For those who believe the City of Santa Fe’s Housing and Community Development Department’s Long-Range Planning has more letters than vision, its May 8 and 9 open house, which unveiled seven conceptual plans for redeveloping St. Michael’s Drive, was evidence to the contrary.
For those who think divisions with acronyms like CSFHCDDLRP could be a good place to cut expenses, well, maybe this one should be allowed to live a little longer.
The plans unveiled at the open house are no fait accompli; they are not even finalists for consideration. Rather, they are concepts commissioned with the intent to initiate a community dialogue and master planning process.
City planners’ realization that a pre-existing, uninspired and largely Anytown USA street like St. Mike’s can be changed is evidence of the kind of energy and initiative we need from City Hall. Just because it was done wrong the first time doesn’t mean it has to stay wrong forever: That’s revelatory thinking for city government but increasingly common in the Mayor David Coss administration.
It’s an alternative reality for Santa Fe for planners to believe the best way to enter such a process is to use local creative design and planning professionals to jump-start the imagination of the populace—it’s like we slipped through a wormhole in the night and things are now going to be done rationally.
Of course, that’s a bit too much to hope for. The challenges indicated by the failings of the concepts presented are equal, at least, to the excitement generated by the approach.
For several months now, the buzzword in the city’s planning department about revisioning St. Mike’s has been “La Rambla,” in reference to the famous street in Barcelona, Spain. La Rambla is chiefly characterized by its wide, central pedestrian median edged by narrow, tree-lined streets where traffic moves at a calm pace.
Senior Planner Richard Macpherson most literally translates La Rambla to St. Mike’s with his concept of a “Milla Real” or Royal Mile. Among the more earnest concepts put forward, Machpherson’s calls for a “people place” that encourages pedestrian travel and bike lanes; his plan also was among the vaguest.
Spears Architects, of convention center fame, offered a heartbreakingly realistic view of what the city as a whole is most likely to accept: a classic exercise in compromise and gently nudging the status quo just enough to remain comfortably…status quo.
Steve Price of Berkley, Calif.’s Urban Advantage phoned it in—his concept was largely non-existent and more likely to instigate a conversation about the cost of color printing than redeveloping a vibrant commercial corridor.
Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, an Albuquerque firm, attacked the project with vigor, envisioning a “Paseo de las Artes.” Apparently no one sent them a memo detailing Santa Fe’s current abundance of “arts districts.” Haven’t we yet learned that when you build housing for “artists,” the artists laugh at you and it ends up being offices for “architects”?
Lloyd & Associates Architects’ gorgeous rendering depicts the Rail Runner trundling through a new and gigantic rotunda while happy pedestrians mill about nearby. A fine hand generates a stormy sky and a moody, watercolor palette implies conceptual gravitas. Damn it looked good. Hopefully it will be an effective tool for sparking the imagination because nothing about it is very realistic. The Rail Runner cruising next to pedestrians—what is this? The Netherlands? We have lawyers in this country, not engineers.
Albert Moore & Associates hit an intriguing note in suggesting St. Mike’s become a “special development district for contemporary architecture, design, media and sustainable practices.” Unfortunately, Moore’s renderings of contemporary architecture looked a lot like the new Regal 14 movie theater: Anytown USA, pseudo-streetscape, next generation shopping mall crap. Whoops.
Only Roy Wroth Urbanism + Planning really laid out the fundamental flash points that the neighborhood, the citizens and the city need to consider for a redevelopment project of genuine—rather than purely aesthetic—sea change in planning, densities and uses. Wroth looks laterally and systematically at St. Mike’s within the context of the whole city, and proposes methods for enhancing interconnectivity and building on strengths—things that can’t be accomplished with a face lift and a couple bicycle lanes.
Of course, La Rambla isn’t only a successful community gathering space because it’s pedestrian friendly. It’s because it’s lined with cafés that don’t face arcane and prohibitive state alcohol regulations. It’s because kids are allowed to hang out well after dark in a culture that isn’t crippled by fear of litigation and the unknown. Businesses are open later than 6 pm, eateries are allowed to stretch tables and chairs out onto the sidewalk, and vendors and buskers and street performers are an accepted part of the fabric.
How deeply we’re willing to address our cultural and regulatory shortcomings and the extent to which Santa Feans engage in the process will determine the success of righting what once went wrong.