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Railyard District celebrates 10 years

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Remembering what the Railyard looked like 20 years ago, Debbie Jaramillo described it as “just another junkyard.”

Former Santa Fe Mayor Debbie Jaramillo, shown here in the Railyard this week, was mayor when the city purchased the 50-acre site in the 1990s. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“What I remember is a lot of grease,” said Jaramillo, mayor of Santa Fe from 1994-98. “It was just, ew. Dirty. Greasy. The train was the only thing that really used it. A lot of old lumber blocks thrown around.”

It was a mess, she said. And it was hard to imagine what that kind of space, full of old warehouses and a railroad running through the middle, could be.

The area was facing potential development by a major corporation. The people of Santa Fe wanted the city to take over this property, Jaramillo said. So she pushed for that.

“You have to have some kind of vision in your mind and not something like, ‘This could never happen,’ ” she said. “It was something that took some good vision.”

It was in 1995, during Jaramillo’s tenure, that the city bought the 50-acre property, including both the North and Baca sub-districts, for $21 million, plus millions more in debt service. It wasn’t until 2008 that the project made its public debut.

This weekend marks the 10-year anniversary of the opening of the Railyard, including the Railyard Park created with help from the Trust for Public Lands, the plaza with its landmark water tank, the parking garage and a major commercial building. The anniversary will be celebrated with weekendlong festivities, starting today.

Tenants like REI and the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market opened their doors in fall of 2008, joining already existing entities like Warehouse 21 and SITE Santa Fe. The Flying Star restaurant – which closed in 2015 amid bankruptcy – and Second Street Brewery came later.

The Railyard Flats apartments are a recent addition to the Railyard. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

On the heels of several slow years of real estate development – the Railyard opened precisely at the start of a national economic crisis – the area has seen several additions in the latter half of the district’s decade of operation, including the creation of the Violet Crown Cinema in 2015, the multimillion-dollar expansion of SITE Santa Fe last year and the opening this year of the three-story Railyard Flats apartment building.

“We’ve crossed over into a place where we’re going to see the Railyard continue to fill out in the way it was originally intended,” said Violet Crown owner Bill Banowsky. He also co-developed nearby Sky Coffee that opened earlier this year and is hatching plans for additional Railyard parcels.

There are also two projects under letter of intent status in the Railyard’s less high-profile Baca District, off the intersection of Cerrillos Road and Baca Street to the south: an 18-unit condo building, and the second phase of the residential and commercial development in which the new Opuntia teahouse is currently housed.

Richard Czoski is the executive director of the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp., the nonprofit that manages the Railyard under contract with the city. He’s standing in the Farmer’s Market shade structure. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

If those plans come to fruition, the Baca area will be full by this time next year. That’s according to Richard Czoski, executive director of the nonprofit Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp., which manages the Railyard under a city contract.

And the only available parcel in the North Railyard, its main section, is one next to teen center Warehouse 21 on Paseo de Peralta, Czoski said, that will likely be some sort of commercial use.

“We’re very close to completion,” he said. “But even though a parcel is leased doesn’t necessarily mean we’re safe, because we’re not safe until a building has been built on it.”

Today, Czoski says the Railyard’s parcels are about 95 percent leased. That’s the same amount of leased property the Railyard had at its September 2008 opening. But in the Great Recession, many prospective tenants had to pull out because they were unable to secure commercial loans.

Plenty of retail space is still available in the Railyard’s Market Station building, which has had a troubled financial history as part of the project that opened in the fall of 2008 just as the Great Recession hit. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The available indoor space in the buildings up so far is down to 38,000 square feet, 90 percent of that being in the troubled Market Station Building.

“We opened at perhaps the worst possible time from a real estate development perspective,” said Czoski.

With the exception of a small handful of owner-occupied properties in the more inexpensive Baca area, he recalled, “everything basically stopped” until around 2012-13 when banks began lending again.

“It’s taken us this long to recapture that 20 percent and get to the same point we were then,” he said.

Santa Fe’s ‘family room’

Czoski said the Railyard was planned to be the “new family room for Santa Fe.”

“The downtown Plaza had become too formal and not really locally oriented any more,” he said.

How did things work out? “When we have 5,000 people show up for a concert, it feels like a family room,” he said with a laugh.

As opposed to real estate development, the Railyard was able to start establishing itself as a public programming hub more quickly, according to Sandra Brice, the Railyard corporation’s events and marketing manager.

“The space was available; it was ready to go,” she said. “That helped enliven people and bring people to the Railyard before some of these developments happened.”

In recent years, she said the Railyard Park and plaza has averaged about 70 permitted events annually, from art festivals to weddings. The Railyard’s free concerts, she said, reached a record 13 in 2018. There have also been seven movie showings in the park. Those numbers don’t include other local organizations that have used the corporation’s stage and sound or movie projection packages.

Brice is happy with the diversity of events the Railyard hosts. “When you look at just our schedule this year, May started off with a huge Cinco de Mayo event in the park, then transitioning through June with this incredible futuristic Interplanetary Festival, and then the growth of the movie and the concert series,” she said.

“The movie series brings in hundreds and hundreds of people … and we really do see a lots of families from all over town.”

Going forward, she hopes to capitalize on new additions like the nearby bicycle and pedestrian underpass beneath St. Francis Drive, which she said makes the park a “natural start” for biking events or marathons.

Mindy Paul, a Santa Fean who has lived on the corner of Alarid and Camino Sierra Vista on the edge of the Railyard for the past 25 years, said she enjoys living within walking distance of the concerts and movie nights, as well as the Farmers’ Market and movie theater.

But development also comes with downsides. Paul said the neighborhood has become the spot for overflow parking. Paul, who is on the board of the Ferrocarril Neighborhood Association, also cited the ongoing issue of homeless people living in the Railyard Park as one that needs more attention.

“If we can’t get the city more engaged in managing some of the fallout from the growth in the Railyard, it does impact the quality of life,” she said.

Future of the Railyard

David Coss, mayor from 2006-14, cited the Violet Crown Cinema’s 2015 opening as a game-changer for the Railyard, its “last critical piece.” He remembered being the tie-breaker for a crucial City Council vote. He said some councilors voted against the theater’s plans to serve alcohol.

“If we had voted no and that guy (Violet Crown’s Banowsky) said ‘OK, I spent enough I’m leaving now,’ we might still just have a hole in the ground,” said Coss, referring to the construction zone left behind after earlier plans for a cinema never came to fruition.

Though he didn’t want to disclose details, Banowsky said business at Violet Crown has continually increased.

“We’ve come to believe the Railyard, in many ways, is the center of Santa Fe going forward,” he said. “We’re pleased we’ve been able to participate in the Railyard’s success and want to continue to do that.”

He co-developed Sky Coffee – where the Bon Marché boutique used to be – with Todd Spitzer, a co-founder of Iconik Coffee Roasters, with locations around town, and Opuntia Cafe in the Railyard’s Baca District. Banowksy said he hopes to present plans for parcels surrounding the coffee shop to the Railyard corporation later this year. “Something that maybe doesn’t currently exist in the Railyard, but if it were to exist, would be a thing that people who live in Santa Fe year-round could use on a regular basis,” he said.

There is also 35,000 square feet of vacant indoor space in the Market Station commercial building, where REI continues as the anchor tenant. The 100,000-square-foot building is also home to city offices and small stores, and formerly housed the Flying Star.

Not long after Flying Star closed, the commercial building’s local development company, Railyard Co. LLC, also filed for bankruptcy. Czoski described the developers’ financial struggles as a road block to filling out the building.

The developers’ lender, California-based Thorofare Capital, took ownership of the structure earlier this year – effectively putting an end to the Railyard Co.’s plans for a bowling alley/brewery in a second-floor space – and is now looking to fill the space. Czoski told the Journal that all he can say at this time is the Railyard corporation has been presented with prospective tenants. A Thorofare spokesperson said in an email that the firm “has proposals out to several prospective tenants.”

Czoski said he feels the Railyard has largely stayed true to what was intended in the 2002 master plan.

“There’s no six-story buildings, there’s no huge developments,” he noted, adding that there were plans for a 250-unit apartment building that were turned down for the Baca area.

He is also happy with four mainstay nonprofits – Site Santa Fe, El Museo Cultural, the Farmers’ Market and the currently in transition Warehouse 21 – and the retention of historical buildings like the old warehouse that is now El Museo Cultural and the Gross, Kelly and Co. warehouse that is home to Barker Realty.

He said that there has been criticism that there is not enough foot traffic, and, on the other side, there have been complaints that the development has been too much.

“We have folks on either end of the spectrum,” he said. “But the project was always meant to be something in between.”

Decades in the making

Kim Bartell, left, an engineer with the Santa Fe Southern Railway, and Bob Sarr, owner of Santa Fe Railway, remove railroad poles in the Railyard in 2006, before the groundbreaking ceremony. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Though the Railyard is technically celebrating its 10th anniversary, its creation goes back further. Former Mayor Jaramillo remembers attending community meetings about the property nearly a decade before the city purchased the property from Cattellus – a corporation formed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company – in 1995.

After hearing people say they wanted the city to purchase and control that property, she said, she made that a focal point during her subsequent time as a city councilor and mayor. “I knew it meant a lot to a lot of people not to see hotels and another downtown in the Railyard,” she said. “That was the bottom line.”

Coss, a city manager under Jaramillo, remembered that before the 1995 purchase, Cattellus proposed building a large Smith’s grocery store on the land. “So it could’ve gone lots of ways,” he said of the area’s future.

A community plan was created in 1997 outlining items residents desired. “I remember they wanted a youth center, a performing arts center, affordable housing … a park … and a live-work space (and) stores,” Jaramillo recalled.

It didn’t turn out exactly as she envisioned. Jaramillo was voted out of office in 1998, and after that the city created its master plan for Railyard development. She said the plans veered in a new direction and didn’t include all of those things that the public called for, like the large performing arts space.

“When I think of what happened and what it’s like today versus what it could’ve been, there are portions of the Railyard that are nice, that are good,” she said, mentioning the 10-acre park, the Farmers’ Market and the movie theater.

“I’m not saying it’s a big mess,” she said. “I’m saying there are things there I know wouldn’t have been there if I was the one pushing the community plan. It would’ve been different in that sense.” Among the things that wouldn’t be there, she said, are the Railyard’s art galleries, or anything “more money slash tourist-oriented” that has come to be.

“The last thing people wanted in the Railyards (the ‘s’ was eventually dropped) was something looking like downtown,” said Jaramillo.

Czoski acknowledged that some residents say there are too many galleries, while he hears from gallery owners that the Railyard should be considered a designated arts district. He also mentioned criticism of bringing in REI instead of a local company, but said the Market Station building wouldn’t have secured financing without a national anchor tenant.

“It’s been a balancing act since the beginning,” he said. “I think we haven’t made everybody happy, but we haven’t had the opposite effect either, and that’s just the nature of a 50-acre urban infill project that has public investment and private investment.”

Coss said there are elements, like affordable housing units, that didn’t come to fruition. But he still considers the project a success. “It probably looks a little different than me and Debbie envisioned it in 1997, but Santa Fe did it,” he said.

“This project wasn’t built for any one group,” Czoski said. “It’s built for everyone who lives in Santa Fe regardless of where they live. That’s why it’s not an art district, it’s not a shopping center, it’s not just a nonprofit center, it’s all those things and as long as the master plan remains enforced, it should stay that way.”

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