Move Over

Former Ecoversity land is proposed home for apartments

Land that was once the legacy of an environmental philanthropist would be home to 400 apartments under a development proposal before the city of Santa Fe.

Whether that west side housing ever comes to fruition is almost not even the issue. For former students and teachers at Ecoversity, the news is the final proof of something they've known for years: Fiz' dream is off course. Maybe even dead.

Frances "Fiz" Harwood founded Ecoversity in 1999 and opened the 11-acre campus on the west side of Agua Fría Street near the Allsup's in 2001 as a place where the study and practice of sustainability could flourish. She died of lung cancer just two years later. But she left her affairs and control of her Prajna Foundation to Jeff Harbour.

In the following years, Ecoversity reached a peak of providing courses that even complied with credit programs certified by the state Public Education Department. By 2008, however, drama erupted, staff were gone, and Harbour and his small board of directors were publicly talking about moving away from a campus-based program. Today, with the sign long removed from its gate, Ecoversity is a website. And one that appears to not have been updated since 2011.

Harbour didn't return a request for comment on this story, yet documents filed with the city's Land Use Department show he approves of the proposal.

A trio of local developers from Tierra Concepts has assembled a roughly 16-acre area from a patchwork of landowners including Ecoversity and are seeking rezoning that would allow the housing before they finalize the whole purchase. They've already formally purchased about two acres that were formerly used as a dentist office.

Most of the land already has enough zoning to build 21 housing units per acre. But project partner Eric Faust says his brother Kurt and business partner Keith Gorges are aiming for a much more dense project comprised of small apartments that are affordable for young people with density of up to 29 units per acre.

The group already held a mandatory early neighborhood notification meeting about the proposal. The next step is a hearing before the city Planning Commission, which would issue a recommendation to the City Council for a vote no sooner than this spring.

A plan submitted to the city is plain about what's happening:

"The Ecoversity was less than successful, especially after the death of its founder...This is an opportunity to provide for housing for a young professional workforce in proximity to the downtown and the areas of major employment."

In an interview Tuesday with SFR, Faust says the partnership plans to own and operate the complex in the long term. They and Harbour "feel good" about the proposal, he says.

But they would do well to brace for a storm. Not only is the dense project proposed on the edge of the civically active Agua Fría Village, but former Ecoversity students also want to weigh in. Hundreds of people even signed a petition years ago seeking a grand jury investigation into Harbour's handling of the foundation, but the effort fell flat.

Cate Ashby, who first took classes at the campus and then worked there, heard the news via Facebook from her current home in California. She says the idea that the land has all but sold for "some ridiculous real estate development" is an outrage.

"That land is really, really wonderful. Now what was home to a thriving sustainable education community is a ghost town waiting to be turned into the opposite of what it once was," she says. "Ecoversity used to be a thing with people, and now it's two-dimensional, if that."

William Henry Mee, the president of the Agua Fría Village Association, says the project has a "good marketing plan," but area residents are likely to be unhappy about the potential for increased traffic and other issues.

"It's urban sprawl," he says, "There should be some kind of transition between heavy residential uses and rural uses. It's such a change from when you have the goats staring at you...It was this cute thing, and now 400 apartments and 40-foot buildings is a big change. It's just such a radical proposal."

Faust says his partners are willing to undergo the review process to try to accomplish their goals.

"It's in the big if stage," Faust says, adding later, "This project will be telling in the sense of whether the political will is there to be more progressive."

Note: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong first name for Keith Gorges.

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