Montserrat Vallès Albesa
New Mexico has attracted people from all over the United States and the world, people with an awareness and sensibility for healthy lifestyles, the environment and our state’s unique character. These are people who want to live in a society where human values are important and where progress is defined as beneficial for the community-at-large, not the kind of progress associated with the conquest of nature that leads to societal problems and benefits only a few individuals.
Recently, many people in Santa Fe have become concerned with a proposed high-density project called El Río, which would consist of 450 rental apartments, 10 buildings, 40 feet high. This project has been proposed by Blue Buffalo LLC/Tierra Concepts on land of the former Ecoversity, a school founded in 1999 by Frances Harwood, on Agua Fría Street, aka El Camino Real. Why did such a drastic change occur—from a school that taught care for the land, environment and sustainability—to a project proposing to transform agricultural land into urban sprawl? There are many places in Santa Fe where this project could be built without such negative impacts to the environment, neighborhoods, quality of life and open space. Many questions have come into focus regarding the city’s annexation of the Ecoversity land, which was formerly under Santa Fe County jurisdiction.
The Long Range Planning Division, under the Housing and Community Development Department, has expressed serious reservations regarding the density of the development, saying it would be more appropriate in places such as St. Michaels Drive, St. Francis Drive, or Rodeo and Zarafano roads. In February, the Planning Commission recommended denial of the project to the City Council. Numerous residents from the Agua Fría and La Cieneguita neighborhoods, along with many others from all parts of Santa Fe, have expressed their opposition to the project.
Since the project’s inception, the developers have not provided information or allowed community input. I have gone door to door in the La Cieneguita Homeowners neighborhood, and nobody knew about this project. Many have signed a petition to ask the Planning Commission to deny the project. Neighborhoods surrounding the Ecoversity land have created the West Santa Fe River Alliance, which includes all nearby neighborhood associations and residents. They have developed a plan to protect the river corridor against “irrational” and “unnecessary” projects like this one.
The proposed complex is in an area where most of the land is zoned R-1, that is, one dwelling per acre. The developers are seeking to change a semi-rural area to high-density, R-29, as if Santa Fe were a big metropolis that can grow only vertically. This is against the requirements of the city’s General Plan, which states, “We believe it to be essential that growth in and around our city should be complemented by the preservation of neighborhoods and traditional, social and cultural patterns… The General Plan seeks to promote interests of the community-at-large over private ones.” It is also important to understand that Agua Fría is part of the historic El Camino Real. It was designated as a National Historic Trail in 2000. The mission of the National Historic Trail is to preserve the trail and its surrounding environment.
Testimony before the Planning Commission meeting of February 19, 2015
The architect that designed La Cieneguita neighborhood testified before the Planning Commission, recommending denial of the project for being too dense for the property. Richard Martínez, president of the Neighborhood Network and of La Joya Neighborhood Association, testified, “Anytime you do an infill project, you always want to make sure it is compatible with your neighborhood. This project is not. People who live in the neighborhoods know what would be right for them. This is why they are expressing themselves this way.” A village of Agua Fría resident testified, “This development would destroy the last vestiges of the real nature of our community and our ecosystem along the river.” Another resident stated, “I am going to ask you just to consider the ethics of valuing the development’s interest above the health and welfare of thousands of existing Westside residents.” Another resident, a 35-year-old mechanical engineer living on Calle Carmelita, said, “With all due respect to these gentlemen, I don’t want to live in their apartments. This isn’t New York or San Francisco, and living three miles outside of downtown Santa Fe is no young professional’s dream of urban utopia.” A Casa Solana resident, Gina Ortiz, a 32-year-old physician’s assistant, said, “The congestion, pollution and carbon footprint this project will create will affect future generations.” Former City Councilor Frank Montaño said, “If this project is approved, our quality of life will be significantly deteriorated.”
Agua Fría is considered a secondary artery and already has traffic problems. This apartment complex would make Agua Fría a traffic hazard and a dangerous artery. Agua Fría does not have the infrastructure to handle fire or emergencies. La Cieneguita Street is narrow, and people have to park on it. For 17 years, cross-traffic from Agua Fría to Cerrillos has destroyed the street and affected the safety of children, pets, trees and residents. You can drive through Agua Fría and adjacent neighborhoods and see that the roads and streets are in poor condition. The neighborhoods have waited more than a decade for the city to fix them. If this project were approved, it would add to the unsafe conditions we already have in this neighborhood.
There is no real demand for rentals of this type in the city of Santa Fe. The only real demand is for affordable housing, which this project will not address. By law, the developers must build 15 percent of the total units as “affordable.” These are shown separately on El Río’s site map. One of the planning commissioners commented, “The way you are addressing affordable housing is segregation.”
The Blue Buffalo LLC/Tierra Concepts project assumes that this high-density development will help attract good jobs for young professionals. The truth is that it will only create temporary jobs for the developers and the construction crews. Common sense and statistics tell me that the problem of not having more young professionals in Santa Fe is due to lack of jobs, not lack of housing.
The developers said this project will bring affordable rental units for young professionals. According to a Santa Fe New Mexican article on Feb. 15, 2015: “The apartments would average 850 square feet, with rent ranging from $750 a month for a studio to $1,500 for a two-bedroom unit.” This is affordable? Santa Fe residents can rent houses with more space inside and with front- and back yards for less. My stepson lives in a 1,300-square-foot, totally remodeled adobe house with vigas, radiant heat, fireplace and a nice yard and pays $1,300 per month. A man who testified before the Planning Commission said, “It is outrageous that these people are pretending they can rent to millennials for this kind of money. I have seen millennials taking internships and working part-time jobs, several at a time, and none of them could afford to pay $1,500 per month.” Other residents said that they predict that the owners will become desperate and offer the units at a lower rent, and it will eventually become a tenement.
Who will really benefit from this project? How will this project benefit the city of Santa Fe? Where are the data regarding housing demand? Where is the realistic traffic-impact study for this project? What are the real road/street conditions? Who is going to pay for road repairs, health and safety infrastructure? Developers? Taxpayers? We need to ask these questions before any decisions can be made.
The neighborhood associations should call for a moratorium on plan amendments and rezoning to allow all Santa Fe residents to voice their concerns regarding infill development in or near their neighborhoods. The leaders of the city of Santa Fe should open roundtable sessions to look at the job outlook and plan for future job growth in a cooperative and democratic manner. New studies need to be done on the Santa Fe economy, housing demand, traffic and infrastructure, especially as they relate to newly annexed land and neighborhoods. Another thing neighborhoods can do is create “Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Districts” in order to avoid land speculation and uncontrolled development to protect their neighborhoods. Residents feel powerless when people with money, political influence and power try to get their way, working against the true needs of the communities.
We don’t want to have short-sighted planning as in Deming, New Mexico, where they grew without looking realistically at their water resources and now are running out of water. Other cities, like Boulder, Colorado, where decades ago they developed a long-range plan for growth in order to preserve the beauty and character of their small city, have grown wiser and not allowed their city to be swallowed up by urban sprawl.
I believe we need to keep the Ecoversity land for sustainable agricultural use as Frances Hardwood envisioned and wanted. We can reserve the land for the “Frances Harwood School of Sustainable Agriculture and Ranching,” with an attached living museum to attract tourism to the “breadbasket of Santa Fe on the historic Camino Real,” as this area—for centuries—produced products that sustained La Villa Real de San Francisco de la Santa Fe. Maybe the school could serve young children at risk, where they could learn respect for the environment and develop self-esteem that will help them contribute to the community.
Blue Buffalo LLC/Tierra Concepts has been scheduled to go before the Santa Fe City Council on June 24 to respond to the recommended denial from the Planning Commission for this project. Go to the city of Santa Fe web site (www.santafenm.gov) to see the agenda posted on June 19 to confirm the time of the hearing. I urge all of you to attend this meeting and express your concerns. If you cannot attend, I encourage you to write emails or send letters to the council.
Montserrat Vallès Albesa, a community and environmental advocate, is a La Cieneguita del Camino Real neighborhood resident.