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An Interview with Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales

I spoke by phone to Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales on April 1st to elicit his comments on the article related to this post, Santa Fe Land Use, the Past and the Future.

As you know, sir, there’s been a big outcry about the El Rio proposal and public comments on the Santa Fe New Mexican that suggest that your nominations of two supporters of that proposal were in order to “stack” the Planning Commission or fulfill your executive agenda. Can you address that, please?

I have not seen the public comments, I don’t typically spend time going to the section where the comments come forward. The appointments have nothing to do with El Rio and everything to do with allowing a seat at the table for young professionals to weigh in and to participate in land use developments that would be taking place in the city. I don’t think you can tell young people we want them in our community and not give them important roles to play. It’s like saying to your children we want you to be seen not heard, and I don’t think that’s the right answer.

I would like to back up and elicit your thoughts on the implications for Santa Fe of “vibrant” city planning. There is the Meow Wolf project and the Arts+Creativity Center with recent (resolution of) approval by City Council. You have recommendations from your Community Planning transition team that rethinking zoning is integral. Can you be more specific about how rezoning as an action-plan recommendation is informing your policy positions?

Today I spoke about one Santa Fe. That means we have to bring a collective and collaborative approach in everything we do.

There are exciting models nationally that can be looked to. But we can (also) just look at our own historical land patterns and know that even when my grandfather was growing up on Canyon Road there were high-density areas that were put together around agricultural fields. As the city began to grow, land-use patterns were formed with the idea that families would stay connected to the town.

In many respects what’s happened — that we have to try and turn the course on — is that much of the development in affordable housing has been pushed to the outskirts of town and has created a large disconnection between residents who live on the south side and the east side.

What do we do to try to connect our community so we don’t have these dividing boundaries, east side versus west side, young versus old, rich versus poor?

That means we have to have foresight and courage to introduce different types of land-use plans. The classic place (that) does make sense is the St Mikes’s corridor, a corridor that’s six lanes wide where 70% of the developable area is parking lots. There are huge employment anchors on each side, one medical and one education. There is an opportunity to repurpose St Michael’s from what it was intended to be which was a bypass to be a street or boulevard that connects to the downtown area.

There are opportunities to in-fill that are exciting. Entertainment connected by bike paths and public transportation, those suddenly become a reality if we can move beyond a cookie cutter approach of saying you can only have a certain amount of density or height in a certain area.

We really have to as a town look to what our needs are in future, and to make sure we protect what is important and historic.

What you’re describing goes to what is a hot button now. Developers including the ones proposing El Rio have told me that the Santa Fe Homes Program has not seen a single market-rate rental housing built in Santa Fe (since 2007). Opponents are saying rental housing isn’t needed. What position do you take as Mayor? How do you square the fact of these hot, divided opinions running on parallel tracks?

We can’t go down the track we have in the past. We can’t be pitting neighborhoods versus development.

The divisive nature and the environment of a developer wanting to hold the power in a neighborhood – or for a neighborhood to just say no – those days need to just come to an end. There needs to be a collaborative, balanced approach that evaluates quality of life in the area. And you can’t dispute the reality that in 2013 you have to have earned more than $52,000 a year to have afforded the average price of a home, when the median income was less than $40,000. Income inequality has grown in Santa Fe over the last 20 years. Some of that is because we haven’t had an economy that’s worked.

Another is because we’ve pushed development for poor and middle class people to the outskirts of town. We have to find a collaborative approach. We’re in this together.

We don’t have to lose our identity or give up on our quality of life. It’s not a one or the other. We have to find a solution for the sake of the future of the town. We have to find a way to work together or we will become a town of haves and have-nots.

What is the climate for new business if the climate for allowing rental housing that might theoretically appeal to new workers is so fractured?

First we need to have a business environment that is positively friendly and inviting. There is a lot more we can and need to do at City Hall to create a regulatory process that is transparent and reliable and predictable. But to grow long-term into the future in areas of film and developing technology companies that provide good wages, the only way we’re going to do that is if we have a stock of mixed housing both rental and for sale that is accessible to the labor market.

People who are against El Rio say that prioritizing housing is putting the cart before the horse of jobs for the young people who are so often cited.

Right now average home (pricing) and the availability of rental products is very limited. I spend a lot of time talking to younger people asking what do we need? They say “affordable housing and good paying jobs that will help us live here”; that’s an important dialogue between the neighborhoods and the developers. It shouldn’t be one versus the other. I want to stop this push of affordable low-cost housing going to the outskirts.

I’ve probably done 11 interviews and certain neighborhood group representatives undeniably feel something important of historic value is being lost when development is proposed in their neighborhood at a density they do not want. These are not new arguments, and they are very emotional. What do you as Mayor say to neighborhoods about this?

I think the neighborhoods have a rightful role of being a part of the decision-making process that goes on. They are entitled to be passionate. We all love our quality of life in Santa Fe and that’s what’s beautiful about our town — that everybody recognizes what it means. I do hope that neighborhoods will engage in a dialogue (so) that there can be harmonious development that occurs. Developers need to hear that and work with people in the neighborhood about what would make some sense.

I (also) want to have a positive impact on climate change. Part of that is to reduce carbon dioxide. Our employment is all downtown. Automobiles are huge polluters of the air. We’ve invested millions in building bus systems and bike trails.

If we’re putting all our workforce on the outskirts and all the jobs are downtown, the quality of life between 7 and 9 and 4 and 6:30 is impacted by the amount of traffic.

It has to go both ways. We need to pull more of the employment bases where many people are living and take advantage of investments in public transportation systems like buses and bike trails.

The city has a $2 million revenue shortfall. How important is development to build a new tax base?

We can’t have an attitude or environment of unbridled growth. That is counter to what we believe in Santa Fe about needing to grow smart and wise. Recognizing that water still needs to drive much of the discussion and now we’re introducing impacts of climate change and how we affect the environment through growth, there are limitations to how we can grow in Santa Fe.

Even before the need to grow more GRT revenues we need to put forward very sensible developments that create a place where everyone can live. We need to focus on an economy where jobs are created, that people can access.

We need to send a message to our youth that this town is for them which means that when they graduate they can come back and work — or when they graduate from high school they can go into the work force.

The belief and perception is that doesn’t exist right now.

I need to help with the voices. That includes neighborhoods, developers, business leaders. They all need to come together to find that collaborative approach, to focus on a Santa Fe that is unified and available to everybody. We all have a vested interest in that happening. No one has an interest if the town stays stagnant or stale because then we begin to lose part of our identity.

Is it essential to your view of Santa Fe’s future that new blood and younger blood go onto the Planning Commission?

During the campaign I heard from many people in Santa Fe that they wanted a city that was inclusive, a city that didn’t lock out or prohibit different voices from critical decisions that needed to be made. Those voices don’t all have to be young and I don’t expect that all my appointments need to be young people. Retired people can add as fresh a perspective as somebody who is just starting out their professional life here.

It’s my job as Mayor to make sure everybody has a seat at the table and that voices are given respect.

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