City Council votes down El Rio, but debate goes on

Kurt Faust of Blue Buffalo LLC presents plans for the El Rio apartments to the Santa Fe City Council late Wednesday night before a huge crowd at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. (T.S. Last/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe failed to move forward early Thursday morning, at least in the tired eyes of its mayor and many others who supported El Rio, a proposed 399-unit development aimed at providing affordable housing for young professionals.

After hours of public comment that started late Wednesday night and went past midnight, opponents successfully persuaded the City Council – including Mayor Javier Gonzales – to reject the El Rio proposal as out of character with the semi-rural Agua Fria neighborhood around the development site.

Gonzales, who last year built his successful campaign around the idea of “moving Santa Fe forward,” joined the six councilors present in voting to deny requests by local builder Blue Buffalo LLC to amend the city land use map and change zoning. The changes would have allowed the company to move forward toward construction of a 10-building apartment complex on 16.53 acres between the Santa Fe River and Agua Fria Street west of Frenchy’s Field.

Gonzales indicated his vote, cast at about 1 a.m., came with some regret.

“What I hoped for tonight was something a little different than what we got,” he said. “I think that if we continue to go down the path of pitting neighborhoods (against) individuals who want to develop property, it’s going to be a no-win situation for our community.

“We have got to find a way to find a common ground, and to find a way that we can find compromise and develop lands that not only are compatible with neighborhoods or areas, but also help us meet some of the needs we have as a city,” he continued.

“We can’t talk about growing our economy and not having a housing strategy that complements that plan.”

While El Rio’s concept fit hand in glove with his initiatives to “grow Santa Fe young” by providing amenities like Wi-Fi and easy access to biking paths that were supposed to appeal to millennials, the mayor of 15 months said he voted against it because he felt allowing up to 29 residential units per acre was too much for the area. He said his wish would have been for the case to be referred back to the Planning Commission, which voted 4-2 in February to deny the El Rio plans.

The commission determined that El Rio would change the character of the neighborhood and allow for uses significantly different from the area’s traditional uses. It also stated that there were more suitable locations for infill housing and that the project would benefit a few landowners at the expense of others.

The City Council’s wee-hours vote came following a nearly three-hour public hearing during which the councilors heard arguments for and against the proposal.

Opponents, including representatives of about 20 neighborhood associations, expressed concerns about the impact so many new residences would have on the area. Increased crime, traffic and the complex’s incompatibility with the Agua Fria neighborhoods – some of the oldest in the city along a stretch where America’s oldest road, El Camino Real, once brought settlers and commerce up from Mexico – were the main complaints.

“We’re trying to preserve what we grew up with, what we love, what we know,” said Crystal Sena, a resident of the area that once was predominantly agricultural.

But others felt that kind of thinking stood in the way of growth, progress and solving some of the city’s problems: a lack of affordable housing that’s driving a youthful workforce out of town, or preventing it from coming in.

That’s what was argued by Kurt Faust, who, along with his brother Eric and business partner Keith Gorges, are principals in Blue Buffalo.

“Certainly, our vision of a place that was vital and had the kind of energy that would connect the river with the downtown didn’t fit with their neighborhood’s vision,” Kurt Faust said in a phone interview on Thursday.

“In their minds, they were protecting an identity. But it’s just more of the same, and carries with it the loss of our workforce and the loss of our youth.”

During the public hearing, Eric Faust cited statistics that showed from 2000 to 2010 Santa Fe had lost population in all age groups below 55. In that time, the average age of the population increased to 44, more than eight years above the regional average.

He also pointed out that Santa Fe is one of the most expensive cities in America in which to live and that there was a need for affordable housing, especially rentals.

“Our argument that (we are) losing our workers and losing our youth was not enough to overcome the neighbors’ need to preserve the cultural heritage,” he said.

But with rent rates projected at $750 per month for a 500-square-foot studio apartment and $1,295 per month for a two-bedroom unit, some opponents disputed that El Rio represents affordable housing. Santa Fe native Gina Ortiz said the average in town is closer to $700 per month for a one-bedroom and $800 for a two-bedroom.

Mary-Charlotte Domandi, who hosts a talk show on KSFR radio but was there speaking as president of the Montaño Neighborhood Association, said it was a “myth” that Santa Fe was awash with millennials willing to pay Blue Buffalos’ prices with limited parking.

She also said housing problems aren’t why young people were leaving town. “Young people aren’t leaving Santa Fe because there isn’t the housing. They’re leaving Santa Fe because there aren’t the jobs,” she said.

Where else?

“If it can’t happen here, then where?” Daniel Werwath, an El Rio supporter, asked when contacted by the Journal on Thursday. “The one shot we had at a private development that would serve to benefit the city of Santa Fe and we essentially told them to (expletive) off.”

Werwath, who lives on Agua Fria near the proposed development and is helping develop a planned housing project for artists on Siler Road, became a center of controversy when earlier this year he posted inflammatory comments on his Facebook page, calling neighbors in opposition to El Rio “an angry mob” and “vitriolic people.”

Though he later claimed he wrote the remarks during “an emotional moment,” the push-back led him to withdraw his name from consideration as the mayor’s choice to fill a spot on the Planning Commission.

Heckled at Wednesday’s public hearing, Werwath argued that change would occur whether neighbors liked it or not.

“If this project doesn’t happen, something is going to come back which is crappier, whether it’s an office park, whether it’s a lower density residential project that is the south-side residential project that everyone says are so bad,” he said.

Werwath complained that the process is set up to be adversarial from the beginning and he’s not the only one who thinks so.

Jan Brooks, vice president of the Southeast Neighborhood Association, said the process created tension between the city’s Land Use staff and residents.

“We need to build a bridge with traditional communities. We need to reexamine the process,” she said.

Councilor Patti Bushee thought so, too.

Before her vote, she said the process had failed the community. She was serving on the council when the general plan was developed in 1999 and conceded it didn’t work as intended.

“We ended up with expensive guest houses on the east side,” she said. “It was supposed to equate to affordability. It didn’t, and I don’t know how we get there.”

Councilor Joe Maestas also said something needs to change.

“It’s time for a shift to a new paradigm,” he said, adding that there was a place for the kind of housing development proposed by Blue Buffalo, just not at that location. “We need to change that paradigm and have these types of developments close to these services.”

‘Good plan, wrong spot’

Other members of the council were supportive of the concept proposed by Blue Buffalo. But the density of the development and its compatibility with the neighborhood kept them from voting for it.

Councilor Chris Rivera said he asked himself a series of questions before deciding which way to vote. Does the project reflect the character of the area? No. Does it significantly change the river corridor? Yes.

“I believe this project is a good project,” he said, “but it’s too large for the neighborhood.”

Councilor Peter Ives also liked the plan. What stopped him from voting for it was a statement in the general plan that the target density for infill projects was five units per acre, and new language in the city charter calling for the preservation of cultural and neighborhood heritage.

Councilor Sig Lindell said she accepted the Planning Commission’s findings against El Rio.

“This is a project I would like very much to see reworked and come back in a little different form,” she said. “I did not hear anything that would make me disagree with what the Planning Commission came up with.”

In explaining his vote, Councilor Bill Dimas simply stated he understood the concerns of neighbors and agreed with them.

Councilors Carmichael Dominguez and Ron Trujillo were absent from the meeting.

Faust said Blue Buffalo is regrouping and trying to figure out what to do next. He said they were excited about the project because it connected parts south of downtown to the city center and tied in well with the developing arts district around Siler Road. There’s really no other spot in Santa Fe that accomplishes that, he said.

Gonzales said Santa Fe has to solve these problems if progress is to be made.

“We have to figure out how we move this town forward so it’s accessible to everybody,” he said. “We’ve got to find commonality, compromise and move forward as a community. Because, if we expect things to change by doing what we’ve done in the past, it’s not going to happen.”

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