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A mystery plan on Pacheco Street

Santa Fe just went through a big land use code fight over “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, like casitas and guesthouses. In the end, the City Council agreed to help promote development of ADUs by dropping the longstanding requirement that only owner-occupant homeowners could rent them out.

Pollon Plaza used to be the home of state offices. It’s now for sale and is one of three properties on Pacheco Street that would be affected by an ordinance amendment that would allow buildings up to 52 feet high. ( T.S. Last / Albuquerque Journal)

Now, absentee landlords can legally rent two units – a main house and an ADU – on a lot zoned single-family residential, for the stated goal of helping to add to Santa Fe’s housing options.

While the ADU debate was at least partially sparked by neighborhood complaints about an illegally rented casita in the South Capitol neighborhood, another tussle over housing is brewing to the south, in the Midtown area.

In 2016, the city created a Midtown “overlay” zoning district intended to encourage redevelopment of St. Michael’s Drive, including with new apartments. But where this new district overlapped with a previously established highway corridor that limits building heights to 25 feet, the highway corridor’s rules were to remain. The corridor rules were set to “establish a clear sense of visual openness and continuity as seen from major highway entrances to Santa Fe,” including St. Francis Drive.

Now, the City Council is considering changing what it OK’d just three years ago with an amendment that would put a piece of the highway corridor – encompassing the sites of three existing buildings at Pacheco and St. Mike’s, just west of the St. Francis overpass over St. Mike’s – under the rules of the Midtown overlay. The big thing the amendment would do is allow buildings up to 52 feet.

The impetus for the proposed change appears to be that someone wants to develop something on the site of at least one of two privately owned buildings at Pacheco and St. Mike’s that formerly housed state offices. No one will say who wants to do the project or what might be built.

Apartments apparently are a goal. An architect recently told the Planning Commission that an unnamed developer is interested one of the properties and that the highway corridor height restrictions could be an issue. The architect explained that “the ability to provide affordable housing requires a certain density to make that happen.”

Meanwhile, people who live nearby are concerned about what might be built, say they haven’t been told enough about what’s going on and worry that taller buildings could impact mountain views, something the highway corridor rules were intended to protect. (As anyone who commutes on St. Francis knows, maybe Santa Fe’s best view of a sunset over the Jemez Mountains is from a car on that overpass above St. Mike’s.)

So, just as in the ADU fight, this discussion appears to pit the need for more housing in Santa Fe against what their critics call “neighborhood restrictionists.”

It’s proper to continue that debate. But it ought to be a fair debate. Before the City Council votes on this amendment (now scheduled for July 31), someone needs to tell the world what kind of projects are envisioned at St. Mike’s and Pacheco. How many apartments does City Hall want to encourage on the site?

And will there really be affordable units, as called for under city ordinance, which other apartment builders have avoided by paying a fee instead?

Amending the height limits would in effect be the first step toward approval of a high-rise development. So it’s time for a full and informed discussion.

This same neighborhood has already absorbed the MorningStar assisted living facility that a more affluent part of town didn’t want and fought off, but which looks great and appropriately sited where it ended up. The height change now under consideration, though, apparently could allow Morningstar to go higher.

Apartments at this location, a major intersection that’s near shopping, might be a great thing as Santa Fe tries to deal with its housing shortage. Developers or the City Hall leaders proposing the height change should try to make that case now.

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