Another new Rancho Cordova housing project hopes for a university

Mather South’s 3,000 new homes not fingered as sprawl even though very similar to Cordova Hills

A group of developers has set its sights on almost 900 acres of real estate south of Mather Airport in Rancho Cordova, where construction of 3,000 homes, commercial lots, a few greenways and parks, and a sporting complex could begin next year.

The package also promises a university. This would bring to the suburban property, which abuts Kiefer and Sunrise boulevards, high-quality jobs, the energy of youth and a sense of cosmopolitan sophistication, its supporters say.

But the backers of the community, called Mather South, aren’t the only developers currently promising to build a college campus. The Cordova Hills project, a controversial 8,000-unit plan tucked between Folsom and Rancho Cordova, also plans to build a campus. Discussions between investors and the University of Warwick in England about developing a piece of land are well underway, and other communities in the area have expressed interest in playing host to new university campuses.

Will so many proposed college campuses actually come to fruition? Or is adding a university to a developing firm’s to-do list simply fashionable in a climate increasingly skeptical of sprawl and suburban housing?

Just a little more than a year ago, Supervisor Phil Serna questioned the need for the Cordova Hills project, even characterizing it as a bait-and-switch plan to build thousands of homes, with or without the promised university. He declined to comment for this story.

Supervisor Don Nottoli recalls the speculation about whether the developers behind the Cordova Hills project were sincere about finding a university tenant “or whether they were using it as an entrée to getting their project approved.” However, he says he is optimistic about the chances for developers landing deals with one or more universities on local development sites.

“Amidst all the land uses we’ve planned for, having a site in the county of Sacramento reserved for a university or universities makes sense, because there continues to be a lot of growth,” he said. “It’s smart planning.”

Local organizations—even those that have expressed concern over the Cordova Hills development project—think Mather South is good growth.

“We’re more supportive of this project because it’s closer to employment and will contribute less to road congestion,” said Ron Maertz, with the Environmental Council of Sacramento. A spokesperson with Sacramento Area Council of Governments agreed.

Troy Givans, with the county’s Office of Economic Development and Marketing, has been working with the Lewis Group of Companies on advancing the Mather South project. He says 650 inquiries have been mailed to university presidents around the country. He told SN&R that the Mather South area is a good candidate for a university, as it currently lacks such an institution, but is conveniently situated toward downtown Sacramento and well-connected via public-transport routes.

As for whether the promise of a college campus on this housing development is just a bait-and-switch tactic, Givans says no.

“I don’t see it as a Trojan horse,” he said. “This was a very deliberate and strategic decision to look for a university, which would benefit the location.”

The Cordova Hills developers are still looking for a tenant for their 224-acre university site, and they have powerful incentive to land a taker: If they find no one to occupy the university site after 30 years, the parcel will be claimed as county property. No such pressures on the Mather South developers, Givans said.

At a meeting of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, June 10, backers of the Mather South project detailed the land-use breakdown. Exclusive “executive housing” would be situated adjacent to a golf course, with homes built to the tune of about three per acre, while cheaper units would be packed in at 10 to 30 per acre. The meeting essentially kicked off a yearlong environmental-review process. Givans said the site will be shovel-ready soon, and building could begin as soon as 2015.