SANTA FE, N.M. — In his capacity as chairman of Santa Fe’s Planning Commission, Meow Wolf founder Vince Kadlubek sees a window of opportunity opening. While it’s unlike one you’d find at The House of Eternal Return, he thinks that, with a little imagination, the window could lead to helping alleviate the city’s rental housing shortage in a way that could bring long-lasting economic returns.
The opportunity comes in the form of the West Santa Fe River Corridor Plan, commissioned by the City Council last year after a string of development proposals, two of them for apartments, created considerable controversy and were ultimately rejected by the City Council, mainly on the grounds that the developments were out of character with their neighborhoods.
While still in draft form, the plan developed by a citizens’ committee and city staff, is tentatively scheduled to come before the Planning Commission July 21 during a study session. While no action will be taken, the plan will eventually come before the City Council and ultimately carry with it amendments to the city’s future land use map and the Land Development Code.
Kadlubek sees it as an opportunity to add to the inventory in a tight housing market while at the same time helping advance the city’s effort to “grow Santa Fe young” and rebrand it as a place where millennials can thrive.
“Santa Fe’s economy, its identity and its demographic profile are all in this moment in pivot,” he said during an interview this week at Meow Wolf, the not-quite-so-new-anymore arts collective in the former Silva Lanes bowling alley on Rufina Circle, part of what’s becoming a blossoming creative district off Siler Road.
“For the last decade, the city has analyzed its population and found that we are a quickly aging community. The average age is going up at a pace that is dangerous for a healthy economy. It’s an aging city that wants to refresh, rebrand and become attractive to a new generation – a new generation of business owners, a new generation making up the workforce, and a new generation of tourists.”
But the city’s housing market is near capacity and has stifled that effort.
“From our standpoint as millennials, we feel handcuffed. We feel there’s no room for us here,” he said. “We love nature, we love arts and culture but, for us to live here, it comes down to housing.”
Kadlubek says part of the solution may be found in the West Santa Fe River Corridor Plan.
“We need to approach it from different angles,” he said of Santa Fe’s multi-family housing shortage, “but, really, the biggest amount of space for housing in the city is in the west river corridor. So this couldn’t come up at a better time, because the situation is getting real desperate.”
But Kadlubek has concerns about the first draft of the corridor plan, which incorporates a part of town annexed from the county in 2014. Generally, zoning in the annexed area defaults to R-1 (one housing unit per acre), he says, and the plan overall doesn’t allow for what might amount to a moderately-sized, high-density apartment complex.
He also says that a majority of the nine-person panel who served on the committee that helped draft the report were opposed to the huge El Rio apartment development in 2015, a flashpoint in the debate over how to approach growth.
“Once something gets adopted, it’s really hard to unwind,” he said. “So I’m hoping to open a conversation to a larger audience than just those people in the planning group. People want and need housing, and their voice should be heard.”
Reed Liming, director of the city’s Long-Range Planning division, says the planning group grew out of a meeting then-City Councilor Patti Bushee called last fall. She sponsored a resolution, co-sponsored by fellow District 1 councilor Signe Lindell and District 2’s Peter Ives, calling for the creation of a West Santa Fe River Corridor master plan to be adopted as an amendment to the city’s general plan.
The area under study is bordered by West Alameda Street to the north, La Joya Road to the east, Agua Fria Street to the south and the city limits to the west, bordering the Agua Fria Traditional Village.
The resolution states development of the plan would entail “comprehensive citizen involvement intended to generate and apply concepts and ideas through a series of citizen participation workshops within smaller, related neighborhood units.”
Liming said the group met 22 times over a six-month period and held two “open houses” in April at Frenchy’s Barn, each drawing 30 to 40 people. He said much of the focus was on the annexed area, which makes up roughly 60 percent of the area covered in the corridor plan.
“The city areas were not changed that much in terms of densities,” he said in summarizing the draft plan. “They spent most of their time considering the area that had been annexed.”
The working group recommends down-zoning the property on which the El Rio development. Under its current C-1 PUD (Planned Unit Development) zoning, the area is allowed for up to 21 units per acre.
“The working group thinks that should be reduced to 5 to 7 units per acre,” Liming said. “At the end of the day, they think the approach should be not to exceed the densities that are across the street. They want to see it mirror what’s already been built.”
Blue Buffalo LLC, developer of the El Rio proposal, which specifically targeted rental housing for the millennials, was seeking a high-density residential designation that would have increased the density to 29 units per acre. The proposed 399-unit apartment complex on 16.5 acres of land off Agua Fria Street, part of which included the former EcoVersity site, was deemed too dense for the semi-rural area and one of the original routes into the 406-year-old city.
William Mee, Agua Fria Village Association president, was opposed to El Rio and serves on the river corridor plan committee. He says development in the study area is limited by the existing infrastructure.
“This area has a number of challenges,” he said, adding that much of the area that was annexed doesn’t have water or sewer hookups and is still on wells and septic. “A lot of this area was annexed into the city and there was no plan for using the area. When you do that, you still have a legal responsibility to provide services and those services cost money.”
Mee says the city doesn’t have the money and it’s not financially feasible for developers to pick up the tab, as cities sometimes require them to do. “We’re talking about millions (of dollars),” he said. “So (the plan) is not going to provide high-density housing because the services aren’t there.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
Density was also an issue with the proposed 84-bed MorningStar Senior Living facility on 5 acres along Old Pecos Trail in a neighborhood zoned for one resident per acre and along a route city officials at one time designated a “scenic corridor” into the city.
Both the MorningStar, which would have provided assisted living, and El Rio proposals met strong opposition from neighborhood associations. Emotions ran high and, in the wake of the denials, Mayor Javier Gonzales lamented over what became a contentious debate that further divided a city already split along racial, geographical and, to some extent, generational lines.
“Tonight, we witnessed a community that was very divided,” he said at the meeting in which the MorningStar proposal was rejected. “We definitely talk about being one city when it serves our collective purpose but, when it’s time to work on really difficult things, we’re quick to draw lines in the sand.”
He later expressed disappointment over how divisive the debate had gotten, drawing accusations about “rich east siders” and “corrupt Hispanic cronies.” There were objections to pushing all new development away from older, affluent north and east side areas to the south side.
But late last year, the city also rejected a proposed south-side, 240-unit apartment complex on South Meadows Road, off Airport Road. A relatively modest apartment plan, for 54 units in the city-owned Railyard, did win City Council approval in May, despite neighbors’ concerns over some issues like parking.
Kadlubek thinks the window of opportunity is cracked open in part because the rejection of the MorningStar and El Rio projects has helped change attitudes. Despite the NIMBYism that came to the surface, everyone seems to recognize there’s a problem.
“All signs point toward the need for housing,” he said. “Housing out in the county isn’t solving it; we need it in the city.”
Another thing that has changed since then is the makeup of the Planning Commission – now consisting entirely of appointees by Mayor Gonzales, who campaigned for growing Santa Fe young when he first ran for mayor in 2012. Also, the two newest members of the City Council, elected earlier this year, are former members of the Planning Commission.
“The tone is shifting,” Kadlubek said. “The tone from administration is, ‘we need growth within the city.’ It used to be Santa Fe was the worst place to try to get something approved. Now there’s a will.”
In November, Mayor Gonzales announced plans to modify the city’s housing ordinance in an effort to foster an increase in housing. Among the changes he has proposed is to fast-track developments by allowing smaller projects to bypass the Planning Commission and go straight to the Land Use Department for permitting, relaxing regulations so builders can negotiate paying a fee in lieu of providing water rights or the 20 percent requirement for affordable housing units, and identifying potential overlay zoning districts where new housing developments could be located.
More study may be needed
Renee Villarreal is a new face on the City Council. She previously served on the Planning Commission and was a former community planner for Santa Fe County. The area covered in the corridor study is in her district.
“I will be sponsoring a resolution to look at this plan and I may have some of my own suggestions,” she said in a phone interview.
Villarreal said there are no simple solutions for finding appropriate places for housing. “It’s not as easy as seeing an open field and saying that it’s the best place for development. It’s more complex than that,” she said, noting the restrictions that come into play with regard to infrastructure, or the lack thereof. She said it’s best to look at the big picture.
“As a planner, I understand the importance of providing a variety of options for housing, There may be potential for housing there, but there are other areas that make more sense,” she said.
She mentioned the St. Michael’s Drive and Siler Road corridors, and noted that there may be options in the Las Solaras development off the south end of Cerrillos Road near Interstate 25, a phased project with some phases not yet completed.
The south side’s Tierra Contenta is another uncompleted development that presents a possibility.
Villarreal and others suggest the need for more study of the West Santa Fe River Corridor Plan before decisions are made. The draft study could serve as a good starting point.
“There’s some good stuff, but some aspects may need more input and more study,” she said. “The reason I want to move it forward is to have public forums for civic engagement, and explore possibilities and opportunities.”
That’s just what Kadlubek wants. He’s all for opening up the conversation to look for opportunities. And he welcomes more study, because, like sabermetrics in professional baseball, the Planning Commission considers data valuable information.
“It’s a commission that respects data,” he said. “We believe in science, we believe in math and we believe in data.”
Kadlubek says the existing data show that more than 50 percent of the city’s workforce lives outside the city limits because of the scarcity of affordable housing. He referenced a recent housing market report by the real estate services firm CBRE Albuquerque that shows Santa Fe’s rental market is at 97.3 percent capacity and an average rent of $985 per month, a nearly 13 percent increase over a year ago.
“The city is 2,200 units short of demand and that’s coming from the city’s own affordable housing survey,” he said.
But working group member Mee disputes that number, saying the city was “cherry picking.”
“Maybe we need more study,” he said. “The city says they’ve done these studies, but how relevant are they?”