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Is Santa Fe gearing up for a Garrett’s fight?

SANTA FE, N.M. — Debate is well underway over what happens next at the site of Garrett’s Desert Inn in downtown Santa Fe.

The State Land Office recently obtained the 2.7 acres on Old Santa Fe Trail next to the river in a land swap that returned thousands of acres of what had been state trust land to Cochiti Pueblo. The Land Office has fielded a few expressions of interest for developing the old hotel’s property and is headed toward issuing formal requests for proposals in the summer.

Historic preservation advocates are already preparing for battle, bristling after State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn’s recent statements that, while he wants whomever leases the site for redevelopment to work with city government and its rules for the downtown historic district, he has the final say to push a project forward if the city’s restrictions are unreasonable.

Dunn told Journal North that, “at the end of the day, I’m the land commissioner and I have a fiduciary responsibility to make decisions based on what’s best for the (State Land) Trust.” The trust managed by the Land Office generates funds for state schools, universities and other entities. Dunn expects to get at least $250,000 a year from whomever wins the rights to develop the Garrett’s site.

Prior litigation has ended with precedents that suggest the city can’t impose its rules on land owned by the state (i.e., the spot where the state Capitol parking deck was built). But, one way or another, there will be a fight over developing this prime location if advocates believe it will ruin the Plaza area’s historic look and feel.

The best outcome is that Dunn receives great proposals for the Garrett’s site that fit in with downtown Santa Fe. But, particularly in this case, fitting in shouldn’t necessarily mean something brown and flat.

A glitzy high-rise, a bland shopping center or a ticky-tacky strip of trinket shops would obviously be obnoxious. But what about something of a re-do of Garrett’s itself? It’s low and flat, in the Santa Fe mode, but it’s also maybe the last vestige of 1950s motel funk left in its part of town. One of the suggestions Dunn has received would leave it as lodging and play up the ’50s retro idea, including by adding a few Airstream trailers where tourists could stay.

It’s the kind of idea (House trailers? Near the Plaza?) that preservationists used to defending the standard Santa Fe style shouldn’t reject out of hand. And somewhere, created by an as-yet-unknown creative type, there must be a modern building design that is both genuinely impressive and complements the look of old Santa Fe without slavishly copying what’s been done in the past.

But, on his side, Dunn shouldn’t allow anyone to squeeze in or upward a project that’s out of scale or that cheapens its historic neighborhood. What a builder from Texas or Los Angeles might find unreasonable could be what makes the City Different a special place.