Close your eyes and imagine walking down St. Michael's Drive.
"Trying to cross the street is terrifying," says Liza Caldwell Miller, a University of New Mexico student whose master's degree in planning includes a semester-long class on revitalizing St. Mike's. "If I had a kid at [De Vargas] Middle School, there's no way I'd let them cross the street," she says. "If we could make the place feel more safe, then it would encourage people to come out and start using this area more."
It's one aspect of what now amounts to nearly a decade of rethinking St. Mike's. This weekend, RE:MIKE—a project dedicated to dreaming up ways to revitalize the area—will transform the old bypass road into a bustling neighborhood full of temporary businesses, outdoor concerts, demonstration projects, art shows, film screenings, public yoga, a bike rodeo and a beer garden. In essence, it's a large-scale pop-up—a glimpse of what St. Michael's Drive could be.
"The idea behind the pop-up concept, in general, is that it's a way to temporarily demonstrate vibrancy," Daniel Werwath, who works with networking group MIX Santa Fe, which has a leading role in the RE:MIKE project, tells SFR. "It allows you to do things you might not otherwise be able to do because of people's fears or habits."
As any local can attest, St. Mike's isn't blighted, but it's not exactly where you're dying to live, either. Last month, MIX asked locals to name their favorite neighborhoods; the South Capitol area won for "trees and greenery; diverse and pretty architecture; walkability and bikeability to downtown." St. Mike's is missing nearly all of those elements.
Yet according to RE:MIKE organizers and city officials, St. Michael's Drive not only has a rich history as a social hub, but it's also ripe for revitalization.
"One of the reasons there's a strong opportunity here is that, unlike a lot of Santa Fe, St. Michael's Drive isn't really precious," says Zane Fischer, who works with local design and development firm Anagr.am and volunteers with MIX (and, full disclosure, is a former SFR columnist). "What seems to be important to people are the opportunity to have less expensive space to do business out here and a lot of the social aspects."
This weekend's event, then, is an attempt to start figuring out what locals want in St. Mike's.
"We don't even know completely what we're going to end up with," City Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger says. "Our No. 1 objective is to create excitement and energy and capture imagination."
St. Michael's Drive was built as a bypass road in the 1950s; it later grew into a local hangout, and then a thoroughfare dotted with strip malls and car dealerships.
This isn't the first time the city has sought to change it. According to consultant and former City Councilor Rosemary Romero, the effort to reclaim St. Mike's began in earnest in 2005 and 2006, in concert with efforts to revitalize the Triangle District—the triangle-shaped area between St. Michael's Drive, St. Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road. The city even staged a design competition to visualize new identities for St. Mike's—but then the recession hit, and the process stalled.
Still, Wurzburger stresses that the process of revitalizing St. Michael's Drive is "incremental." After starting with a top-down, master-planning approach, she says, questions arose about how to incorporate the city's desire to attract and retain young people. The answer, Wurzburger says, was "not [only] to do a plan or design guidelines that businesses can relate to, but…[also to] capture the imagination of the community, and particularly the younger community, around what St. Mike's could be."
But neither did that mean ignoring past planning efforts.
"We wanted to make sure that the work that had been done so far didn't—as sometimes happens in Santa Fe—get put on a shelf and not thought about for a while, or that in another few years…a consultant comes in and gets paid to rethink all of this stuff that's already been thought about," Fischer says.
What already existed were theoretical principles about how to improve St. Mike's (slower traffic, wider sidewalks, etc.). But for a more inclusive planning process, the city needed community input—something MIX, which surveys attendees each month (and rewards them with a free drink in return), already had experience collecting.
In a sense, the MIX model informed RE:MIKE—a sort of surveying-plus-networking event writ large. In addition to fun things like beer gardens and live music, this weekend's event will incorporate urban-planning talks and the grand opening of the RE:MIKE center, where adults and kids can envision a future St. Mike's by rearranging models of local buildings and streetscapes.
"We don't want to come in and prescribe something for the St. Michael's corridor that says, 'This is how you should do it,'" UNM planning student Nathaniel Feddes says. "We want feedback."
Thus, the RE:MIKE event: "a catalyst," Fischer says, to remind people of the past, but also to ask: "What's important here? What are the assets? What's missing, and what's the potential for the future?"
In the following months, Miller and Feddes, along with other students in UNM Assistant Prof. Moisés Gonzales' course in community and regional planning, will gather community input and devise ways for the city to help spur new development along St. Mike's, perhaps through business incentives or easing regulations.
"I think we built a good foundation in early 2006, but now the businesses need to ante up," Romero says. "It's about the people who want things to be different—and the businesses that need things to be different."
Other key stakeholders, such as the Santa Fe University of Art & Design, also have ideas.
"I would like to see that this is a center for youth in the city to engage and come together," SFUAD President Larry Hinz says. "When I look at the ability for this corridor to appeal to younger folks in town, I think it's got the best prospects of any [area] to fulfill that. And that's missing, I think, in Santa Fe." SFUAD students, in turn, can help make that happen.
"[In SFUAD students,] we already have a set of adventurous residents who will come out here as this location is evolving," UNM planning student Maria Lohmann explains. "If we can encourage them to start using this street before it's 100 percent the way we want it, then it will encourage the rest of the residents on the other sides of the street to come, too."
Planning can take decades, but Fischer says even small changes, such as tweaking city regulations to allow temporary businesses in vacant lots, can go a long way.
In other cities, "a few small decisions have resulted in big change," he says. "It's not like you have to say, 'OK, we're doing a giant redevelopment project!'"
Indeed, part of the point is to help St. Mike's come into its own.
"If you don't allow spaces and districts within cities to change and grow as the population changes and as the city changes, you start to get disinvestment," Feddes says. "St. Michael's Drive—right now, it's a drive. It's a street. But maybe soon we'll see it as a place, a destination."
Learn more at remikeable.com.
Santa Fe Reporter