Forty years ago, the Watts riots shattered the postwar illusion of California as a middle-class paradise. Combined with other events, the Watts riots led to the political demise of Gov. Pat Brown, the rise of Ronald Reagan, and – sometimes overlooked – the end of California’s investment in massive public works projects designed to benefit the middle class.

Construction of the aqueduct and freeway systems continued for another few years and then sputtered out. For the vaunted University of California, 1965 definitely marked the end of an era. The Santa Cruz and Riverside campuses opened that fall, less than a month after the Watts riots. Given the dramatic expansion of the system during the previous 20 years, no one could have predicted that those campuses would be the last.

The last, that is, until now. In September, just a month after the 40th anniversary of the Watts riots, the University of California, Merced, opened its doors to students for the first time.

UC Merced is not the first new college campus in California since the ’60s. The Cal State system has opened campuses in Monterey, Ventura, and San Diego counties during the last 15 years, though two campuses were built on a closed military base and a closed mental hospital, respectively. But the new UC campus does mark the first time in 40 years that a public research university – with all the expectations about academic geniuses and business spin-offs – has been built from scratch in California. And it’s the first one ever in the San Joaquin Valley.

For the Valley, UC Merced holds two promises. The first is that it will be an economic engine for the entire region. The second is that it will signal the end of an era of backward suburbanization – houses first, jobs last – that has characterized Valley growth over the past 30 years.

The Valley can be divided roughly into two pieces: the north, which increasingly attracts Bay Area commuters but struggles to win Bay Area jobs; and the south, which is still an agricultural empire but battles poverty and social problems with little success – California’s version of Appalachia.

Geographically, UC Merced sits at almost the precise intersection of these two sections of the San Joaquin Valley – the spot where the job-poor commuter north meets the impoverished agricultural south.

So how much difference can UC Merced make to either – or both?

Let’s take regional economics first. For generations, talented Valley natives have migrated elsewhere – principally the Bay Area and Los Angeles – for top-notch educations. Once they have hooked onto the coastal economic engines, they have rarely come back. This has been a vicious cycle in the Valley: Talented people leave and don’t come back. Most of the remaining folks are poor and/or poorly educated. Those who can lift themselves out of poverty do so by leaving.

In theory, UC Merced can help break that cycle by giving Valley natives a place to learn – and by drawing outside talent and resources into the Valley. The economic development literature is filled with stories about the major research university that served as the catalyst for a regional economic miracle – MIT, the University of North Carolina, the University of Texas, Stanford, UC Irvine, UC San Diego. There is tremendous pressure on UC Merced to create a similar economic miracle, especially given the rapid transformation of Austin, Orange County, and San Diego into worldwide economic powerhouses largely because of the presence of public research universities.

But all of these universities are located in regions with other major assets – wealth, climate, a cluster of other universities, a state capital. Merced has none of these other assets. It must surely have the lowest median income, the highest unemployment rate, and the lowest level of educational attainment of any college town in America outside of an urban core.

There are three core academic areas in place already: engineering, natural sciences, and social sciences/humanities/arts. Of these, the engineering program is clearly meant to be the potential economic driver, providing focus on high-tech and biotech. The Long-Range Development Plan also calls for the early creation of a graduate school of management that will focus on both business administration and public policy, and will offer a joint engineering/management degree.

The first two research centers established were the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and the World Cultures Institute (which will focus on mobility and migration). Both are well-suited for a San Joaquin Valley university and both will draw some outside resources. But neither is likely to create vast spin-off enterprises.

In short, an economic miracle might take a while. UC Merced will play a research and education role, but this is not the foundation for an economic powerhouse.

The second area in which UC Merced holds promise is in serving as a model for urban development that takes advantage of the front-end creation of a job center. Although the campus is located adjacent to the City of Merced, the university has taken a modified “new town” approach – partly by design and partly by necessity.

The idea of a campus as a new town is an old one, and UC Merced’s Long-Range Development Plan goes out of its way to glom on to this idea, referencing not only Thomas Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia but also Frederick Law Olmsted’s notion that the UC Berkeley campus should be a new town away from San Francisco.

Even so, when the Merced site was selected, university regents received a great deal of criticism for picking a site that was just far enough away from an existing city (six miles) to create a lot of sprawl but not far enough away to permit the creation of a truly new town.

Over time, the actual campus was moved a little closer to town – partly because of environmental concerns – while UC and the donating landowners (two interlocking land trusts that provide college scholarships to local kids) worked together to plan not just a campus but a “university community” (see CP&DR Q&A, January 2003; Public Development, April 2001).

The plan looks good on paper. The campus itself will abut Lake Yosemite, and the campus and the surrounding community will play off each other in very traditional fashion through a collection of grid street systems set off from one another. The campus itself will be based on one grid set at an oblique angle. The community surrounding it – expected to include not just housing but also 2 million square feet of commercial and industrial space – will be set on a traditional north-south/east-west grid. If the plan is implemented as envisioned, UC Merced will be 2010’s New Urbanist answer to William Pereira’s 1960s suburban vision at UC Irvine. The Merced plan mimics the layout of the old railroad towns along Highway 99, where the downtown was usually built on a straight grid, surrounded by residential neighborhoods on an oblique or modified grid.

More problematic is the connection between the university complex and the existing city of Merced. The new campus will undoubtedly invigorate Merced economically. It will become a college town. But it’s not clear whether the campus will reinvigorate all of Merced’s neighborhoods or simply draw development interest northeast out of town toward the campus, leaving poor neighborhoods behind.

Whatever the outcome, the university is far better what could have been built on farmland surrounding Merced, because the alternative would almost certainly be suburban subdivisions. It’s unlikely that another new town on the scale of UC Merced will be planned in the San Joaquin Valley any time soon, but by reinvigorating some native urban design ideas, the campus might influence future urban development patterns up and down the Valley.

So: Economic progress, yes. Economic miracle, no. Good urban design, yes. A revolution in Valley development patterns – um, probably not. Even so, it’s hard not to think that UC Merced is the best thing that has happened in the San Joaquin Valley since most of us were born.