Heroism is a dubious and difficult-to-discern condition at the best of times. It’s also hardly something one expects to find at a neighborhood law and policy conference.
But I nonetheless walked out of the Dec. 18-19, 2008 event wondering what color capes should be worn by Santa Fe City Councilor Patti Bushee and the scandalously canned former City Manager Asenath Kepler. On separate panel discussions during the course of the conference, both were blunt in their addresses of different issues confronting Santa Fe’s neighborhoods.
In other words, contrary to accepted Santa Fe tradition, they spoke their minds in public.
The conference began well enough, with suspect pastries and some halting joviality from Mayor David Coss. City Attorney Frank Katz delivered a deadpan litany of the court cases currently and/or potentially embroiling the city with possible impact on policy, development and neighborhood issues. Quite a few lawyers and planners were in attendance, along with more city councilors than you see at most actual Council meetings. The other breed displaying its feathers ostentatiously consisted of those with a specific issue or grievance, looking for one more place to voice their complaints, regardless of the relevance to the specific matters at hand.
For example, during a discussion of downtown renewal and historic preservation policy, for which Bushee was a panelist, one of her constituents from Casa Solana stood up to rail against the proposed development (neither downtown nor historic) of the mixed-use, mixed-income, largely affordable, city-owned Northwest Quadrant. The NWQ is the city’s last significant opportunity to ensure that additional affordable housing is built on the north side, in close proximity to downtown, rather than in farther and farther recesses of sprawl and effectively ghettoized areas. It’s also the city’s most likely current chance to focus assets and energy on a truly progressive, genuinely green (mostly) and honestly innovative housing effort.
But some—meaning a few vocal sorts—of the Casa Solana neighborhood residents have convinced themselves that the marginal increase in traffic that may result on one of their streets will forever ruin the whole neighborhood, doing away with Rockwellian delusions of stickball and neighborhood strolls under which they currently live.
“We feel that this wouldn’t be happening to us if we were on the east side,” the Casa Solana spokesperson shouted. “We feel we wouldn’t be treated like this if we were wealthy and connected.”
Bushee’s calm response: “Oh, but you are.”
Even the lawyers clapped. Pretty refreshing to have a city councilor—when most city councilors spend the majority of their time busily greasing the squeaky wheels—point out to privileged upstarts with too much free time that they have lost sight of the big picture and that their sense of entitlement is actually deeply offensive. Of course, when it comes down to a vote on the NWQ, we’ll see what Bushee is made of. Maybe we’ll even talk about term limits.
Kepler’s frankness wasn’t a reaction to something that was said but, instead, was her own choice of opener for a panel titled “Laws and Planning Policies for Diverse 2020 Santa Fe Neighborhoods.” Kepler noted the city’s righteous pride at being designated a “creative city” by UNESCO and its long-standing reputation as such. But, she challenged, “…doesn’t the very nature of creativity require openness to new ways of being, willingness to reinvent the historical and present identity, and willingness to try—and perhaps risk failing at—things no one else has done before?”
In other words, we’ll be happy to take the accolades for being creative, but please don’t point out the hypocrisy in our unwillingness to actually practice any genuine creativity on a policy level. Unfortunately, Kepler’s fellow panelists, developer (and former city manager) Ike Pino and science writer and
George Johnson, weren’t really up to having such a conversation and fell back to their default modes, with Pino shilling houses at Rancho Viejo and Johnson complaining about “new urbanism,” his mythical enemy.
But amid a certain amount of predictability and discussion potential that couldn’t quite get off the ground, the conference contained a wealth of genuine dialogue. Organized by the still young Neighborhood Law Center—one of the key movers in Santa Fe’s short-term rental ordinance—the conference was probably most successful in generating a hard and practical look at reforming the process by which the city makes planning and land-use decisions.
The context of the conference, however, contained an inherent danger in its assumption that solutions lie in processes and legislation. It is as difficult to legislate respect for one’s neighbors and neighborhood character as it is to legislate morality. The answers to such tensions do not lie in the language of ordinance and code.
One would hesitate to suggest diluting the scope of the conference for next year (assuming it becomes annual), but it’s worth wishing that notes were taken on assertions like Bushee’s and Kepler’s, from which a starting point for new dialogues may be mapped and built into the program from the get-go.