Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Even with what has largely been a lost summer at the city’s Railyard district due to the coronavirus outbreak, a lot has been going on behind the scenes – and in plain sight – as construction is underway at what one day will be Nuckolls Brewing Company.
But on the other side of the railroad tracks at Market Station, things are beginning to become alive.
Bosque Brewing was to open its new 4,100-square-foot taproom at the south end of the building on Friday. In just a couple more weeks, look for the popular Opuntia café to reopen at its new location on the second floor right above the taproom.
And that’s just the start.
In the coming months, La Lecheria craft ice cream, which offers a lunch menu, and Wayward Sons Distillery will open to the public. Build De Sign design studio, the biotech firm Specifica, and Luna Capital Advisors will also locate their offices at Market Station by next year.
The new businesses will join anchor tenant REI, Inc., Daniella women’s boutique and Puzzah! escape room, filling up the building for the first time since it opened in 2008.
“There’s going to be a lot going on down here,” said Kris Axtell, founder, CEO and managing member of Luna Capital Advisors, the man largely responsible for making it all happen.
Axtell’s company bought most of the space at the troubled Market Station last year after the previous owners filed for bankruptcy and the building went into foreclosure. He rounded up a group of investors to create 500 Market Street LLC to develop the property. The group now owns the ground lease and about three-quarters of the building’s space – roughly 64,000 square feet – with the rest possessed by the city of Santa Fe, which occupies about half of the second floor.
500 Market Station has owned the building only since July 2019, so achieving capacity in a little more than a year seems like a remarkably quick turnaround, given the problems filling spaces at the cornerstone building of the Railyard master plan in the past.
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Axtell, who started Luna Capital Advisors in 2013 after a decade working in commercial lending at Wells Fargo Bank. “It was extremely difficult to sell investors on it. Nobody could believe that anything could get done there, it had been dark for so long.”
Bad timing had a lot to do with it. After more than 10 years of planning, the 50-acre Railyard property – which includes north and south subdivisions separated by the Railyard Park – opened at 90% capacity in 2008 just as the Great Recession was taking hold. Over the next few years, about 20% of the businesses that originally signed leases moved out.
The city effectively bailed out the previous owners to a degree by acquiring upstairs space at the building. But when Flying Star Café vacated the prominent southeast corner of Market Station in 2015, it left just REI and two retail shops open for business.
The previous owners had designs to open a lounge and game room with a bowling alley, but those plans didn’t work out. Soon after, they filed for bankruptcy and the building was taken over by a California lending company before a judge ordered its sale and it was acquired by Luna.
Still, the Railyard could be a lively place at the right time. The Farmers Market drew thousands on Saturday mornings. The free concert series held under the iconic water tower became a hot spot on summer nights. The success of Second Street Brewery and nearby Boxcar also drew people to the district, as did El Museo Cultural, the Railyard Galleries, SITE Santa Fe and such events as Currents new media exhibition and Outside magazine’s Bike & Brew Festival.
The long-awaited arrival of the Violet Crown Cinema in 2015 was a huge boost for the Railyard and the multi-million-dollar expansion of SITE Santa Fe added to the appeal. But, with a mostly empty Market Station, the Railyard district never reached its full potential.
Richard Czoski heads the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp., a nonprofit entity created to oversee development of the property, which the city acquired in 1995 from Cattellus, a corporation created by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Cattellus had proposed building a Smith’s grocery story at the site.
Now, along with Bill Banowsky, who brought the Violet Crown to Santa Fe and has a hand in a few other enterprises in the Railyard, he credits Axtell and 500 Market Station LLC for reenergizing development in the Railyard.
“They’ve taken a very proactive approach, and they have the capital to build out tenant space, and have embraced the Railyard plan’s goal to attract local businesses,” Czoski said.
Keeping it local is a priority for development in the Railyard. Applicants for leases are vetted and scrutinized by the nonprofit’s board and a few national brands have been turned away.
“The Railyard isn’t designed as a shopping center; there are other locations for retailers that make more sense,” Czoski said.
He says the Railyard is intended to be a community gathering spot where people can spend a few hours at a time, seeing a movie or concert, eating at a restaurant and socializing with friends.
Violet Crown’s Banowsky couldn’t agree more. That essentially sums up the business model for Nuckolls. He said Nuckolls will be a small brewery with an outdoor beer garden and stage where music can be played and films can be shown. There will also be playgrounds for kids and dogs.
While he’s got his own business ventures going, he’s excited about what’s happening across the tracks, too.
“I think it’s great what Kris is doing. He was the right guy to get that property. I love the uses and energy that he’ll bring to the Railyard,” he said. “The Railyard will be a spectacular place. It’s always been a place for community, but it’s never realized its full potential. What Kris is doing, and what we’re doing, will complete that and help bring it to fruition.”
Axtell said business interests are not all that motivated him to pursue development of the Railyard. He and his family live in Santa Fe, and he wanted to make it a better place to live.
“It was a matter of me wanting to see a good environment down here, finding the right tenants, finding the right vibe,” he said when asked how he managed to put it all together in only about a year. “One of the good things about COVID is everybody put more scrutiny into projects.”
And Axtell had a little bit of a head start. He had been in discussions with the building’s previous owners about buying them out before they went bankrupt. So he had been thinking for a while about what it would take to create the right vibe.
He also had connections. Luna’s clients include some of the finest New Mexican breweries, including Santa Fe Brewing, Marble Brewing, Taos Mesa Brewing and Bosque Brewing, which has locations in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Bernalillo, where it is based.
“We’ve wanted to have a location in Santa Fe for a while and have had an eye on this area. We’re excited about being a part of the revitalization of this area” said Rachel Bernal, director of taprooms for Bosque Brewing.
Bernal said part of the appeal was that the location could attract a lot of foot traffic, and being across the street from the entrance to Violet Crown and a stone’s throw from the water tower plaza provided that.
One criticism has been that the Railyard is becoming saturated with establishments that sell alcohol. When Nuckolls and Wayward Sons Distillery open during the second quarter of 2021, there will be a half dozen drinking establishments tightly consolidated in that one area.
But those interviewed for this story didn’t think that was a problem.
“I think it’s good having that nice variety,” Bernal said. “We feel like we’re starting to create a community here. I think we feel like we’re all in this together.”
Given the popularity of craft brews, Axtell said he feels the variety will be an attraction for a lot of people.
“It creates a nice focal point where people can walk from one place to another. If one place is full, they can walk across the street and go to another,” he said.
The Bosque Brewing taproom is open 4-10 p.m. seven days a week. Bernal said they’ll have 20 varieties of beer on tap and will eventually offer a full menu.
For the time being, they’re allowing people to bring food in. In addition to inside seating (limited under COVID restrictions), there’s already an outdoor patio section to accommodate customers.
Bernal said the brewery is hoping to work out a food service arrangement with the soon-to-open Opuntia café upstairs.
Todd Spitzer and Jeanna Gienke opened Opuntia Café on Shoofly Street in the south section of the Railyard development in 2017.
“We outgrew it in two weeks. We were turning people away,” said Spitzer. “We thought it was going to be this tea shop with a little food, and it just exploded.
“We were shooting for healthy, simple food and that really resonated with people,” Gienke added, downplaying the popularity of their initial venture.
Spitzer said he’s known Axtell since Spitzer helped start up Iconik Coffee in Santa Fe several years ago, and Gienke said Axtell and his wife Tifani were customers at the café. So the connection to relocate the café at Market Station had already been made.
And Opuntia was eager to move to the north end of the Railyard.
“I think this is the future of Santa Fe – for the local people,” Spitzer said of the Railyard area. “The Plaza has become a place for tourists, but the Railyard is for locals. All paths lead to the Railyard. It’s the heart of the community, and that’s what we want.”
Opuntia will open in nearly three times the space they had at the Shoofly location. Gienke said the 4,616-square-foot space will have distinctive sections, with a “tropical” space near the center, complete with a pond surrounded by wet plants. Known for their plants, which they also sell, Opuntia will use the south-facing wall for cactus and desert plants.
The east side of the dining area has overhead doors that can be opened when the weather allows, giving it more of an outdoors feel. The long wood table from the old location will be located at that side of the room, where patrons can enjoy views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
“The idea is for it to appeal to everybody. You can find your own place in different zones,” she said, adding that patrons can reserve tables in specific areas.
Gienke said she also likes the idea of being located so close to the Farmers Market.
“We like to support local food and local people,” she said, adding that even the teacups and wood serving trays are handcrafted locally.
Spitzer said it has been a joy to be a part of the development of Market Station.
“We’re all friends,” said Spitzer, who’s also partners with Banowsky in Sky Coffee across the tracks.
Decades in the making, the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp. and Czoski are looking forward to next summer. Perhaps by then restrictions caused by COVID-19 will be behind us and the Railyard will begin to realize its potential.
“Even though progress was slowed a little bit due to all the uncertainty, we’ve kept going forward through the summer and have made progress,” he said. “So even though we’ve had to live with the impact of COVID, we’re really optimistic about getting back to business. We’re looking forward to being able to do our concerts and public events, and all the things we weren’t able to do this year that bring people to the Railyard.”