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Turning dreams to reality at the Mid-City campus

Listening to Mayor Alan Webber and City Councilor Signe Lindell talk about the possibilities for development of the city-owned college campus off St. Michael’s Drive (formerly the College of Santa Fe, vacated recently by a temporary renter, the Santa Fe University of Art and Design), it can be easy to get excited.

If the guidelines that have been developed for the 64-acre property (which go before the City Council later this month) end up producing something more or less what’s described, this section of mid-town Santa Fe would become a happening place.

The five main uses suggested, all good ones, are pretty much what was expected going into a public comment period over the past several months – a “premier higher education” institution; apartments in a town with a severe shortage of them; film production and related enterprises based around the campus’ existing, professional and fully operational Garson Studios and The Screen movie theater; other arts programs using the impressive 550-seat Greer Garson Theatre (hey, the famed Hollywood actress who lived out near Pecos certainly left her mark here) and possibly a new amphitheater; and a tech-business hub.

In other words, the burgeoning plan (in which Councilor Mike Harris also has been involved) promises something like a new urban village.

Apartments might be the easiest goal to achieve as the spacious campus provides something of a shield or buffer to overcome the settled fact that most Santa Fe neighborhoods don’t want apartments. Still, developers making proposals for the city land shouldn’t let their imaginations run wild – Santa Fe isn’t meant for the kinds of apartment sprawl that can go on for blocks and blocks in many cities. Somehow, the city and builders have to show the skeptics that a dense rental housing development can be a great neighborhood in itself.

The education piece seems key to what the city leadership is considering. Webber and councilors may have inside knowledge of what the options are here, but they aren’t obvious to us ignorant outsiders. Are we talking about a branch campus along the lines of UNM’s operations in Los Alamos or Taos, and is that enough? What other way can a “premier, accredited” education program move in? Break off a graduate film or theater program from a major university and put it in Santa Fe? That would be impressive.

The UNM proposal mentioned so far involves a for-profit education company, like the owners of the now defunct SFUAD. Students and faculty by many accounts loved that school dearly, but it went away when not enough dollars flowed. The axiom about once bitten, twice shy applies here.

The city-owned Railyard comes to mind as a predecessor for the Mid-City campus plan. It’s taken more than 20 years, but the Railyard now is, often, a happening place (try to find a parking place on a Friday night when Violet Crown is showing a Hollywood blockbuster and there’s a free concert under the water tower).

But the recent success there didn’t come easy. Remember the big hole in the ground that was supposed to become a movie theater and for years was nothing but air before Violent Crown moved in? The Railyard development wasn’t as complicated as what is envisioned at the campus site, and it still needs work – mainly on the commercial building that houses REI that went bankrupt and at one point was bailed out when it part of it was sold to the city itself for the oh-so-exciting use of municipal government office space.

For the campus, it appears that the city’s first step will be to hire consultants to come up with some basic planning documents. Webber said the city also will need to develop a governance structure for the development, possibly a board or commission, that outlives the political life of any single elected official.

We agree with Lindell that, even with a $2.2 million-a-year mortgage on the campus property, the city has to take the time to “do this right.” And Webber has to figure out how to make his team do several things – attract a school, develop good apartments, encourage the tech development that every city wants, find uses for a huge theater space – all at the same time, or at least together over a period of years. The city has to avoid the mushy, overly novelistic ideas that some design groups put forth during the public comment period. This project needs clear thinking and discipline to make it happen.

For better or worse, the city bought the campus property for $19.5 million (and much more than that in eventual mortgage payments) in 2009 because leaders didn’t want to see another big hole, figuratively speaking, in the middle of Santa Fe. The city has developed a general idea about what it wants to do on the land post-SFUAD, and it’s fine so far. Now comes the hard part.