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Designs for improvements almost didn’t have benches or shelter.
Elizabeth Miller

Happier Trails

Transit center project moves on after conflict between the city and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

July 20, 2016, 12:00 am

When a small crowd assembled at the downtown library on June 23 to see the plans for sprucing up the nearby hub of the city bus system, which had been more than a decade in the making, attendees mostly had one question: Where were the seats and bus shelters?

“If you have no place to sit, it seems kind of ludicrous,” said Sonya-María Martinez, a community organizer with Chainbreaker Collective. “Out of respect to transit riders, you do need seating. … Otherwise, you’re wasting money.”

The Santa Fe Trails Sheridan Avenue stop hasn’t been anyone’s favorite route to anywhere. What’s referred to as the “transit center” is a generally overlooked access point to the Plaza—except on those occasions when it’s used to house the port-a-potties during Fiestas. But the city has crafted a vision to turn that street and its row of benches and awnings into an enjoyable corridor for pedestrians, as well as a pleasant stop for passengers on the 150 trips city buses make to that stop each weekday. Without shelter from the sun, rain, snow and wind, one meeting attendee asked, who would want to ride the bus, and what good is a transit system without riders?

City Project Manager Mary MacDonald didn’t want to make promises on when, but she assured attendees that the area would eventually include new shelters—when there was more money than the $2 million federal grant awarded to the project. And, she added, perhaps when councilors and the mayor felt a little political pressure from their constituents to make shelters a priority.

“So there will be seating there?” Martinez asked.

“Oh yes. In time,” MacDonald replied.

She just didn’t want to specify when, she said, given the various federal, state and local pots from which money could come.

As it turns out, that time is now.

“That was a little bit of misguidance. The budget was available,” David Pfeifer, city facilities division director, tells SFR.

Bus shelters have returned to the plans, Pfeifer says, and will be part of the construction bids when those go out in September. And good thing, because the New Mexico Department of Transportation, which is administering the federal funds, selected the transit center based on the project described in the application, “which included transit shelters/covered waiting areas and benches,” Matt Kennicott, director of communication for the department, wrote in an email to SFR. “This project, as is the case with any other project, must be implemented as it was proposed in the application.”

It’s not that the city wanted to move forward without bus shelters; they simply were trying to appease their neighbor, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Documents obtained through a public records request show the city tiptoeing around ongoing objections. While its prominent museum facility is a few blocks away on Johnson Street, the O’Keeffe also owns a property that backs up to Sheridan.

After more than a year of negotiations, emails show MacDonald advising a contractor, “The idea is a design that leaves Georgia O’Keeffe nothing to oppose.”

"The idea is a design that leaves Georgia O’Keeffe nothing to oppose."

The city has been discussing the proposed transit center with the O’Keeffe Museum’s director, Robert Kret, since at least late 2014, when meeting notes show Kret listing concerns with the project’s aesthetic conflicts with a potential future O’Keeffe building.

The museum has not made a decision on plans to expand, Kret told SFR via email, but his correspondence with the city shows a fight for changes to bus shelters that would be the first thing tourists and school groups making use of “a secondary but prominent entry to the building” would see, and mentions a tentative opening five years down the road.

As the months ticked on, then-transit director Kenneth Smithson wrote to Pfeifer, “As we feared, we’ve now lost three months on this project, since there is no timeline—and no sense of urgency—with the GOKM folks. It will be difficult to explain to the feds that the project into which they’ve invested 80 percent of the cost has stalled out.”

The city made a number of promises to the museum, including some that appear to have logistical and financial implications.

As of April 2015, officials had agreed to relocate the bus shelters as far north as possible, move the stop for regional buses to the south end of the street (pending approval from the Museum of New Mexico, whose fine art museum occupies that corner), and redesign or replace bus shelters “through O’Keeffe Museum project approval process.” There was even talk of reversing the direction of traffic on Sheridan Avenue.

The city had also committed to pay for archaeological work for the museum building’s sewer line and to improve pedestrian access and roadways for the planned facility. In an email from then-Transportation Department Director Jon Bulthuis to City Manager Brian Snyder, briefing him for a meeting with Kret, Bulthuis notes of the archaeological promise, “This is big—not only saves their project money, but makes their project far more ‘shovel ready,’ once their financing and development approvals are in place.”

By August, the city’s approach was to leave out the structures and coordinate them with O’Keeffe later. Then word came from the federal government that their budget for the fiscal year had been fully allocated; the grant promised would have to wait for the next budget cycle.

That brings us to 2016, with money available, and the other half of the problem still in limbo: the question of museum staff blessing the project. So far, Pfeifer says, there’s no word.

“We gave them the opportunity to change the design and go through the Arts Commission and Historic Preservation—do all the things they would have needed to do to get their design, whatever they wanted to do, completed,” Pfeifer says. “I don’t know what they’re doing, but they didn’t do anything with the bus shelters like we basically gave them the opportunity to do.”

SFR contacted the O’Keeffe Museum to get their side of things, and Kret, available only by email through his assistant, said they did propose an alternative plan and didn’t know if the city used it or not.

Even though construction bids are set to kick off this fall, the archaeological component poses yet another potential holdup from a project that’s now estimated to be completed by summer 2017.

“That was the bottom of Fort Marcy, so we find everything,” Pfeifer says. “That area is so full of history, it’s almost insane. Full wars were fought right in that area, so the likelihood of finding things is very high, it’s just what we find. Hopefully it’s minor stuff and not the major stuff that really kind of backs things up.”


 

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