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NorCal Universities Say Build It And They Will Come, Shrugging Off Pandemic

Across the country in 2020, college campuses were largely empty due to public health orders and recommendations related to the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent shift to virtual learning. Undergraduate enrollment nationwide dropped by 3.6%, or 560,200 students, in fall 2020 compared to the prior year, according to estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. However, universities in Northern California are planning for a post-pandemic future that includes dorms filled with students.

Only about 1,600 students were in University of California, Berkeley, residence halls and another 600 in campus apartments in 2020, according to Vice Chancellor Marc Fisher, who spoke at the Bisnow Northern California Student Housing Digital Summit on Jan. 19. At San Francisco State University, some students remained on campus because they didn’t have another place to go, Executive Director for Housing, Dining and Conference Jenny Patino said at the event.

University of California, Berkeley

Despite the dramatically reduced activities on campuses last year, several university leaders who spoke at the summit said construction would continue on new housing. Fisher said UC Berkeley is moving forward on a housing project that will create 1,000 student beds and up to 120 supportive housing units. Construction is expected to begin in January 2022.

“I don’t think we’ll pull back on our program; we’re still very under-housed on the Berkeley campus,” Fisher said. “At some point, the market is going to heat back up again, and we’re just going to need more beds for students.”

“I think we’ll keep pushing to build the 9,000 or so beds that we think we need on campus,” Fisher added.

Student residence halls and apartments will also continue to get built at the University of California, Davis, according to Vice Chancellor and University Architect Jim Carroll.

However, Patino said apart from some existing building renovations, S.F. State is pressing the pause button on new construction due to financial considerations, continued uncertainty about the vaccine rollout and the outlook for infection rates. She said that last year, the university had planned for nine different potential scenarios for the fall semester, none of which held true.

“We have to be ready for anything and everything,” Patino said.

In the Bay Area, a pre-existing housing affordability crisis has historically added a layer of complexity to supplying adequate housing to students. Panoramic Interests owner Patrick Kennedy expressed optimism at the summit about the reopening of campuses but commented that the best approach to future student housing developments in the region is to keep costs in check by cutting back on “superfluous” amenities like swimming pools and extra lounges, saying that “price is the best amenity.”

Kennedy also believes students will be back on campus faster than expected, saying that after UC Berkeley announced plans to resume in-person classes for the fall 2021 semester, four applications for an apartment building his company has close to campus came within 24 hours. It was the first time applications had been submitted in two months. 

“There’s nothing more social than an American college student,” Kennedy said. “They crave companionship and kindred spirits, and that can never be duplicated on a Zoom screen.”

Even with projects moving forward, the pandemic is still expected to have a lasting impact on student housing. Studio KDA Managing Principal Charles Kahn said his design approach has been influenced by people’s greater reliance on outdoor spaces for recreation and social distancing. In a Berkeley student building he’s designing, there will be decks on every floor of the eight-story building instead of one rooftop deck, an amenity he called “essential.” Kahn also expects the rise of the “Zoom room” will persist. 

“It’s a post-pandemic design feature that I think is with us to stay,” Kahn said.