Editor’s Note: an inappropriate headline originally appeared above this story and has been changed.
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Karen Heldmeyer doesn’t like the term NIMBY.
NIMBY – which stands for “not in my backyard” – is often used to refer to those who oppose developments or other building projects in their area. And, in Santa Fe, where squabbles between neighborhood associations and developers are commonplace, it’s a word many have become quite familiar with.
But Heldmeyer, a former Santa Fe city councilor and current neighborhood activist, told the Journal she doesn’t agree with the perception of the word, implying that those from neighborhood associations stand against all development. She also formed the Neighborhood Network, which organizes neighborhood associations across the city.
“I think a lot of that is part of the (public relations) for development,” she said of usage of the term.
In recent decades, neighborhood associations have often stood against a series of planned developments across the City Different, and have had success in either stopping projects or reducing how much is constructed.
However, the tide may be turning on neighborhood associations’ influence in Santa Fe, as the city’s affordable housing crisis reaches a fever pitch and the COVID-19 pandemic inhibits organizing efforts.
Neighborhood association organizers told the Journal they don’t believe they have the same impact on development that they had in years past and that developments are being constructed despite their objections.
The most recent example is a proposed development surrounding the Zia Station Rail Runner Express train stop at the intersection of Zia Road and St. Francis Drive. The mixed-use development would create 384 residential units, and thousands of square feet for office and retail space, if approved by the City Council.
The Candlelight Neighborhood Association, adjacent to the proposed site, has stated opposition to the project for fear it could lead to traffic in the area. It has also opposed ordinance changes that would allow taller buildings in the area.
The city Planning Commission recommended that city councilors approve the project, despite neighborhood objections.
Alan Richardson, who lives in the Candlelight neighborhood, said he’s not optimistic major changes will come to the project and that residents don’t feel listened to.
“The density is still overwhelming,” Richardson said. “The traffic that’s going to be generated is still overwhelming.”
It wasn’t always this way. Only a few years ago, neighborhood associations would arrive in force to City Council and Planning Commission meetings to oppose projects they said would increase traffic, decrease water supplies and impact the livability of certain neighborhoods.
“(Associations) don’t have power because the law and the philosophy is changing,” Heldmeyer said. “How can you have power if you’re not listened to?”
‘Like a snow globe’
The pros and cons of growth have been discussed in Santa Fe for decades.
A 1986 editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican highlighted the debate between outside developers and “anti-growth neighborhood associations,” taking the stance that the two sides should work on finding a compromise.
Santa Fe’s population also grew by 27% from 1980 to 2000, according to census figures, with many newcomers of the baby-boom generation attracted to the city’s beauty and artistic landscape. Daniel Werwath, chief operating officer of New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing, said it’s this population that has comprised a large portion of anti-growth sentiment.
“To them, Santa Fe is like a snow globe and can never change,” Werwath said.
He said that group, along with multi-generational Hispanic families historically displaced by growth, created a powerful lobbying group of neighborhoods that seek to stop or limit developments across the city.
Werwath recently led the development of a 65-unit housing complex designed as an affordable live-work space for artists at Siler Yard. He said other developers can be hesitant to build in Santa Fe in part because of the resistance associations can muster.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say part of the reason we chose the Siler yard location … was also that there’s no one around there to complain about it,” Werwath said.
One example of a proposed project sidetracked by public outcry was the El Rio development proposed in 2015. It would have created 399 units meant to give younger people an affordable home in the city.
Kurt Faust, one of the principals on El Rio, said he wanted to create housing that his children could afford to live in after graduating college. But when city councilors prepared to take a vote, hundreds of people arrived to speak against it, including representatives of nearly two dozen neighborhood associations. Many argued the development would clash with the semi-rural character along Agua Fria Street near Frenchy’s Field where it was to be located. The increase in traffic was another objection.
The council and then-mayor Javier Gonzales unanimously voted down the project, even though some had previously expressed support for it.
Five years later, Faust is still disappointed about El Rio’s demise. His company, Tierra Concepts, is about to break ground on a project, called Acequia lofts, in the same area – but it has 120 units on less land and it won’t be categorized as affordable housing.
“We were targeting that whole younger crowd,” Faust said of El Rio. “Now, we’re building normal-sized apartments and we’re targeting baby boomers.”
Same as it ever was
Neighborhood associations have long been a power felt by city councilors, as well.
Cris Moore, who served on the City Council from 1994-2002, said associations were a powerful interest group that often caught the attention of councilors.
“When I was elected, especially the first time, it was largely with the support of neighborhood associations,” Moore said. “They are politically powerful and it’s hard for a candidate to win without their support.”
Santa Fe currently has more than 30 neighborhood associations representing city residents. However, the vast majority are located on the city’s historic east side and downtown areas, where the population tends to skew older and wealthier, according to city data.
In fact, the data shows areas with neighborhood associations often have less density, fewer renters and greater access to such services as the internet.
“That is the most precious part of town in terms of architecture and existing neighborhood landscapes,” Werwath said, adding that its historic qualities contribute to the number of associations in that part of town.
Moore and Werwath said that, as a result of the presence of neighborhood associations, the affordable housing that is constructed ends up being pushed to the edges of the city, especially towards the Southside.
Seventy-seven percent of units in Santa Fe in some stage of planning are in Districts 3 and 4, areas with far fewer associations, according to the city. Of those units considered affordable, 88% are in these districts.
Moore noted that, while the city has made significant strides in affordable housing in recent years, affordability has been a constant problem for decades.
“We seem to be in roughly the same place we were 20 years ago,” he said.
A changing climate
But neighborhood activists maintain they’re not against all development.
Rick Martinez, who helped form the Neighborhood Network with Heldmeyer, said much of the organizing revolves around protecting neighborhoods that residents have invested their lives in. He added they wouldn’t speak out against a development if there wasn’t a good reason.
“You have to stand up for it,” Martinez said. “It’s why you moved into this neighborhood.”
Heldmeyer said associations can help minimize risks from developments and ensure the interests of residents are heard. She said she believes it’s a myth that associations always oppose developments.
“You’ll hear people say ‘they don’t want anything now,’ ” she said. “We want something that’s compatible. We want something that doesn’t cause us more problems.”
And neighborhood organizers have had more than a few wins to show for their efforts.
Linda Wilder Flatt, a longtime member of the Las Acequias Neighborhood Association, said they’ve been successful in many of their goals.
“We have fought off – and I’m gonna say fought off – a lot of development over the years,” she said.
Las Acequias is the only neighborhood association on Santa Fe’s Southside, an area Flatt says has been “a dumping ground” for different developments over the years. She said the association has opposed the building of apartments and manufactured homes in favor of stick-built homes, and that she’d like to see more local residents buying homes instead of renting.
“We have, unfortunately, a lot more renters now, which makes it different, because they’re not as committed as someone who owns a home,” she said.
Las Acequias has also assisted other associations when they oppose developments in their neighborhoods, she said.
But interest in neighborhood associations has started waning in the past couple of years, she said. Part of that can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flatt said social isolation has made it difficult to organize, but associations less organized than hers are probably struggling more.
Kim Shanahan, formerly of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association, said the pandemic, along with the city’s grappling with its housing crisis, has led to a shift in the housing conversation in Santa Fe.
“I think it’s a new climate,” Shanahan said. “(Virtual meetings have) also frustrated a whole lot of people who kind of enjoy the process of getting out with their neighbors.”
Multiple people told the Journal that attention to the city’s housing shortage, large number of commuters and lack of economic development historically has moved the conversation away from preserving neighborhoods. Many also fear the implication of being called a NIMBY themselves.
“NIMBY is like an N-word,” Shanahan said. “Nobody wants to be called a NIMBY.”
Heldmeyer said neighborhood associations are losing interest because residents feel that their concerns aren’t being heard.
“They’re losing interest – it’s very difficult for them to feel like they have a voice,” she said.