If the sudden demolition of historic buildings on the Cerrillos Road campus of the Santa Fe Indian School has an upside, it's the newly exceptional view. When driving down the densely developed Cerrillos Road corridor, a sudden expanse blossoms beyond the low piles of rubble, and the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains rim the valley as it peals away to the north.
But there's reason to believe the All Indian Pueblo Council (representing the 19 northern pueblos), which manages the school property, has no intention of leaving the tree-filled expanse as a welcome distraction to commuters.
SFR has obtained a document that suggests the council is well into the planning stages of a massive development project. At press time, the AIPC remained characteristically mum, with both its chairman and Indian School spokesman Gil Vigil declining to respond to inquiries. Although SFR cannot confirm the status of these plans, development experts whom SFR consulted regarding the overhead layout (pictured above) said the massing of buildings and the extensive parking indicate a mixed-use retail center, possibly anchored by a hotel with more than 40,000 square feet of additional, underground parking.
The school became controversial at city, state and federal levels following the rapid demolition of several buildings over a weekend in late July, in which it strategically removed the faces of the buildings first in order to neuter last ditch preservation efforts. At the time, many people argued the actions violated the National Historic Preservation Act. AIPC responded with a three-point argument: The buildings were unsafe and possibly contained asbestos; the buildings represented a period of painful oppression and forced assimilation; and, finally, the sovereign status of the pueblos meant it was nobody else's business what happened on the property.
A source close to the discussion at the state level (and regional Bureau of Indian Affairs thinking) says it is the guilt ploy—pointing to the history of oppression—that has thus far kept state and federal agencies at bay. Several potential violations related to the demolition, including the spectre of shortcutting proper asbestos remediation, could be investigated, but the State Historic Preservation Office, the BIA and other agencies opted to respect the pueblo council's stated reasoning and adopted a "wait and see approach," the source says.
Certainly a tangled trail of permissions, regulations and paperwork—some of it related to how the school's land was placed in trust for the 19 northern pueblos—and vagaries around the limits of "sovereignty" all contribute to hesitation about what, if any, action should be taken in response to the demolition. Indeed, there are open questions about whether a legitimate transfer of the property ever took place.
But if it turns out that the pueblo council claimed public safety and spiritual cleansing while it failed to disclose the added incentive of a significant for-profit development project, the BIA may become less forgiving.
The preservation-minded City of Santa Fe may also take umbrage, especially as it comprehends the full impact of a resource-intensive development, which would cause a significant boost in water consumption and traffic problems. Fiscally, retailers would presumably be exempt from paying gross receipts taxes and hotels from coughing up lodger's taxes.
There also are zoning issues. The precedent set by other entities not obliged to follow all the city's conventions, such as the county and the state, has been to at least respect city zoning and go through proper channels—including public input—in order to change zoning. The Indian School has previously been zoned residential but is slated to be regulated as public/institutional, a designation that does not allow for retail.
Certain indications on the document SFR obtained show the architectural firm planning the development is Studio Southwest Architects, the reincarnation of Design Collaborative Southwest. The firm changed its name after its former principal, Marc Schiff, was indicted in kickback scandals surrounding the $83 million Metro Court project in Albuquerque.
Studio Southwest Architects would not comment on its involvement but, tellingly, referred questions to the "19 northern."
Let's presume the pueblo council doesn't plan to respect the city's zoning and the city will sulk quietly rather than generate the spine to fight an ambush development like this. It then comes down to a face-off with the federal government. There is a provision in the Omnibus Indian Advancement Act of 2000 that limits land use on the Indian School property to "educational and cultural purposes," and there is strong language about reverting the property to the US government in the event of noncompliance.
New Mexico's pueblos absolutely should reap significant benefits from an economic model largely built around the romanticization of their culture. But the pueblo council has no good reason to not include the community—or respect its processes—in the course of doing so. Capitalism gets no free passes for spiritual fouls.
Now is the time for the AIPC to come forward and reveal its intentions for the Santa Fe Indian School. As it is, that splendid view is starting to look pretty underhanded and greedy.