New community planned near UC Merced gets green light from city leaders. It’s expected to ‘transform’ the region.

On January 20, 2024 by Brianna Vaccari
An artist’s rendering of the neighborhood slated to be built south of the UC Merced campus on land that is part of the Virginia Smith Trust. Credit: Merced County Office of Education

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Jan. 19, 2024

The project – which includes homes, retail and green space – is the next step to making Merced a true university town, leaders say.

MERCED (CVJC) – A project to develop a new community that would bridge UC Merced to its namesake city has breezed through a significant step.

On a unanimous vote, the Merced City Council approved annexing the Virginia Smith Trust land into the city.

The land is a 650-acre parcel south of UC Merced that is planned to be developed into thousands of homes, apartments, retail and commercial space, parks and transportation routes. 

The City Council also approved a number of other necessary plans and agreements for the project, located near the northeast corner of Cardella Road and Lake Road. 

The development of the Virginia Smith Trust goes hand-in-hand with the project to annex UC Merced into the city limits. Officials hope the new development will help Merced become a true university town and spur economic growth. Plus, city, county, university and education leaders say both projects will fulfill the community’s promise to the UC Regents and the wishes of the late Virginia Smith.

Both the city and county of Merced in recent months have taken a number of actions to connect the university to the city and add development to support the state’s newest UC campus.

“This project will transform Merced from a town with a university to a university town,” said Dr. Steve Tietjen, Merced County Superintendent of Schools, who also serves as executive director of the trust.

Community leaders also see the development of the Virginia Smith Trust land as a win-win since revenue generated from the development will fund scholarships for Merced County students to pursue higher education.

The Virginia Smith Trust was established in 1971 upon the death of the Mercedian. In her will, Smith wrote that the 7,000 acres of land north of Merced must be used to benefit local students. In the late 1990s, about 2,000 acres of the trust’s land was donated for the purpose of building the UC Merced campus. Another large portion of the land is preserved to protect vernal pools, which are home to endangered fairy shrimp and other wildlife.

“Virginia Smith created a legacy for the students of Merced by bequeathing land for the purpose of generating annual income to provide scholarships,” Tietjen said in a statement. “It is this generation’s turn to complete the historic mission of making the dream for scholarships for all qualified students in Merced County a reality.” 

When the Smith land was donated to create UC Merced, the Merced community promised the UC Regents to expand a scholarship program funded by the trust to serve those local students most in need, many living in the county’s smaller, more rural communities. 

Currently, most of the remaining portion of 650 acres on Lake Road near the campus is used for farming, generating $100,000 to $250,000 a year in revenue that supports scholarships. Officials estimate that amount could jump to $2 million a year by 2026 with the development of the land.

Merced Mayor Matthew Serratto said the City Council action reflects the city’s “commitment to a sustainable growth and a vibrant future for UC Merced and the community at large.”

“These are transformative actions that will shape the landscape of our community for the better,” he said in a statement.

The City Council vote follows a vote last year by the Merced County Board of Supervisors to greenlight the project. Next, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) of Merced County in the upcoming months will consider the annexation of UC Merced.  Then, the Virginia Smith Trust project must wait 30 days for the UC annexation to become official. After that, the project will go before the Merced County LAFCo no later than June 2024, according to MCOE officials. 

Brianna Vaccari is the governmental accountability/watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.

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