This week’s unofficial merit badge for good and useful government goes to City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez for his efforts to tackle infrastructure and quality of life improvements on Airport Road. The south side is Santa Fe’s bastard son, and is too often relegated to leftovers and afterthoughts, despite its youth, vitality and value to the city as a whole. But Dominguez’ plan ain’t exactly perfect.

Dominguez has proposed a resolution—to be considered by the City Council at its Feb. 23 meeting—to "develop various initiatives for the Airport Road area in order to promote a healthy, progressive and safe community." The proposed initiatives are indeed various—Dominguez is pushing for a breadbasket of offerings, including new zoning overlays; neighborhood association assistance and education; the development of parks; the creation of "healthy food zones" surrounding schools; a moratorium on new liquor licenses in the corridor; and the creation of trails, gardens and shared open spaces.

The resolution also implies the potential existence of “food deserts” in both urban areas and rural regions, and contains an aggressive thrust to ensure residents have ample access to fresh, healthy food without having to travel unreasonable distances. Dominguez also gives a nod to the encouragement of increased, mixed-income housing, significant road and safety improvements and the development of a unified business district that would incubate welcome services such as doctors and health practitioners.

In other words, this is no token effort by Dominguez. This is a full-court press and a laudable effort during a depressed economy when most elected officials are cringing at the idea of any kind of spending whatsoever.

To that end, Dominguez is calling for already earmarked funds—$67,000 in existing federal dollars—to hire a consultant to oversee planning efforts. This is the first warning bell. Historically speaking, the city’s track record on making good use of consultants is not great. There’s a pervasive belief that outside consultants bring fresh ideas and objectivity to a situation in which locals would become mired in animosity and gridlock. But outside consultant fees have typically outweighed the value of fresh ideas. Outside consultants also have failed with alarming regularity to notice key aspects of the Santa Fe community and economy. Look no further than a consultant’s failure to recognize arts and culture as a significant industry during the creation of our Economic Development Plan, or the rapid manner in which consultants hired to develop the county’s Sustainable Land Development Plan alienated both residents and county staff.

Moreover, the use of high-priced outside consultants is an out-moded trend nationwide. Current thinking in planning circles is rapidly moving toward new paradigms in inclusive community engagement and ground-up planning that empowers communities to claim ownership of the future.

There are several local entities with very forward-thinking attitudes and strategies for community-empowered planning and development, including Santa Fe Art Institute, Santa Fe Complex and Santa Fe Innovation Park (disclosure: I have worked with SFIP in the past). These are entities that not only respect the ability of neighborhood stakeholders to determine their own best interests, but that also respect the notion of close collaboration with existing talent within city staff—talent that could blossom if let off the leash. I would hope the City Council would give serious consideration to engaging a local organization to implement a next-generation planning strategy, rather than hiring whatever random firm from whatever random city to come and tell us what’s best.

Such a process may well include bringing some outside ideas to bear on the challenge, but through a collaborative process that prioritizes the voice of the community, rather than a top-down, experts-know-best approach that doesn’t work any better than trickle-down economics. Such a process would also very likely save money or at least put better use to resources and keep dollars recirculating in Santa Fe.

There are two other “top down” problems with Dominguez’ resolution. First: the idea of a moratorium on liquor stores. I sympathize with the problem of lower-income neighborhoods being saturated with liquor and gun stores (the latter not being a problem here: Tina’s Range Gear is the only gun store on Airport Road, and it’s a professional operation), but a government-enforced moratorium that restricts low-rent peddlers of cheap 12-packs also restricts entrepreneurs that might want to bring more responsible businesses to the area. Is there some reason south side residents shouldn’t be allowed a discerning wine shop, for example?

Finally, the notion of a healthy food zone surrounding schools is an idea I can understand—fast food restaurants next to schools are typically a bad idea—but what about something like Real Food Nation or another healthy food vendor operating under the “fast food” model? What’s more, Dominguez also wants to restrict food carts from proximity to schools at exactly the moment food carts are starting to boom in Santa Fe. Carts such as Slurp and Nile Café serve pretty healthy fare—should they really be restricted?

None of these concerns should strip credit from Dominguez for this bold initiative, but in an arena where planning can be as narrow as accessibility to healthy groceries, it’s simply food for thought.

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