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Editorial: Santa Fe stands pat after latest development fight

Mayor Javier Gonzales meets with neighborhood association representatives before the City Council’s hearing on the proposed El Rio apartments Wednesday night. (T.S. Last/Albuquerque Journal)

Mayor Javier Gonzales meets with neighborhood association representatives before the City Council’s hearing on the proposed El Rio apartments Wednesday night. (T.S. Last/Albuquerque Journal)

That was a tough call.

The Santa Fe City Council voted down the 399-unit El Rio apartment complex in the wee hours of Thursday morning after hundreds of people showed up for the hearing, and dozens spoke for and against.

The council consensus was that Blue Buffalo LLC had proposed a great project, just in the wrong place – 16 acres in the old, rambling, semi-rural Agua Fria neighborhood along the Santa Fe River.

The long night turned into an unusually wonderful example of American democracy, and a detailed exposition of how difficult it is in Santa Fe to meld old and new – great points were made on both sides, with intelligence and respect, with only a small minority hectoring the well-respected local builders as rapacious profiteers or accusing neighborhood opponents of El Rio of raw NIMBYism.

In the end, the council decided that concerns about the impact on the Agua Fria neighborhood outweighed the bigger view that the project, said to be aimed at young professionals and with eco-friendly modern details, would be good for the city as a whole.

Now what?

Growing, vibrant cities, like life, are all about change. And unless we stop population growth, part of that change means accommodating more people.

The El Rio apartment complex, as proposed, was not a bad way to do it. While we sympathize with neighbors’ concerns about the impact of plopping almost 400 units in a residential neighborhood, the city has, at least on paper, long supported infill as being the wisest path towards growth.

Yes, local residents would lose what rural feel remains along that river corridor near Maez Road and Agua Fria, but that same rural feel would be lost in other areas if the project were located along the edges of the city.

People have been losing rural feel for centuries. After all, crops used to be grown along the Santa Fe River in Barrio de Analco in what is now downtown. The Acequia Madre used to be an agricultural irrigation ditch.

The land, which once housed Ecoversity and students taking classes there, already is zoned for intense use. One point that came out in the long discussion Wednesday night was that someone could build 275 apartment units or an office park on the site without changing the zoning. That someone might not have the good reputation and community ties that Blue Buffalo brings to the table.

Still, the scale of the project is unsettling, so we hope that, moving forward, everyone can work together to find how such a project can work.

After all, many argued this project would be attractive to millennials, with its relatively central location, and access to walking and biking trails along the river. The same amenities would be attractive to active retired people. Or anyone who finds apartment living more attractive and affordable than a single-family home.

Such options should exist for people who want them. As some speakers pointed out before the City Council, renters are people too. Several said El Rio sounded great to them.

After this latest chapter in Santa Fe’s history of big fights over development and change, a couple of big questions are left hanging in the air.

Where in Santa Fe can a project like this be accepted? And when?

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