Richard Czoski took on a big job 16 years ago when he became leader of the nonprofit that oversees development of the city-owned Railyard.
The 50-acre property was still a jumble of old warehouse buildings and rough open space when, in 2006, Czoski was named executive director of the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp., which operates under a contract with city government.
“It was a dust bowl in the summer and a mud pit in the winter,” Czoski said last month. “There were a few elm trees, but it was mostly dirt.”
The city had purchased the property in 1995 from Catteluus – a corporation formed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway – for $21 million, plus millions in subsequent debt service. Santa Feans feared that, left in private hands, the Railyard would become a typical, bland shopping mall.
It took a while, but under guidance from Czoski and the nonprofit’s board, the Railyard now has become something like the attractive, active urban center and community space most residents always hoped it would be, a more local alternative to the tourist-focused Plaza downtown.
And the Railyard has its own style, an attractive modern industrial look as far away from fake adobe as possible.
Czoski never had a high public profile, despite his important role of making the city’s investment of dozens of millions of dollars work with a balance between business success and meeting community goals.
Still, he’s respected among those who’ve participated in building up the Railyard or watched the process closely. News reporters always appreciated an all-important quality – he’d always return phone calls from the newspaper.
Bill Banowsky brought the Violet Crown cinema to the Railyard district after first opening a movie theater in Austin. “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,” he said. “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.”
There have been several significant bumps in the road, or on the railroad tracks, if you will. The biggest came just when the partially developed Railyard happened to open in 2008, which turned out to be perfect timing to be slammed and stalled by the Great Recession.
A movie theater was always seen as a key part of the Railyard plan. But an initial theater developer merely dug a giant, ugly hole as the start of construction, then never completed the job.
Businesses such as the Flying Star café couldn’t survive the double whammy of bad economic times and the lack of movie-goer traffic. An initial stab at housing in the Railyard created units that were impressive, but too few and priced way too high to attract the young professionals who seemed to be the best fit for the Railyard’s urban vibe.
Then, the developers of the Railyard’s biggest commercial building went bankrupt, causing delays and hassles in filling out that building much beyond its anchor business, REI.
But Czoski and his board stayed the course. They also held tough as some called for loosening Railyard policies against bringing in chain restaurants to fill vacant commercial space, in favor of keeping the development local, despite the hard times of the recession years.
Now, the Railyard comprises 565,000 square feet of developed space. Czoski has negotiated 29 ground leases and saw 10 new buildings constructed.
“It was a much bigger challenge than I anticipated, but the rewards have been humbling, and it’s been an honor,” said Czoski, formerly a project developer for BGK Group, which has since become Rosemont Realty.
It’s always easy to wish for more at the Railyard. It has become a center for craft beers, with at a least three fine brew outlets in place and one more on the way. A locals-friendly restaurant that focuses more on cuisine would be a great addition.
But it’s hard to knock a mix of uses that includes Santa Fe’s wonderful Farmers’ Market, El Museo Cultural’s theater offerings, attractive new and planned apartments, and space for maybe the nation’s best series of free concerts, as well as outdoor family movies to supplement the Violet Crown’s showings.
“We don’t think it’s possible to replace Richard,” said Steve Robinson, president of the Railyard nonprofit, “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.”
These days, Santa Fe is trying to figure out how to develop another big piece of city property, the mostly vacant, 60-acre Midtown Campus. That process has been frustrating as a big-name, out-of-state master developer hired to take on the campus project backed out.
Maybe someone should persuade Czoski to cut retirement short and take on the campus re-do. If that doesn’t happen, he has already done plenty to earn the respect and thanks of the Santa Fe community for a job well done.