Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The train is leaving the station for Richard Czoski who, for the past 16 years, has served as executive director of the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp., the nonprofit established by the city to oversee the development of the Railyard district.
Czoski, 68, will retire at the end of August but will stay on as a consultant through the end of the year.
His work is almost complete. He’s working to nail down the last of the ground leases that will complete the development more than two decades in the making.
“It was a much bigger challenge than I anticipated, but the rewards have been humbling, and it’s been an honor,” he said.
Czoski was a project developer for BGK Group, which has since become Rosemont Realty, in Santa Fe when he joined the corporation. A year later, he was picked to replace the outgoing executive director.
“I was captivated by the project, and it was new ground for me working for a nonprofit and working on such a public project,” he said.
Steve Robinson has been president of the SFRCC board of directors since before Czoski came on board.
“Richard handles every issue and every person he comes in contact with (using) honesty and good information, and total professionalism. He’s the best executive director we could have had,” he said. “He has great determination, he has excellent follow-through, he has a lot of flexibility and he is a very persuasive advocate for the Railyard.”
Robinson said that Czoski exhibited a capacity to work with a variety of stakeholders, including real estate developers, tenants, senior city staff and elected officials, and his own board of directors.
A news release said that the SFRCC will seek a new executive director.
“We’re in a period of transition and our work is changing,” said Robinson, adding that whoever fills the position will be taking on more of a real estate management role now that almost all the ground leases have been secured. “It may well be appropriate to find an executive director with a different set of skills. We don’t think it’s possible to replace Richard, but it is hopefully possible to find someone with his level of integrity, strength of character and passion for the project who can work with us going forward.”
The city of Santa Fe bought the Railyard property in 1995 from Catteluus – a corporation formed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway – for $21 million, plus millions in debt service.
The new owners envisioned the property as a new city center geared to locals, as the downtown Plaza had been transformed to accommodate the tourist business. The city solicited public input to determine just what the Railyard district should eventually look like. Residents didn’t want another area overridden with tourists and they didn’t want national chains to move in to do business. They wanted to keep it local.
It took seven years to develop a master plan and the corporation started with practically a clean slate.
“It was a dust bowl in the summer and a mud pit in the winter,” Czoski said of the 50-acre property. “There were a few elm trees, but it was mostly dirt.”
Now, the $150 million Railyard project comprises 565,000 square feet of developed space, according to a news release. While leading the corporation, Czoski negotiated 29 ground leases, saw 10 new buildings constructed, including Market Station, the large building anchored by REI and the Violet Crown movie theater, a critical piece to the development that didn’t come until 2015.
Bill Banowsky brought Violet Crown to the Railyard district. He also has theaters in Austin, Texas, and Charlottesville, Virginia.
“When I first came to Santa Fe in 2013 to consider building a cinema in the Railyard, I felt then what I feel now – that the Railyard will be the heart of Santa Fe and, ultimately, the heart of this part of the world. I think the Railyard is positioned to become a very popular place for people in this community and elsewhere, and that is in large measure because of Richard Czoski. Richard has done a remarkable job for the Railyard and the city of Santa Fe. I can’t imagine having built Violet Crown without Richard Czoski as a partner in the enterprise.”
Banowsky has other interests in the Railyard.
Nuckolls Brewing Co. – a small brewery with an outdoor beer garden, and stage and playgrounds for kids and dogs – hopes to open in time for Octoberfest. Banowsky, arts philanthropist Catherine Oppenheimer and novelist George R.R. Martin of “Game of Thrones” fame bought the Santa Fe Southern Railway and have designs to revive it as a tourist train with regular runs to Lamy and back.
The Railyard has already established itself as a community gathering place. The Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays is a popular draw. SITE Santa Fe, art galleries and El Museo Cultural bring a crowd, and special events, including the Railyard concert series, have added to the vibrancy of the district.
In addition to the north Railyard area, the southern end of the development, the Baca Street portion, has seen 20 new buildings constructed. Santa Fe also got a new park, with the Railyard Park separating the development areas.
Czoski said the Railyard district didn’t stray too far from the master plan. But there were some small deviations.
“A pleasant surprise was more resident housing, especially in the Baca area,” he said.
And not everything went smoothly.
“We opened at exactly the wrong time,” Czoski said. The Railyard formally opened in September 2008, right at the outset of the Great Recession.
“Commercial lending ceased, and that added three or four years while recovering from the recession,” Czoski said.
There was also a problem with the 500 Market Street building. The original owners went bankrupt and it took a group of local investors to make leasing space there viable again. Now, all the space has been leased and all that’s left to lease in the entire development is space at 1616 Paseo de Peralta next to Warehouse 21.
Czoski said a letter of intent and confidentiality prevents him from disclosing the client, but he did let on that the proposal is for a 26-unit apartment building. If it happens, Czoski said they’ll break ground on the apartments early next year.
By then, his consultant contract will have run out and he’ll officially be retired – at least for a while.
“My wife and I are going to do some of the traveling we have not been able to do in the last year, year and a half,” he said. “When we get back, I’m going to reassess.”