The Midtown Campus in Santa Fe

Preliminary plans for reuse of the former SFUAD campus in Santa Fe
Preliminary plans for reuse of the former SFUAD campus in Santa Fe

By Nate Downey

The Midtown Campus Project is at a critical juncture. If you’ve ever wanted to help determine your community’s future, now is the time. Whatever happens in Santa Fe’s newest heart of town will have strong repercussions for centuries.

You know the place. It’s the resource-rich, 64-acre campus that city taxpayers purchased in 2009. Surrounded by Jambo Café on Cerrillos, Nava Elementary on Siringo, La Farge Library on Llano, and the drive-up Hava Java hut on St. Michael’s Drive, it’s an opportunity to build a thriving neighborhood full of housing, jobs, buses, bikes, pedestrians, alternative energy, sustainable water management, shade trees, native biodiversity, local food, and more.

Nobody ever coined a good way to say, “S-F-U-A-D,” so for most of the last 10 years we were supposed to call the campus by its too-long honorific, “the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.” Before that, it was College of Santa Fe. Before that, St. Michael’s College. Back in the 1940s, parts of it served as an army hospital barracks. Before that, it was a home for the mentally ill. Rumor has it, too, that it’s a hideaway for Llorona. Back in the early days of Spanish settlement the land was called el llano—ranchland that sustained a growing community. Before that, it was probably sacred ground for farming, hunting and being.

Perhaps you made your voice known during the ReMike efforts of five years ago. Or you were one of the 2,234 people who filled out the City of Santa Fe’s online survey in February. Ideally, you jumped into the design process during the interactive online exercise in March, or you were one of the hundreds who showed up—pencil and yellow sticky-note in hand—to review five sets of preliminary concept drawings or you filled out the follow-up survey last month. Although there have been ample opportunities to participate, we need to make sure all voices are heard, not just folks who fill out surveys or have time to attend public meetings.

Much good has come out of the process thus far. Many of the conceptual plans presented featured renewable energy, non-vehicular transportation, water harvesting, green-job creation, and strong support for arts, education and culture. Sure, more talk about greenhouses and food production would have been nice, but a detail in one of the proposals worried me. It mandated a three-story height restriction and required that significant portions of developed lots remain two-story or lower.

Back in 2016, Santa Fe’s governing body created a special zoning district allowing for buildings up to 62 feet (not including elevator overruns, solar panels, water tanks, etc.). This means five stories. It does not mean all buildings would be five stories, but it would mean that you could get close to the four-story average maximum height that Christopher Alexander describes in his seminal community-planning book, A Pattern Language.

Even before SFUAD went under, our city council and mayor knew that limiting development on that campus to three stories would be a grave mistake. Such a restriction would prevent our community from attaining many of our goals for the campus, especially with respect to the current housing crisis. Not only will mixed-use zoning work better with more residents nearby, the City of Santa Fe is on the hook for over $3 million per year for the property (when you add $2.3 million in annual debt to the costs of utilities, security, maintenance, and management). Density is good for community building and helps pay bills.

Most of the preliminary drawings didn’t force a full-scale plaza on the land. We already have the best plaza around, so a Midtown Plaza might not make sense. But I was surprised to see that none of the five teams proposed a pedestrian-only open-air mall like the successful ones in Boulder (Colo.), Burlington (Vt.), Charlottesville Va.) and elsewhere.

Our next steps will be critical with respect to the development of the Midtown Campus, so get involved if you can. Contact the City of Santa Fe’s Office of Economic Development for updates to the evolving process.

Nate Downey, who recently ran for Santa Fe City Council, is the author of Harvest the Rain. He’s also a permaculture-landscape consultant, designer and contractor.

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