A watercolor painted by long-range city planner Richard McPherson years ago depicted a rather utopian image of St. Michael’s Drive—not the reality of seven lanes of zooming traffic and a veritable sea of parking lots, but a boulevard with trees in the median, safe places to walk and innovate, and modern spaces in which to live and work.
The artwork that appeared in SFR's 2015 Annual Manual was part of what some described as a "community visioning" process that took place in a vacant storefront now occupied by the new and improved Tecolote restaurant, and even those backing a rezoning plan today say what it depicts might never come to pass. But they say giving private landowners the chance—and incentive—to alter the character of the area is a step toward a new image.
City councilors and members of the public who serve on five government committees have already approved the proposal planners are calling the "Midtown Local Innovation Corridor Overlay District." The most recent was a unanimous vote from four councilors who serve on the Public Works Committee on Monday night.
While the idea has been kicking around since way before he took office, Mayor Javier Gonzales became its newest flagbearer two years ago when he talked about it with mayors from other cities at a conference on urban design. Matt O'Reilly is driving the bus on the effort now, along with the mayor and Councilor Peter Ives. O'Reilly is a former city planning commissioner and Land Use Department director whom Gonzales appointed director of asset development, a position Gonzales created.
Much of O'Reilly's time in that post so far has been dedicated to tasks like renegotiating the city's franchise agreement with telecom giants Qwest and CenturyLink, other leases of city property to bring in revenue for the economic development fund, working on a revamp to regulations about food trucks and acting as liaison in a complicated bankruptcy proceeding in which the city has a stake. But the bulk of O'Reilly's energy at present is on the overlay.
Unlike the city-owned and privately developed Santa Fe Railyard district that's seen a flurry of construction in recent years, O'Reilly says that with this plan, whatever new things happen along St. Mike's will be motivated in a more organic way. Comprising about 373 acres in the geographical center of the city, the zoning overlay would give the 161 individual property owners opportunities to build in ways that are impossible with current rules. That means allowing taller buildings in some places, greater density throughout, and fewer required parking spaces for most uses.
"Some of these properties have been owned by these families for 40 years. They have invested in building commercial buildings and developments, they have entered into long-term leases with [tenants] like with Kmart. … It is not so much the city trying to impose something on them," O'Reilly tells SFR. "It is respecting how much they have invested and the fact that they have existing tenants and that they're going to make their own decisions over time on what to do with their property."
Right now, the area is a combination of zoning that's largely commercial, industrial and, because of the 64-acre campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, institutional. If the overlay is adopted, one of the big changes is that that the city won't impose density rules. New projects can be up to 50 feet tall except within 150 feet of homes, where they can only rise to 38 feet.
O'Reilly says redevelopment won't be quick. The first and most likely changes, he says, will be in existing commercial areas where tenants move out and new tenants choose to move in because of city incentives that are part of the overlay ordinance proposal. Multi-family housing that could address the city's shortage of affordable dwellings tops this list for desired new development, yet it's probably further off. Meanwhile, businesses such as restaurants, services like hairdressers, doctors and dentists, and entertainment and arts projects (that are part of what he says the community "wants to see" there based on surveys) could come faster thanks to fee waivers in the proposal.
Back in 2009, when city planners were talking about the effort known as RE:Mike, things weren't looking so hot for the corridor that was marked by empty retail spaces and businesses with their eyes on other parts of the city. But that's changed somewhat. Ask Buddy Espinosa, the general manager of Santa Fe Toyota. The Toyota dealership at that time had plans to abandon the St. Mike's location and rebuild on the Southside, but when Espinosa took the helm, he shifted focus. Now the dealership, which employs 138 people, has purchased two adjacent lots and plans to soon break ground on a new building.
"I wanted to stay in the center of town," he says. "Look, the Chamber of Commerce was out there in the outlet mall and guess what? They're next door to me now."
While he's not up on the details of the zoning proposal, he's says he's not worried. "It can only be a good thing."
Area residents still have time to let the City Council know what they think about the idea. A public hearing is planned for Oct. 26.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Peter Ives as the mayor pro tem, a position now held by Signe Lindell.