Developer Jeff Branch knows Santa Fe-that's why he's been able to change it.
It's Monday morning rush hour throughout Santa Fe, but Agua Fria Village seems to have escaped unscathed. One can sense the mounting traffic snarls on either side of this rural swath of land carved out of the southwest side of the city, but there's no hard evidence. A warm, quiet wind whooshes across the tumbling plots of high grass and over the beat-up vintage cars and ramshackle adobe homes which adorn the village's plots in perfect disorder, as if exhibits placed there by a museum curator.
On the horizon, in place of the unsightly string of nearby chain stores or the rickety skeletons of fresh housing developments, are the still shadows of the Sangre De Cristo mountains,
watching and perhaps waiting for something to happen.
A world away, Jeff Branch slows his shimmering dark blue Audi into the parking lot of Bagelmania near downtown and hops out, pushing his sunglasses back into a head of silky, black hair.
Dressed in a slightly oversized, and decidedly unfashionable, off-green T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, Branch barely turns a head as he strolls through the sparse pre-breakfast crowd of state workers, Plaza business owners and sun-splotched tourists, positioning his short, unassuming physique into a chair at a back table.
Save one older, heavyset man who nearly leaps out of his seat to greet Branch as he passes, nobody notices. Branch, who has the bronzed skin of partially Hispanic parents and the boyish-turned-slightly-paunchy good looks of an ex-high school football player still pining for his golden years, is probably just another local here for a bagel and coffee before punching in, for all they know.
As it happens, such an assessment isn't too far off. A "local homeboy" is how a close friend described Branch to a reporter years ago-born and raised with his two brothers in the Casa Solana neighborhood across the street from Mayor Larry Delgado's family; a popular high school athlete who went away for college but came back to work for his family; another Hispanic boy with an Anglo last name in a town where such a seemingly
remarkable contradiction isn't all that remarkable.
Somewhere along the way, though, this homeboy became one of the most powerful men in Santa Fe. In less than a decade's time, Jeff Branch has played a huge role in altering the landscape of the city. This is particularly true on the south side, where Branch has lured national chains despite rural residents who view such change as corporate colonization, and who have fought doggedly to maintain their way of life.
Branch has managed to overcome such resistance using an intuitive, often breathtaking, fusion of what admirers call business savvy, political skill and charisma. Enemies prefer words like "arrogance," "force" and "guile."
Regardless of the perspective, one thing is certain: Over the last decade, as the city, county, neighborhood associations, urban planners and even developers have scrambled to react to Santa Fe's tumbling sprawl, Branch has emerged from the scrum as the one
man who truly realizes that the only real impediment to building up the south side is a lack of chutzpa. Subsequently, he's been able to work the system time and time again, surprising people with bold projects and pushing them through before there are laws on the books to stop him.
Nothing epitomizes the unique position Branch occupies more than his 94-acre San Isidro development, which includes the southern cut of land abutting Agua Fria Village, and is one of the largest and most complex projects the city has ever encountered.
Indeed, even with the development a done deal via an annexation agreement passed March 30, some city officials are still scratching their heads wondering if they've given away the farm.
By now, though, that feeling of bewilderment following a Jeff Branch project must be familiar. After all, city councilors have been dealing with him since he was, essentially, just a boy.
"You could see how personable he was, even back then," Cathy
Zacher, president of the Santa Fe Economic Development Inc., past president of the Chamber of Commerce and Jeff Branch's first grade teacher at Gonzales Elementary School, says. "He was this really nice little guy and really well liked."
Well liked, and with politics and ambition pulsing through his blood, Jeff Branch grew up the oldest of
three boys to Michael and Maida Branch.
He talks proudly of his family lineage. Alexander Branch, a merchant and trapper, came to Santa Fe in the early 19th century. His son later became speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1890. But it's Jeff Branch's father, a former city councilor, who had the most impact on him growing up.
"I remember when my dad was on the Council, all the councilors would get together and barbecue and have a few beers," Branch says between bites of a veggie omelette. "Back then it seemed like they were all really connected to their community."
When he wasn't at city hall, Michael Branch ran an office machine business and hammered home a relentless work ethic in his son. As a teenager Jeff sold flower seeds door to door, ran a newspaper route and worked a summer gig at the New Mexico State Corporation Commission.
Despite the relatively easy childhood, the family roots and a burgeoning business sense, Branch left town after high school for Arizona State University. "I wanted to get out of Santa Fe," he says with a sheepish laugh. "And ASU had good-looking girls."
ASU also was largely Anglo and, as a student of color, Branch underwent a new, and sometimes painful, experience. "I really got to see what prejudice was primarily because of my skin," Branch says, his smile gone. "Everybody was always asking what I was and where I was from. People thought I was from Iran, Hawaii. It all opened my eyes to where I'd grown up."
What ASU didn't provide in diversity it did in opportunity. Through the school's architecture and urban planning
program, Branch began doing commercial appraisals for a Newport Beach, California firm that was buying up property in Phoenix. After graduation, in 1985, Branch decided to come home and work for his father in the same industry. (Michael Branch had started selling property in 1980 to round out income from his office machine business; he let Jeff handle commercial appraisals.)
But the younger Branch struggled. Thinking he'd have better luck in Albuquerque, Branch took out a loan to open his own office and began knocking on doors and making cold calls, trying desperately to bring business up in Santa Fe. After countless dead ends, Branch finally sold Lovelace Health Systems, a building on St. Michael's, and made his first commission: $40,000.
"I felt like I'd been starving for too long, so this was such a relief," he says. "I was able to pay off a lot of debtors from that one sale." That one sale sparked Branch's interest in development, and would lead to his first official dealings with city government. It did not go well.
Shortly after the Lovelace deal, Branch appeared before the Santa
Fe Historic Design Review Board seeking approval to build a fourplex apartment complex on Agua Fria Street adjacent to the Railyard. The proposal was rejected. Branch doesn't remember why. He remembers how furious he was.
"I couldn't understand why because it was this really neat idea," he says, trying to laugh away the tinge of anger which still lingers in his voice. "I went to Sam Pick, the mayor at the time, and I told him I needed to sit on the Historic Design Review Board because
they're not following the rules
In 1986, at age 23, Branch became the board's youngest member, determined to learn the machinations of a system which he was convinced had done him wrong.
"He was this little guy with unbelievable energy and a 'Type A' personality. You should have seen him. I just loved him," Pick says.
Five years later, Branch appeared again before
city officials, this time with a bigger and better plan. Or so he thought.
Branch and friend Joaquin Sanchez had come up with the idea to put a brew pub in the old Agua Fria neighborhood where Branch had grown up. The two met every week devising a business plan, crisscrossed the country researching brew pub culture and signed a lease on the old Home Bakery building at the corner of Agua Fria Street and Dunlap Street near the Railyard, which they thought was the perfect venue.
Branch and Sanchez envisioned a lively community pub with prices locals could afford. Neighbors envisioned those same locals staggering home drunk through their properties. They fought Branch and Sanchez tooth and nail.
After a bitter debate before the City Council, Frank Montaño, Branch's old little league coach, cast the deciding vote against the pub.
"I felt really bad going against him. Even back then, he was so hard-working and such a go-getter," Montaño says. "I could have voted either way that night."
Branch, though, was crushed.
"I couldn't believe it. These old ladies shut us down. They just fought us," he says. "I was too cocky. I tried to shove it down their throats because I was convinced this was what was right and good for the neighborhood. It really hurt."
Incredulous the city had denied their project, Branch and Sanchez hired a lawyer and fired off a letter to the state liquor board, which had granted them a liquor license for the pub. Subsequently, the City Council was forced to file a lawsuit against the state-which supported the liquor board's decision-to uphold its ruling. The court battle lasted for nearly five years. Branch eventually won the suit but decided it was too late to build. Besides, he'd made his point to the city: Spurn Jeff Branch and run the risk of incurring a serious migraine.
Conversely, Branch learned he couldn't steamroll neighborhood associations. They were organized like Roman centuries, wielded political clout and could embarrass a developer if respect wasn't shown.
"When Jeff was first starting out, he began to realize that this wasn't going to be easy street," says Zacher. "People would like him and think he's a great guy. But that didn't necessarily mean they'd like his development ideas."
During the mid '90s, however, it seemed to Branch that the city's growth spurt was creating an environment ripe for development, regardless of what the city thought. He pushed on.
It was 1996 when Branch helped dream up another bold project.
This time it was a 38-acre shopping complex across from the Villa Linda Mall on property owned by the wealthy Zafarano family and anchored by Target and Albertson's.
This project brought to Santa Fe the national
debate over the volatile relationship between smaller communities and large chains. The population of Santa Fe and the surrounding area, between 1990 and 2000, had grown by 13,000. Half of that growth was happening in the southwest sector of the metro area.
"When we started growing, suddenly all the corporate chains were interested," says Karen Heldmeyer who served on the city's Planning Commission before being elected to City Council and remembers how the Zafarano proposal helped spark dialogue over large big box stores like Target. "People were distressed with the project because it made them think about whether we really wanted these big chains." Opponents of big boxes think squeezing such mammoth stores into places like Santa Fe ultimately drives out local businesses and forever changes the aesthetic of wherever they're built.
Branch, on the other hand, argued that such stores sell everything anyone could possibly need, provide a direct link to the manufacturers, typically keep prices low and are a source of jobs.
By now a seasoned veteran of land battles, he was able to sell the city on that same logic, convincing the Council to let Target finance the building of a four-lane Zafarano Road to ease traffic. Branch also secured $350,000 from Target to relocate more than 85 families living in a mobile home park where the development was to be built to separate property owned by the Zafaranos.
"Jeff proved himself very capable in terms of taking advantage of the system," says realtor and city hall junkie Sara Melton, who remembers watching Branch work his magic in front of the City Council. "He would take on a project like this which a lot of other developers didn't have the political will to see through."
Shortly after the second phase of the development began in January 2000, which included the building of Old Navy and Linens 'N Things, the City Council realized what had happened. With Branch whispering reassuringly in their ear, they'd swung the door to big box development wide open with nary a restriction. That July, the Council authorized the city's Planning Department to look into big box stores and their effect on Santa Fe.
"We were trying to look into it as a way for existing communities to work on making the development of large retail stores more appropriate for Santa Fe," Tamara Baer, then the city planner who drafted the ordinance, says. Out of Baer's research came the aptly named "big box
ordinance," which passed a year later. The ordinance imposed design standards on retail stores, such as the use of varied architecture designs, specific parking lot sizes and required any new store be less than 150,000 square feet. Branch frowns slightly at the mention of the ordinance.
"I think there are some good things and things that don't make any sense," he says, referring to the requirements on parking lot design mandated by the ordinance. "It'll have to be amended as time goes on." Still, Branch had won approval of a significant project. On its heels, in 1998, he turned his attention towards another national chain.
Whole Foods, Branch thought, wouldn't spark the type of opposition he was used to getting. The chain's organic products and left-leaning sensibility would be the perfect fit for Santa Fe.
Working his connections, Branch was able to convince Whole Foods that Santa Fe, specifically the intersection of Cerrillos and Gilmore, was right for them too.
But he'd forgotten the lesson he'd learned from the brew pub, and, once again, Branch underestimated the might of the local neighbors, who were aghast at the prospect of more traffic.
That misjudgment would explode in Branch's face at a sit-down at the Hotel Santa Fe he'd arranged between Whole Foods brass and the neighborhood association. Over macaroni and cheese, courtesy of Whole Foods, somebody from Branch's camp popped in an informational video about the store.
"The neighborhood association went ballistic. They started throwing the macaroni and cheese at the television and saying 'You're not going to bribe us with your products!'" he says. "I
think it was Karen Heldmeyer who walked up the television and turned it off."
According to Branch, the Whole Foods people "freaked."
"They came up to me after the meeting and said, 'What the hell did you do to us?'" Branch laughs. Branch says he calmed them down and facilitated nearly a dozen more meetings out of which the project was reworked, community concerns about traffic were assuaged and all parties were satisfied. Heldmeyer, who was president of the Santa Fe Neighborhood Network (a consortium of the city's neighborhood associations) at the time, remembers the story differently.
"What I recall is Jeff putting on this video," she says. "People were getting angrier and angrier, and I said, 'If you want to have a meeting with us then turn off the video.' Meanwhile, Jeff kept shouting, 'This is
! This is
! You need to be more respectful!'"
The Whole Foods people ended up having to push Branch out of the way at the so they could deal with the neighborhood association, Heldmeyer says.
Ultimately, though, the project was approved in 1999 and Whole Foods became one of the most popular grocery stores in Santa Fe. Jeff Branch was 37 years old. Between Zafarano and Whole Foods he'd already, arguably, impacted Santa Fe more than the Ike Pinos, the Dickie Montoyas and his father's generation of developers who came before him. San Isidro, however, was going to be his legacy.
The land on the southern end of Agua Fria Village-rural,
unincorporated and within the clutches of Santa Fe's commercial sprawl-has made developers weak in the knees since the late 1980s.
For nearly 12 years, the Connecticut-based
company SMAT, Inc had tried to build retail and warehouse space there, from Cerrillos Road to where the Rufina Street extension is now. But they'd clashed too hard with the people of Agua Fria Village, one of the area's oldest, toughest, most entrenched land-based neighborhoods.
Further, Agua Fria residents were both battle tested and smart. They had fought off numerous development and annexation proposals, and they had learned how to politic.
They are people like Ramon and Hazel Romero, whose family has owned the same skinny tract of property since the 17th century and who took 12 years to build a traditional, Spanish family style house with their bare hands.
"I remember that Connecticut developer cursing at me in Italian to a friend of his at a city meeting," Ramon Romero says. "And I cursed him right back in Spanish."
After SMAT's effort floundered, local developer Ike Pino tried his luck but he couldn't convince the Agua Frians to sell either.
Meanwhile, Jeff Branch was keeping a watchful eye. Finally, in 2001, riding the wave of the Zafarano project and Whole Foods, he struck.
His idea was to build a 92-acre development with a 14-screen movie theater, 109,000-squarefoot Lowe's Home Improvement store and 264 homes-essentially a small city on top of an area which had refused to give up its rural character. Branch knew the
most imposing roadblock was the people of Agua Fria Village. The development would not directly effect the village itself, designated a Traditional Historic Community (THC). But it would impact some residents' land plots on the southern side. Those portions of the land fell outside the THC and lay in the extraterritorial zone that is a combination of city and county land. Branch's plan was to annex the land-thus putting it under city jurisdiction so it could receive city services. But first he needed buy-in from rural residents who had resisted annexation for years.
Beginning in 2001 and for several years after, he called Agua Frians like the Romeros. He chatted with them about their hopes and fears for the neighborhood and listened politely on back porches as they pointed out the arroyos they played in as children or how beautiful the Sangres looked at sunset from their property.
And then towards the end, like a young doctor bearing bad news, he told them quietly that their time had come.
What Branch discovered was that the old Agua Frians had known this day was inevitable all along-that they could either sell to a local Hispanic whom they knew, or to some fast-talking East Coast-er. They could either die for a fair price or live staring at the sterile backside of a big box store.
"Jeff actually listened to us, and we took him for his word," says Ramon. "We knew what was happening around us."
After the Romeros agreed to sell last year, the 34 families who either lived in the village or owned property there fell in line. During a series of subsequent meetings, Branch and the villagers came up with the name San Isidro-the patron saint of agriculture and the namesake of the church on Agua Fria.
When San Isidro reached the City Council in 2005, councilors
were shocked at the massive amount of water San Isidro would soak up-105 acre-feet of water a year. Over time, however, councilors softened, especially after Branch agreed to provide water for half of the project, not including the 30 percent of the project which was affordable housing
and to which the city is legally obligated to dole out free water, and to retrofit toilets for the other half.
"What originally persuaded me was that Jeff had done a lot of homework on San Isidro," says Councilor David Coss. "And that he'd gotten so many families involved, that there was no neighborhood or community opposition to the plan."
Councilor Heldmeyer still fretted the city was granting annexation to a project without a final, formal proposal of what it really entailed, but even she wasn't going to take Branch on at this point. And so, with the all-consuming water issue taken care of, the Council voted 7-0 to approve annexation on March 30 (Carol Robertson-Lopez was not in attendance). Soon after, Mike Loftin, executive director of Homewise, an affordable housing development group, called Coss. Loftin wanted to know why Branch's project did not meet the Regional Planning Authority's (RPA) recommendations on affordable housing.
Loftin, who'd sat on the RPA's Affordable Housing Task Force earlier that year, had helped write the recommendations. He told Coss that he'd met with Branch and explained to him what those guidelines were.
Specifically, Branch needed to make 10 percent of his affordable housing homes available at $115,000, another 10 percent at $145,000 and the final 10 percent at $180,000.
San Isidro's affordable housing units, on the other hand, were going to be sold at $154,176, $189,755 and $237,194-hardly affordable, says Loftin-and use free water from the city in the process.
What's more, a memo from Richard Gorman,
Branch's partner on the project, reserved the developer's right to expand the percentage of affordable housing units and
keep the free water flowing. To Loftin, it looked like the city had been duped.
Coss immediately called Branch, who'd just returned from Russia where he and his wife Michelle were planning on adopting a baby boy.
"I asked him what was going on. The project had been presented by him and Richard as if it met the guidelines," says Coss. "We'd voted the way we did on a major annexation because of what they told us. Let's just say I was very disappointed."
The problem was that the RPA recommendations
yet been codified. Branch told
Coss that no one, not Loftin nor anyone from the city's community housing division, had ever informed him what they were. In fact, according to Branch, Linda Hall, director of community housing, had told him his prices were fine. (Hall would not return SFR's phone calls for this story).
Initially Branch refused to backtrack on the terms of the annexation, saying he had dug so deep in his pockets for the Agua Fria properties-nearly $20 million- that he couldn't afford to sell the San Isidro homes for anything less than what's on the table.
Subsequently, however, Branch decided to drop each third of his affordable housing prices to a range of costs, as opposed to a single price, because he says his builder told him it was indeed feasible. The lower half of each range now comes
closer to the RPA guidelines, he says. He bristles at the idea that he acted disingenuously.
"Nobody ever brought up these
recommendations to me," he says. "We had an agreement with city staff on the pricing of those homes. What we said in front of Council is what we agreed to with the city."
Branch disputes Loftin ever told him anything about the recommendations.
"It's an absolute lie," Branch says. "I got in his face. I told him don't appreciate you ratting me out like you're a little kid. That's bullshit! If we had known about it on the front end, we would have done it!"
Loftin, a bear of a man who's every bit as personable as Branch, grins as he recalls the encounter.
"I said to Jeff afterwards, 'Hey, I told you about this,'" he says. "What he promised to the city in terms of affordable housing was misrepresented, because it wouldn't have been approved." Says Heldmeyer: "This was something the city should have worked out. I'm not going to fault San Isidro for this."
Once more, Branch had shown a knack for shoving a huge project through a small crack in existing regulations before the city knew what hit them. Once more, the city was forced to react after being outfoxed again by the little guy from Casa Solana. Once more Branch had dictated the terms.
After San Isidro was approved and the land annexed, Branch
knew the opportunity was now. In April of this year he proposed Colores Plaza/Colores de Sol-a 74-acre development with numerous shops and nearly 300 residential units to be built at the intersection of Airport Road and South Meadows.
Within two months Branch received annexation from the City Council despite the fretting of local neighborhood association leaders who felt that Branch had been insensitive to their concerns, his old
albatross dating back to the brew pub days.
"Jeff told us pretty much that this is what he was going to do and that everything was already all settled," Joanna Garcia, president of the Tiempos Lindos Homeowners Association, whose neighborhood sits adjacent to Colores, says. "When I asked about the affordability of the houses, he laughed and told me that if I didn't think this housing is affordable then move to Rio Rancho. It really pissed me off."
Even his detractors, though, admit that Branch at this point is nearly impossible to stop, neighborhood associations or not.
"Jeff is a very adept businessman who tends to get the deal he wants," Mike Loftin says. Because of that uncanny, dogged ability, in a very short time, Santa Fe will look considerably different. San Isidro will go up and so will Colores, and the tumbling plots of grass, the beat-up vintage cars and the ramshackle homes around the Agua Fria Village will be gone. Old timers like the Romeros will go too, having moved away to some unsettled tract of land with hopes of living out the rest of their lives just as they started.
At the Romeros' request, Branch has vowed to turn their beloved house into a community center for San Isidro's seniors, a memorial of sorts to a time and place no longer here.
The prospect of leaving the only place they've ever lived still sends a searing pain through Ramon's stomach, and Hazel's eyes water when she walks through the home she helped build so many years ago.
To Branch, though, it all makes perfect sense.
"I know they were torn about the land. But at the end of the day, the Romeros realized I was someone they could sell to and that I was going to preserve as much as I could," Branch says. "Because, in the end, Santa Fe is going to grow anyway."
He's seen to it.