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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Road with a View

Road with a View

St. Michael’s Drive has many stakeholders and possible futures

November 11, 2009, 12:00 am

It’s a good thing Joe Horace still reads the news. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t know about the city’s plans to redevelop the land he owns on St. Michael’s Drive. Neither, for that matter, would Daniel Masterson, a managing partner at Don Mackey Nissan, or Tom “TJ” Jones, the manager at Payne’s Nurseries & Greenhouses—both of which also are on St. Michael’s. That city officials extolled the virtues of public participation at last week’s Neighborhood Law & Policy Conference panel on redeveloping St. Michael’s, then, seems slightly incongruous.

The Nov. 5 panel was open to the public (but was during working hours) and featured Roy Wroth, an urbanist who designed one of the seven St. Michael’s redevelopment schemes presented to the city this spring; Kathy McCormick, the city’s housing and development director; and City Councilor Matthew Ortiz. Wroth opened with a list of the redevelopment project’s three main goals: “mixed use” (a favorite new urbanist catchphrase), buildings built closer to the sidewalks to encourage pedestrian traffic and neighborhood “nodes” that create “intimate space” to encourage community involvement. Wroth also mentioned some questions worth considering: how to develop in a manner that suits residents’ and property owners’ needs, how to incorporate all socioeconomic sectors if possible and—the eternal, impossible challenge—where to get funding.

Or, as Councilor Ortiz put it, “How, as a city, do we balance this very exciting vision [and] this very burdensome planning process when you have 30-plus years of [zoning codes]?”

That vision is still unfocused. Of the seven design proposals presented to the city earlier this year, none have been chosen as a front-runner.

Wroth says the city never intended to choose a front-runner—that eliciting the designs was more a way to start a conversation regarding St. Michael’s future. Still, the designs have several features in common: more trees and green areas, less space devoted to huge asphalt parking lots and greater accessibility for pedestrians. The seven-lane street itself also could stand to be narrower, in Wroth’s view.

“Those lanes are functionally obsolete,” he says. “People get all allergic that you’re somehow restricting their freedom of movement, but any traffic engineer would tell you that it’s actually overbuilt.”

But Horace, who has owned the land beneath Zia Kia since 1983, begs to differ.

“We are not a civilization of pedestrians; we’re automobile people,” Horace says. “Parking is critical—in Santa Fe especially, because there’s so little [of it].” He notes that a nearby bank is in the process of building a drive-up window—evidence of the automobile culture that characterizes St. Michael’s. And while Horace clearly understands that walkable places can be prettier (he cites Hilton Head, SC and Central City, Colo. as examples), he also says that eliminating the space he uses to park his and his customers’ cars could push him out of business. “There just isn’t room—period,” Horace says. “If you put the buildings out on the sidewalk, does that mean I have to tear down this building that has 20-some thousand feet of working space and move it?”

A car dealership may be the antithesis of the idealized “walkable city,” and Horace himself jokingly recognizes that “you’re talking to an automobile dealer who’s anti-pedestrian and anti-bicycle.” But Jones, who has worked on St. Michael’s for 35 years, also recognizes the benefits of motor traffic and parking. He’s concerned that less parking could mean less business for every store in the area, which will mean fewer jobs and the need for more city funding. Jones (perhaps because he works at a nursery) is even skeptical about tree-planting initiatives, because they’ll require water, care and—maybe most importantly—funding from the city.

“There’s a tough moment in this and that is, after the plan gets finished, it needs to be adopted by the City Council, and it needs to be funded, either by the City Council or by people really pushing to raise federal dollars,” Wroth says. He also says it’s not as hard as it seems:

“The road, the design, the zoning—none of that stuff is really that complicated, and frankly, none of that stuff is adequately inspiring to get the political support for [this],” Wroth says. “Using this as a chance to build a livelihood for people—that’s the stuff that would give this project momentum, and you can do a lot of that without doing the roads or the rezoning or the rest of it.”

Wroth says strengthening community organizations like Somos Un Pueblo Unido, the Chainbreaker Collective and the Triangle District Resource Center is one way to get people involved.

“As a community, we need to pull together enough resources to really commit to these kinds of programs,” Wroth says. “I look at the whole thing as kind of the social enterprise approach to community development: an entity that is big and solid and credit-worthy but also has a grassroots dimension.”

Such an entity, he says, could in turn encourage and strengthen stakeholders’ resolve to turn St. Michael’s into a cohesive neighborhood. But introducing design schemes last spring without local businesses’ knowledge or involvement already has created some discord.

“I have not received any information from city officials,” Masterson of the Nissan dealership says. “They’ve had no direct contact with businesses [in the area] that I know of.” Horace and Jones say the same and, in an email sent to SFR on Nov. 9, Marcela Díaz, the executive director of the immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, writes, “I can’t say that I know anyone who lives in these HUD subsidized apartments who has taken part in any of the planning discussions.”

Ortiz, however, emphasizes that the process hasn’t officially begun.

“We’re really just doing a feasibility/visioning process right now,” he says. If and when actual redevelopment plans begin, though, Ortiz says he’d like to see some changes in business as usual.

“Solicit private property owners and get them bought into the process,” Ortiz tells SFR. “Don’t just hold a meeting at the library and have four people show up and start doing a plan that’s all pie-in-the-sky with no basis in the reality that exists on the ground today.”

At last week’s panel, McCormick informed an audience of lawyers, public officials and citizens that the city will gather information over the course of the next calendar year and will formulate a plan by January 2011. (Both McCormick and Economic Development Specialist Kate Noble, the other city official working on the project, are on vacation this week and could not be reached for additional comment.) That date, at the very least, gives the city plenty of time to talk to people like Masterson, Horace, Jones and Díaz.

“What is their objective?” Horace asks. “If it were clear-cut and you could make me understand it, I’d listen.”

 

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