-year-old vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, spoke bluntly about his plan — and critically about how college student housing has been built in the past.
“Every campus I know of in the world abuses its undergraduates,” he said. “The dorms are all paid for. There are 10 applicants for every spot. They just pack more and more people in. It finally gets pretty gross.
“Nobody wants to stop because the dorms are all paid for and revenue is coming in.”
Munger said the UC System would want to adopt this plan throughout the state.
“The UC System has the power of eminent domain,” he said. “If it really makes sense to revolutionize housing for the better on one campus, it can be done on other campuses.”
If UC isn’t interested, Munger said he’ll go elsewhere.
“If we are way out of bounds, we want you to tell us ‘no’ so I can go elsewhere and get somebody else to build my building,” he said. “But we really want to build this at UCSB.”
Munger made his presentation along with UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang. He said Yang asked him a few years ago what kind of project he could build at the housing site, and how much he could invest in the project. Munger called Yang’s solicitation “shrewd.”
At the regents meeting, Yang said Munger’s “heart is so much with our students.”
He added that the proposal “confronts one of the biggest challenges of the Santa Barbara campus: changing the culture and improving the living and learning environment in our adjacent community, especially in Isla Vista.”
UC President Janet Napolitano praised the idea.
“I want to thank you for the vision brought to this,” she said. “I really like the fact that it is student-centered. As we add in-state undergraduates, it ties in perfectly with our ongoing housing initiative.”
In 2014, Munger donated $65 million to build the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) Visiting Scholar’s Residence. His grandson graduated from UCSB and is now a software engineer at Google.
Although he didn’t specify how tall the buildings would be or how many students they would hold, Munger said he hopes the California Coastal Commission will allow him to go big.
“I can do this better if I can make it a couple stories taller,” Munger said. “I think this project is like building a cathedral in a cathedral city. The city will look better for having this project.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.