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Detail of the waste treatment site as seen from Siler

Detail of the waste treatment site as seen from Siler

Santa Fe Land Use, the Past and the Future

SANTA FE—As the Santa Fe City Council prepares to vote on April 8th to approve or reject Mayor Javier Gonzales’s two new nominees to the Planning Commission, one land-use controversy at play in front of the city finds old neighborhoods and new agendas sparking hot in polarized opposition. (See an interview with Mayor Javier Gonzales here. Photos: Dianne Stromberg)

The fights reveal the historically wide rift in public attitudes about what is acceptable land-use policy for Santa Fe – especially when the issue is permitting higher-density development to be built in old neighborhoods.

The opposition has located specific targets in the crosshairs.

On March 24th the Mayor nominated Vince Kadlubek, a Santa Fe arts collective co-founder, and Daniel Werwath, an affordable housing professional, to serve on the Planning Commission. (As this article was being prepared for publication, news came in that Daniel Werwath had removed himself from consideration.)

Kadlubek, 33, was an active volunteer in Gonzales’s electoral campaign. Werwath, 39, has been involved in creative-economy initiatives connected to the Housing and Community Planning department of the City, and is now working on an affordable housing development with Creative Santa Fe.

Kadlubek served on the Community Services subcommittee of the Mayor’s transition team.

For a week before Werwath dropped out of consideration, public positions that each nominee had taken in favor of El Rio – a proposed rental-housing apartment complex that hoped to build 452 new units on former EcoVersity land off Agua Fria – made both nominations especially controversial. The El Rio project faced roughly 8-1 neighborhood opposition at a February 19th Planning Commission hearing. 

Forty people spoke in strong opposition to El Rio at the hearing. Only five, including Vince Kadlubek, spoke publicly in favor of El Rio. He said he favored it “for the future of our economy and the future of arts and culture.”

The PC declined to give the project a recommendation to City Council.

If the Kadlubek nomination succeeds, he will fill one of three spots coming or already vacant on the Planning Commission. That nine-member Planning Commission (all volunteers) hears and evaluates new land-use proposals with the ability to recommend or deny them recommendations to Council. In certain cases the commission can confer an administrative green light without a Council vote.

It won’t be the first time that the City has rocked with argument over contested ground, how redevelopment will look — and where it will map.

But it may be the first actual time in Santa Fe that these events meet up with other, potent recent events in city planning that find re-zoning a priority at least on paper for creating new districts that will permit “innovation triangles” to root.

The Mayor was elected a year ago with a mandate to prioritize youth-oriented policy to redress the graying of Santa Fe. And creative-city project development is palpably already under way in the Siler Road neighborhood which affordable housing proponents say forms one leg of a new neighborhood triangle where more rental housing should be built.

El Rio as A Then-and-Now Conflict

One of the hot-button issues surrounding the El Rio project is where it is. A second is what its development marketers say it will do — and for whom.  A third concerns the definition of “affordable” housing. 

(The project developers also have to meet the guidelines of the Santa Fe Homes program. SFHP mandates that 15% of any new development be at affordable rates to serve the working poor who earn just percentages of area median income.)

Hilario Romero is a former State Historian of New Mexico and a neighborhood advocate who lives on La Cieneguita.

“Developers are hellbent on trying to ram this concept of young millennials who are all going to ride their bikes to work, ride the bus and hook up their electrical cars and they’re going to do it with 1000 other people in their apartment complex. It’s going to ruin our quality of life.”

Romero believes there is no city infrastructure on Agua Fria and impacts on traffic are unacceptable. He cites the parcel’s history in a location of Santa Fe that was its agrarian breadbasket and the Camino Real. And what rapidly becomes a hot topic alongside the question of “how many units are you proposing?” are deeper issues including that the affordable component gives rise to potential criminality and hooliganism.

Governing affordable housing in Santa Fe since 2007 is the Santa Fe Homes Program, also called inclusionary zoning. Unlike federally subsidized housing  called the Low Income Housing Tax Credit which is responsible for four affordable projects built out in Santa Fe since 2007, no market development in Santa Fe has produced affordable rental housing in the past seven years.

It is an area of huge local need, according to a 2013 Housing Needs Assessment that Santa Fe’s department of Housing and Community Development commissioned. In addition to locating more than half the population at over 55, the study surveyed reasons for a documented housing flight outside of Santa Fe (more than 400 families leave per year).  More than 72% of survey respondents cited the reason as an inability to afford rental housing in Santa Fe.

Kurt Faust and Eric Faust are brothers in a development firm, Tierra Concepts, that developed the commercial Pacheco Park. They have a third partner in all their companies, Keith Gorges. For the El Rio project, the development entity is Blue Buffalo LLC.

“I guess the big picture is we’re trying to do a project that would appeal to younger people,” said Kurt Faust.

“The underlying green factor is you have a location on the river trail connected to downtown. On the bus routes connected to the rest of the city. It’s walking distance between the new Siler corridor and the St. Mike’s corridor.”

Jim Siebert at the February 19th meeting presented for the developers a traffic report that estimated an increase in traffic on Agua Fria of 178 cars a day for the 452 units. The reaction was disbelief. “You could have cut the scoff with a knife, it was so thick,” said Kurt Faust.

Hilario Romero said he attended the February 19th meeting representing not only his family but more than 100 families from La Cieneguita, as well as Harrison and Maez Roads. He said his “diligence in research” about the area’s past offers valuable insight. He also isn’t buying the argument that good housing is needed to attract good jobs.

“The reason my two sons left Santa Fe was there were no jobs for them here. Coming back, the trick wasn’t finding a place.”

But even as anecdotal reports differ, a recent CBRE report estimated only a 3 percent rental vacancy rate in Santa Fe.

Neighborhood objections fundamentally lie in a feeling that higher density is not “appropriate” for Agua Fria Street; “appropriate” is often cited.

“There’s a way to do things appropriately. It (El Rio) is a great idea if you stick it out there where it belongs on St. Mike’s or Rodeo Road,” Hilario Romero said.

Undeterred

Blue Buffalo, says Eric Faust, already owns one parcel of the four land parcels outright and has invested significantly in the largest piece, the almost-11 acre former EcoVersity campus. While that parcel and one other are zoned R-21, the developers will still need a density variance permitting them an up-zoning to be able to build more densely on about four additional acres to make the numbers work.

“Our inclination right now is to go to the City Council,” Eric Faust said, speaking procedurally about the developers’ hope to get before a Council meeting in May.

Eric Faust elaborated that they’ve brought down the number from 452 to 294 units. They will rent at market rates of about $1000 for a two-bedroom, 850-square-foot apartment. Fifty-two additional affordable units would be achieved through a donation of the 2.5 acre parcel to Santa Fe Housing Trust.

‘I do find it interesting,” Eric Faust said, “that since the Santa Fe Homes program has been initiated (in 2007) we have never had an apartment complex built that the city has had to administer under the program. You can say there hasn’t been a demand but in meanwhile we’ve had 400 families move away in a year for reasons that they’ve said is affordability.”

Alexandra Ladd, affordable housing specialist for the City, clarified. The Housing Opportunity Program (HOP) that preceded Santa Fe Homes Program produced roughly 150 units at affordable rates in Santa Fe.  SFHP was adopted in 2007, and since then, “there have not been any market rate, multifamily rental units proposed,” Ladd said.

“How much of that is due to the housing bubble that popped about five minutes after the ordinance was approved, and how much was due to the regulation, is pretty hard to say.”

Meetings and Commissions

Opponents to El Rio at the February 19th hearing identified themselves across a generational spectrum. They said they were “parents and grandparents,” and “10th-generation” Santa Feans. Several identified themselves as “millennials.”

Werwath had made comments on Facebook that called public input processes as currently designed “a travesty.” The words were, by his account, the frustrated words of a private citizen who has worked professionally in affordable housing in Santa Fe for a decade.

“I live down the street from the project. The reason for my disappointed Facebook post is I’m sick of seeing sprawl,” Werwath said.

“I’m an affordable-housing advocate,” he said. “The exclusion of density hurts poor people. Whether or not (Blue Buffalo) is targeting young professionals, the fact  is that there were 60-100 affordable units proposed, and our needs assessment says this is what we need.

“When we get to the rubber on the road, people get whipped up into this frenzy that makes us make the wrong decisions going forward.”

But whether civil, angry or scoffing, the public comments in the minutes revealed a range of emotions including nostalgia, suspicion, a palpable sense of loss and even a lightly veiled threat of litigation.  William Mee reflected on formerly passing “the goats that would stand on top of the straw burrows (at EcoVersity) and look at you.” Marilyn Bane, past president of the Old Santa Fe Association, called the Blue Buffalo proposal an “over-reach” and related a 2008  judicial precedent when a district judge overturned a City Council permitting higher density in a previously R-1 (or one unit per acre) zone.

But a generational divide also has revealed its opinion that objections to Planning Commission nominations are unprecedented and reveal a fear of progressive, sustainable agendas.  Shannon Murphy, 34, president of the AHA! After-Hours Alliance, said, “So far as progressive policies are concerned, affordable housing is clearly a progressive policy in my mind. It’s tied directly to sprawl. We can’t continue spreading out. Not only is it an ecological nightmare, it’s polarizing and pushing minorities out. It’s contributed to the attrition of youth because young people don’t want to be pushed out.”

She said considered the attacks on Werwath to be “baseless.”

Creative Economy Development and Agendas

While what much of this highlights is the way that perceptions can fix and become polarizing, and that allergy to density in Santa Fe is perennial, there is undeniably also a small group in Santa Fe who directly represent the virtues of a “vibrant” city and actively voice support for rezoning.

Cyndi Conn, executive director of Creative Santa Fe, chaired the Community Development subcommittee of Mayor Gonzales’s transition team that recommended “exploring rezoning” as part of a long-range action plan, among other things.

The report wrote that new zoning policy to create overlay districts where mixed-use development and affordable housing live, is desirable. That one leg of an “innovation triangle” including Siler Road and Rufina Street might include Agua Fria Street is one way to look at the map.

Conn said, “I understand peoples’ concerns, but I also know that if you have a city that is really vibrant you have to start looking at density issues and infill. We know for a fact that affordable housing is lacking. The city needs infill and it needs reasonable solutions.”

Under construction now on Siler Road is the multimillion renovation of the former Silva Lanes for The House of Due Return, a project of the Meow Wolf arts initiative led by Vince Kadlubek.

The House of Due Return recently raised $105,000 in crowdfunding.

Meanwhile, Daniel Werwath’s  affordable housing nonprofit, New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing, successfully competed in an RFP process and went under contract last August to Creative Santa Fe to be the affordable-housing developer of the Arts + Creativity Center.

The Arts + Creativity Center, a Creative Santa Fe project, has already undergone an early viability assessment and public survey process held in 2013-2014. Those were conducted by Artspace, a St. Paul, Minnesota consultancy that is the national expert in developing affordable artists’ housing.

Artspace’s survey process found that Santa Fe demand would support up to 85 units of artists’ affordable housing.

Conn of Creative Santa Fe said that Artspace’s work was integral to the “first two phases.” When it came time to seek a developer, looking locally was the way to go, she said.

The success of getting this affordable artists’ housing project off the boards and under construction depends, as AdobeAirstream reported last year, on the project’s competing successfully for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit tax subsidy, a federal program to incentivize housing for the poor that is administered in New Mexico by Mortgage Finance Authority.

The tax credits provide a dollar for dollar reduction in the developer’s tax liability over a 10-year period, MFA’s Dan Foster explained. Tax-credit financing is key to the developer’s being able to attract investors, for whom the tax credits are in high demand as a hedge against profits in other parts of those investors’ businesses.

To fulfill its part of the LIHTC requirements, the city will be donating land to the project.

In his role as A+CC developer, Werwath has evaluated 13 potential sites and written a 40-page report recommending a former waste-treatment site on Siler Road — contingent on the site passing tests that show the brownfield not to be highly contaminated. Werwath also is about to expand the outreach process — with Shannon Murphy — of interviewing prospective-resident artists and makers from Native American and Hispanic communities.

Werwath said his role as the affordable developer concerns making sure that he puts into place all the planning elements to help the project score high in the LIHTC application process, which is highly competitive.

Come next fall, he will be preparing the project application for the LIHTC subsidy. He will likely also be presenting the project to the Planning Commission for approval.

As envisioned, the Arts + Creativity Center will include  60-70 units of affordable rental artists’ housing renting at around $400 a month for a one-bedroom, Werwath said. The Center will preserve rents at the affordable rates for “an extended compliance period” of 45 years (15 years over the 30-period that the tax-credit program requires.) He said that he personally wants to see the definition of working-poor artists be expanded as much as possible to privilege creators including fabricators of goods.

‘I want to put our money where our mouth is as much as I can, using this as an opportunity to lift up young creatives,” he said.

He said that as all this has been going on, the Siler Road area has been demonstrating an “organic bubbling up”  including the Meow Wolf project, the opening of Java Joe’s on April 3d and the Duel Brewing location on Rufina Street as a craft-beer business and nightlife spot.

“It’s a making place, I think it’s genuine,” Werwath said.

What Next?

Ultimately whether the Council votes to approve Vince Kadlubek and two new nominees to the Planning Commission on April 8th, larger questions persist about affordable housing, rental housing, and how creative economy initiatives themselves may be effectively raising and answering some of those questions.

Will there meantime be a compromise with old neighborhoods around a vision of a Santa Fe that looks in a word, much more urban than it has the past?

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