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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
It’s a mystery exactly what will become of two vacant buildings that until recently were being leased by New Mexico state government for offices. But developers could stand to benefit should the City Council at its next meeting, on July 31, change an ordinance that less than three years ago created a special “overlay district.”
The buildings stand side by side atop a hill overlooking Pacheco Street at the intersection with St. Michael’s across from a Smith’s grocery store. Travelers on St. Francis can see them easily, and they have one of the best 360-degree views of Santa Fe’s scenic surroundings.
The buildings have separate owners but both are being advertised for sale as investment properties by the same broker, Branch Realty.
The proposed amendment affects just three buildings, these two and the recently completed MorningStar assisted living facility on Pacheco. That’s because they are the only buildings that fall within both the South Central Highway Corridor and Midtown LINC overlay districts.
The highway corridor was adopted “to establish a clear sense of visual openness and continuity as seen from major highway entrances to Santa Fe.”
Years in the making, the newer Midtown Local Innovation Corridor, or LINC, was created to stimulate residential and commercial development along St. Michael’s between St. Francis and Cerrillos. It was also meant to serve as a “link” between Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center on the east end of St. Michael’s to what was then the Santa Fe University of Art and Design on the west end.
But when the Midtown LINC was adopted by the City Council in October 2016, the council accepted a recommendation by the Planning Commission that in the short strip along Pacheco where the two corridors overlap, the more strict limits on building height in the highway corridor would supersede the looser limits that apply to the LINC.
The highway corridor limits buildings to 25 feet, while the LINC allows them to be 52 feet, except those within 150 feet of an existing residential neighborhood located nearby, where the limit is 38 feet.
The height limit at the former SFUAD campus, now referred to as the Midtown Campus, is 62 feet. The city is soliciting proposals to develop the city-owned property.
Buildings south of MorningStar on Pacheco and those north of St. Michael’s are not included in the highway corridor, so only three buildings would be affected by the proposed change to the Midtown LINC ordinance.
Michael Branch of Branch Realty, listed as manager of the property at 2009 Pacheco on a sign at the entrance, did not return phone messages from the Journal last week.
That site consists of 2.36 acres at Pacheco and St. Michael’s and is owned by Robin Ellen Pollon of Studio City, California., according to the Santa Fe County Accessor Office’s website. It includes Pollon Plaza, a two-story, 39,950-square-foot structure that until a year ago was home to offices for the Secretary of State’s Office, the Income Support and Child Support Enforcement divisions, and other agencies.
Someone – few people know for sure and at this stage there’s nothing in the public record to indicate who – is interested in buying the plaza, which Branch Realty lists for sale for $3.85 million.
The building next door, Ark Plaza, at 2025 Pacheco, is almost exactly the same size: two stories totaling 39,110 square feet. Its owner is SAFE Pacheco LLC of Amarillo, Texas, according to county assessor records. Just recently, the state Human Services Department moved out of Ark Plaza. Branch Realty is advertising the building sitting on two acres as an investment or owner/user property for $4.35 million.
Some clues about the potential future of Pollon Plaza can be found in the minutes of the April 4 meeting of the Planning Commission.
Architect Tom Gifford told the commission he had been hired by an unnamed developer to look into how the Pollon property could be redeveloped. In doing so, he recognized the difference in the height restrictions between the two overlay districts and how that could impact redevelopment.
Gifford said there was room on the lot for a second structure at the site and that “he could see any number of things for redevelopment.”
“The idea for the excess land is a project that is either mixed-use or residential that meets the regulations of the LINC district,” he told the commission. “That would allow all the rights and uses described; some could be up to 52 feet if another structure is added.”
Gifford acknowledged that there was interest in taking advantage of the additional height allowance in the LINC overlay district. The meeting minutes say, “He explained the ability to provide affordable housing requires a certain density to make that happen. The height that gives that density is required and taking advantage of that would be paramount on the redevelopment of the site.”
Reached by phone last week, Gifford declined to be interviewed, saying he was bound by his agreement with the developer.
The Pollon property is on a hill and it’s possible that another building could be built with a ground floor at a lower elevation so that a 52-foot tall building wouldn’t be any higher than Pollon Plaza itself.
And adding a second building achieves just what the Midtown LINC was intended to do: stimulate development along St. Michael’s between St. Francis and Cerrillos.
“What this would do is allow properties to be renovated and put back into productive use in our community more readily,” said City Councilor Peter Ives, a sponsor of the amendment the council will consider at its next meeting on July 31 and who represents District 2, which includes the St. Michael’s corridor. “The idea is to stimulate growth and redevelopment within that corridor, so it seems odd to exclude things on just one end of the corridor.”
The ordinance that established the Midtown LINC set development standards for elements such as landscaping, architecture and signage, and also provided incentives to property owners to build housing. Santa Fe is facing a housing shortage, and Mayor Alan Webber has made increasing the city’s housing inventory a priority. A 2011 study by the Santa Fe Association of Realtors indicated there was the potential for up to 1,000 multi-family dwelling units along the St. Michael’s corridor.
The Midtown LINC ordinance identified “qualifying projects” eligible for incentives that include new multi-family housing.
There’s another incentive for buyers that Branch Realty is promoting for the Ark Plaza property.
The building falls within an “opportunity zone,” which allows taxpayers willing to invest to qualify for tax incentives authorized under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
The law “allows for reinvestment of gains into qualified opportunity funds (QOFs),” states a flyer available on a website advertising the property. “QOFs are privately managed investment vehicles which allow their investors to indirectly invest in the opportunity zone. Investing in a QOF allows taxpayers to defer and potentially exclude capital gains.” The benefit only applies to gains made through the sale or exchange of property.
It’s unclear whether the incentive would also apply to Pollon Plaza next door.
Some neighbors oppose the proposed amendment. They have begun a petition drive asking city councilors to reject it. The petition says that the ordinance that created the Midtown LINC overlay district was intended to provide a buffer between the district’s new development and existing residential neighborhoods.
“We think that this provision so recently passed by the governing body, and the reasoning behind it, was correct,” the petition says. “It would protect the Pacheco Street Neighborhood and the St. Francis Corridor from commercial encroachment and its negative effects, such as increased traffic and height.” “Pacheco Street is not built to handle that type of traffic,” Christine Fredenburgh, whose backyard butts up against the street, said in an interview last week. “A lot of people already use that as a cut-through street. If this goes through, the traffic impact would really make it miserable for such a quiet neighborhood.”
Fredenburgh said it’s already hard to turn onto Pacheco from Calle Quedo, Vista del Sur and Placita de Vida, the streets most used to enter and leave the neighborhood.
She said during construction of the MorningStar facility, when trucks were pulling in and out, traffic was a “nightmare.”
Her other complaint is that area residents haven’t being consulted.
“The city has done nothing to take the pulse of the neighborhood here and how we feel about the impact,” she said.
Other people brought up that issue at the April Planning Commission meeting. In response, the city held an Early Neighborhood Notification meeting about the property last month.
The public will also have an opportunity to comment on the proposal at the July 31 City Council meeting.
Rick Martinez, an active member of the Santa Fe Neighborhood Network, which advocates for the rights and protection of neighborhoods, also expressed concerns about traffic and the lack of public input. He says he favors the Midtown LINC, but he also says, “What I really don’t like is that our viewsheds are being taken away.”
The South Central Highway Corridor was passed for a reason, he said – to protect the views for people driving into town on St. Francis.
“It’s a gateway to Santa Fe. Our gateway should always be respected,” he said.
Asked about the impact the amendment allowing for taller buildings would have on views, Councilor Ives said, “I hate to co-opt any viewshed, but do it where it makes sense for the development of the city and its economic health.”
He added that taller buildings on Pacheco would only affect views to the west and only for a matter of seconds as traffic moves along St. Francis.
Martinez agreed that the vista of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains would not be affected, but the view to the Jemez Mountains would.
“This is Santa Fe. When we look around, we see the beauty of the mountains. We shouldn’t be giving something like that up for innovation,” he said.
Martinez said that if the amendment passes, an additional floor could also be added to the MorningStar facility.
He said a lot of people don’t know that or know about the proposal at all, and the meeting on July 31 when the council is scheduled to make its decision will be their last chance.
“If the City Council passes this amendment, that’s it. There will be no changing it then. You can appeal it, but that costs you money,” he said, adding that what might be built there remains a mystery to the public. “So something can happen after the meeting and you don’t know what it is. It could be a glass building, it could be a purple building. … You’re making major changes when you do something like this.”