Last Wednesday, Santa Fe Clay director Avra Leodas posted a message on her company's Facebook page.
It urged friends and supporters to show up the following evening at a public meeting at Warehouse 21 to support the 30,000-square-foot, 11-screen Violet Crown Cinemas.
"Once again, the Director of the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp (SFRCC) just called me to ask me if I could round up some support from the SFC community," Leodas began. "Apparently," she continued, "there is some vocal opposition to the conceptual plans and, if the neighborhood complains loudly enough, the choice of Violet Crown as the developer could be jeopardized."
Leodas finished by assuring that "all 3 of the other theater proposals would require Santa Fe Clay to vacate this building!"
The next day, three women sit on a bench outside the top-floor theater at W21, waiting for the meeting to begin. In the center is local author, photographer and activist Lisa Law.
The meeting starts with a greeting. "This is an early neighborhood notification meeting," announces Dan Esquibel, the city planner overseeing the project.
At that moment, Law interrupts: "Is it already set in stone?"
The passing Rail Runner and a break-dance class downstairs give the auditorium a palpable rumble in the moments it takes Richard Czoski, executive director of the SFRCC, to answer.
Apparently, it's not. Czoski tells SFR that "theoretically," other bidders—like the California-based Maya Cinemas—might still have a fighting chance should the Violet Crown deal go south. He adds that SFRCC—the nonprofit responsible for developing the Railyard—has "a signed letter of intent but we do not have a signed lease."
Law is carrying both a printout of Leodas' message—the contents of which she describes as a "bunch of bologna"—and the proposal from Maya Cinemas. She calls Leodas' online bulletin "evidence of bad-faith dealing on the part of the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp." She also insists that Leodas' claim that the other theater proposals would force Santa Fe Clay's ouster is not entirely true.
Last year, SFRCC made a request for proposals to build a cinema in the Railyard. The RFP instructed developers to use the space next to Flying Star Café—and gave them the option to stretch their cinema designs all the way past Santa Fe Clay. That could mean the demolition of the pottery studio—indeed, Czoski explains that SFRCC's contract with Santa Fe Clay allows it to terminate the studio's lease at any time.
Upon the ceramic studio's lease renewal this February, Czoski says SFRCC lowered the rent "as a concession for them to agree to the termination right—which is a typical practice."
SFRCC received four bids: Maya, Violet Crown, UltraStar and Regal Cinemas (the last two requested that the city fund construction). During a public hearing on April 16, Violet Crown got a unanimous green light.
While the four companies' bids differed in price and design, Violet Crown distinguished itself by promoting its arthouse titles and offering a partially underground theater—thus sparing Santa Fe Clay from having to relocate.
It wasn't the first time a Railyard cinema looked imminent.
"Moctesuma Esparza got the go-ahead seven years ago, but the developer never finished the building," Law says, referring to the CEO of California-based Maya Cinemas. "So they asked for more proposals again, but they told the people who were going to make the proposals that Santa Fe Clay was out."
Esparza, the award-winning producer behind such films as Gods and Generals and Selena, took the opportunity to issue a proposal to tear down the building that currently houses Santa Fe Clay and revamp the adjacent El Museo Cultural. His bid, he assures, adheres completely to the guidelines set forth by SFRCC.
"They encouraged me," he says. "They said, 'Yes, we'd like to see that proposal.'"
He was surprised, then, when the votes came in.
“From what I’ve been able to gather—I don’t know at what point, but certainly before the [April 16] public meeting that I attended—the Railyard leadership decided they wanted the Violet Crown theater before they took a public vote and heard any public testimony,” he says.
Law agrees that the outcome felt predetermined.
“This has been fixed,” she says, adding that Santa Fe Clay is engaging in needless kvetching. “What you have here is a bunch of people that are gonna cry again [and] take up the entire meeting,” she says. “We’re not gonna be able to talk about the fact that we still want Maya Cinemas here; we still want them to fix up El Museo Cultural.”
Had Esparza known of this “adversarial process,” he says, he wouldn’t have bothered to place a bid. “That’s were I find this process to be really flawed. I feel that my time and money were wasted,” he says.
For Law, the whole situation smacks of racism. Esparza has a different take.
“I don’t live in Santa Fe, and I can’t really comment on that,” he says. “What I can say is that the theater that I was proposing was designed to serve the entire population of Santa Fe—both the north side of the city, which is far more affluent, and the more working-class south side.”
He feels Violet Crown’s demographic is composed mainly of “upper-income arthouse aficionados”—or as Law, who lives two blocks away from the Railyard, puts it, a population segment that is “way too white and is looking more like a retirement community rather than an integrated town.”
Esparza isn’t the only one who opposes the selection of Violet Crown. At last week’s meeting, Jason Silverman, the director of
, brought a letter making clear that CCA does not officially have a posture on the Violet Crown move and expressing “deep skepticism” on the project as a whole, based on “the oversaturation of theaters in Santa Fe, rather than a fear of competition.” Since the Railyard’s
was adopted in 2002, Silverman points out, online rentals have surged nationally, while movie attendance has dropped by 18 percent.
He worries that the new theater could render his arthouse operation—along with
’s and the soon-to-be newly minted
’s—obsolete. On top of the existing 22 screens in Santa Fe, Violet Crown’s 11 would raise the number of screens per capita above cities like Manhattan. Gotham, which he calls “the best film city in America,” currently has one screen for every 7,500 people. With Violet Crown on the scene, there would be one screen for every 3,600 Santa Feans.
Violet Crown owner Bill Banowsky, however, takes the pushback in stride.
“I don’t think you can ever get everyone in the community to be 100 percent on board with something that is as emotional a topic as the entertainment centerpiece for the Railyard,” he says.
Promising “the widest breadth of programming available,” amenities including “a beer and wine and coffee bar with many local craft beers from the region and great value wines” that “embrace localism,” he adds that he’s willing to promise not to tamper with “clearance rules” set to avoid screening the same title as other theaters in the vicinity. He further says his bid does not ask “for any deviation on the [Railyard’s] master plan” and that it’s a result of “hearing what the collective voice of this Railyard community was interested in.”
The next step in Crown’s ascension, Czoski says, is a meeting before the city’s Planning Commission on July 11. If all goes as planned, the construction process would span a period of 10-12 months, and Violet Crown Santa Fe could see a 2014 holiday season launch.
City Councilor Patti Bushee, whose district includes the Railyard, has purposely stayed on the issue’s periphery, but she trusts that SFRCC has made the right decision. “They tell me that this is going to be an economic agent—and let me tell you, anything is better than a hole in the ground,” she says.
Leodas, for her part, is “very pleased,” adding in an email to SFR that “the community seemed to respond very favorably to their exciting presentation.”
For Esparza, though, the whole process feels like a set-up.
He foresees that unless Violet Crown has “buckets of money,” they’ll have a hard time completing the project.
“In order to build something like this, you need construction loans, which means you need local support,” Esparza expresses. “It was pretty clear they didn’t want me, so I’ve moved on. I go where I’m wanted.”