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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Middle Ground

December 23, 2015, 12:00 am

I’ve had some interesting conversations in the last week, since challenging you all to reach out and talk to me about whatever you thought was important. Response to my little experiment has been immediate and continuous, and the subjects of discussion have been as varied as the participants. But one common thread has run through almost every conversation I’ve had: Whatever the issue, from economics to politics to human rights, in Santa Fe, the actual argument is usually personal.

Since it’s how the conversation started, many early responders wanted to talk about housing. One of them, Courtenay Mathey, has worked in and around Santa Fe as an architect for the last 28 years. He’s designed everything from single-family mansions to traditional and even communal housing developments, such as the Commons on West Alameda. Throughout, he’s found himself straddling the communication gap between developers and the neighborhoods surrounding the areas they wish to build on.

What’s become apparent to me is that these disagreements often have less to do with difference of opinion, and more to do with personal distrust and mutual disrespect. Mathey recounted an instance in which a former member of a neighborhood association, who was bitterly opposed to the Villa de La Paz development, which he planned, approached him years later to tell him she now loved the neighborhood, which was home to many of her friends. More often than not, the disputes residents have with proposed developments could be easily resolved if everyone in the room wasn’t so ideologically and rhetorically entrenched.

I also spoke with Philip Crump, who has worked for the city of Albuquerque’s Land Use Facilitation Program since 1998. The closest thing Santa Fe has to this is the Early Neighborhood Notification system, through which developers are given a checklist of common issues to address, and their responses to these issues are then shared with the neighborhood before the thing marches forward to the city’s review boards. End of process. Albuquerque’s program turns this cookie-cutter system into more of a dialogue. Whenever a developer proposes a new project, the city refers the application to a contract facilitator such as Crump, who contacts both the neighbors and the developer to work out a common ground, preventing the sort of miscommunication (or noncommunication-)-based standoffs we’ve seen recently with El Rio and the like. The Office of Neighborhood Coordination also offers training for neighborhood associations, so that when the time comes to negotiate with developers, their leaders and members have the proper information and context to know what is in their best interest. He says all of this results in much greater participation and a much more effective discourse within the associations.

Like any system designed to bridge communication gaps between groups with opposing interests, the process isn’t perfect. But establishing something similar in Santa Fe would likely to make any progress in addressing this housing crisis. Developers and neighborhoods both have ideas about how we should move forward, but it is clear that after years of mutual mistrust and demonization, the two sides are more divided than ever. In July, City Councilor Patti Bushee put forth a resolution specifically intended to develop program here based on the Albuquerque model, but if that’s to do anything more than pay lip service to the problem, we need to act on it now. I doubt we’ll ever change the passion with which we argue our points in this town, but perhaps it’s time to hire a referee.

The point is often the least interesting part of the conversation. Have one with the author:


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