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Midtown Campus project moving forward

So far, so good on redevelopment of the city-owned Midtown Campus – apparently.

This city has received 21 “expressions of interest” from developers or organizations that would like to house operations on the site. Seven of the responses are from would-be master developers for the entire 64 acres off St. Michael’s Drive, including in at least some cases the smaller proposals from other applicants.

Santa Fe city government has received numerous proposals for the redevelopment of the city-owned Midtown Campus, which includes the impressive Greer Garson Theatre. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Allan Affeldt, the guy who renovated an historic hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, improved another and has brought back the Legal Tender restaurant and saloon in Lamy, has put together a team of community leaders and a plan for the campus that represents an estimated $400 million investment.

It’s impressive. The plan includes housing, parks, an amphitheater, a tech center with its own “microgrid’ power infrastructure and, if the University of New Mexico can pull it off, a film and digital media program for the school, along with engineering and design programs. The participation of the Homewise nonprofit brings in valuable experience at developing homes that working people can afford.

The campus’ professional, functioning movie studio and a large, well-equipped theater, both legacy facilities resulting from actress Greer Garson’s philanthropy to the old College of Santa Fe, will have to be part of any redevelopment effort. A George R.R. Martin company that surely will bring a jolt of creativity is involved with Affleidt’s Central Park Santa Fe.

If the Affeldt group’s proposal becomes reality, it would essentially create a whole new neighborhood in the geographical center of Santa Fe. The proposal includes some land swaps to increase the size of the site to 100 acres. Its ambitious vision seems to check every box on the wish list the city developed over the past couple of years in a process that included community feedback.

Affeldt has made public his group’s proposal for the campus. As for what the other master developer proposers are suggesting, that’s mostly a secret. The city decided over the past couple of years to keep bids for city contracts private until a winning bid is chosen by the City Council, on grounds that the bidders’ proprietary information should be protected.

One other master developer bidder did provide some general information. The Los Alamos Field Office of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the wing of the U.S. Department of Energy that oversees Los Alamos National Laboratory, would use the campus for its offices, along with research and light manufacturing activities. Absent more information, the NNSA plan appears to lack the transformative possibilities of the Central Park proposal.

It will be interesting to see how the City Council discusses the campus proposals in public. We’re told there will be open discussion of the kinds of ideas presented by developers, without attaching any idea with a particular group or organization.

It would be better if the city had come up with a more transparent way to go through the process – the city had released bidders’ proposals regularly in the past, as in the case of the city banking contract when the incumbent, Wells Fargo, was mired in scandal. But it’s almost certainly too late, with the proposals for the campus now in City Hall’s hands, to change the rules and make the redevelopment ideas public at this point.

At the very least, the public should know WHO is bidding. There are master developer proposals submitted by groups led by out-of-state entities, but which apparently have local partners. So far, Santa Fe reporters haven’t been able to pry out the details. How can the backgrounds, reputations and past accomplishments of whomever wants to take on this potentially game-changing project in Santa Fe be properly vetted without some public exposure?

One thing the council can, without question, do in public is discuss how any plan fits into the neighborhood around the campus. If done right, the campus should become an attractive center for the area, a major boost of new energy, creativity, people and jobs, and a general improvement to Midtown’s liveability even beyond the campus’ boundaries.

But the Midtown Campus can’t be a standalone thing. For example, the introduction of several hundred or a thousand residences – apartments seem to be the focus at this point – means a major impact on the neighborhood’s infrastructure. Siringo Road, where the south entrance to the campus is located, has only two lanes of traffic and a middle lane for turns. Thousands of additional vehicle trips on what was originally a country road probably can’t be absorbed without some expansion or improvement.

Still, if Affleldt’s plan is indicative of the scope and ambitiousness of other plans that have been submitted – and the mayor says the city got a great group of applications – then the campus project is on a good track. City government has never taken on something like this before. It’s exciting. The city’s somewhat closed processes aside, and with the caveat that the fate of the rest of the neighborhood must be taken into consideration, the future looks bright for the MidTown Campus.