A Creative Boost

Santa Fe City Council discusses handing off 5 acres for affordable housing for artists

City councilors have apparently privately pledged to use city-owned land on Siler Road for an affordable housing artist complex and now await more details on what the project will entail.

The governing body talked about the deal during a closed-door, late-night executive session on July 29 and then voted in the empty City Council chambers to take action on whatever they agreed on during that meeting.

Cyndi Conn, Creative Santa Fe's executive director, says officials gave her permission to proceed with an environmental assessment, preliminary engineering work and conceptual designs for the proposed "Arts + Creativity Center." Project partners plan to keep working on the idea and return to City Council in October with a more precise estimate for how much public land the project needs.

Early concepts say it would occupy somewhere close to 5 acres of a 20-acre parcel on Siler Road near Agua Fría Street. The city also met with project planners today to go over the details for moving forward with an application for the tax credits expected to carry much of the $12 million to $14 million cost of building the center.

The Arts + Creativity Center project is an effort to chip away at the city's short supply of affordable housing and commercial space and create a facility to foster artists. Of 70 units, 60 would be rented at a price affordable to those making the current Santa Fe Living Wage, $10.84 an hour, and who have an annual income that is 30 percent to 60 percent of the area's median annual income of $50,000. Livable space would be combined with studio space, exhibition space and commercial retail space.

The search for an architect for the development could begin in the next few weeks, according to Daniel Werwath, a developer and chief operating officer with New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing. The City of Santa Fe, Inter-Faith Housing and Creative Santa Fe plan to jointly oversee the project, which is expected to include shared spaces to house workshops, studios, micro-retail shops, and rehearsal space.

"It's not just an affordable housing project, but it's also an economic development project, so you're not only supplying affordable housing for artists and creative people, but you're also giving them the skills and training and that leg up they need in order to be sustainable in their careers as entrepreneurs and small businesspeople," says Conn.

The Department of Cultural Affairs sponsored a statewide study by the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research that found that 1 in 18 jobs in the state come from arts and cultural industries. If cultural tourism, arts and cultural education and other industries linked to arts and culture are included, the number jumps to 1 in 10 jobs, more than construction and manufacturing combined. That study also found a "persistent" gap in terms of the supportive infrastructure for artists, including health care services, affordable housing, tax benefits and compensation policies, among other safety nets, and that freelancers run short in opportunities for services from high-speed Internet to financial advice and retirement support.

Mayor Javier Gonzales previously has been vocal about the need to support the arts industry, which he says provides primary employment for 1 in 10 people in Santa Fe, and to nurture artists, naming this specific project as one the city hopes to help drive to completion.

"Every day, I talk to Santa Feans with exciting new ideas for cultural programs. Sometimes all these groups need is a little help getting started," Gonzales said in his 2015 State of the City address. In addition to asking the Arts Commission to develop programming that would support new markets, events and collaborations that would "build the Santa Fe arts brand," he said that the city was "getting serious about making Santa Fe an easier place for artists to live and work."

To that end, he said, the City Council would be partnering with Creative Santa Fe to make the Arts + Creativity Center a reality. The center may price spaces as low as $500 a month for people making well below a full-time living wage, in hopes of addressing what's seen as a major gap for below-market housing.

The National Endowment for the Arts' Our Town program recently announced that Creative Santa Fe will receive a $150,000 grant to go toward the design fees and community engagement for the affordable live-work space for artists. An event series with groups that may include After Hours Alliance, MIX, Make Santa Fe and Meow Wolf may follow as well.

"I hope that this NEA grant can be leveraged into some bigger community visions," Werwath says, "using this project as a catalyst to think about some bigger issues and some bigger forward-thinking for the community to address some issues about housing and economic opportunity."

The Siler Road area has seen some recent additions that diversify the existing industrial character of the neighborhood, including Duel Brewing, a second location for Java Joe's and Fresh Santa Fe, a public multimedia space that launched in June with a performance by artist and activist Jil Love. The area now houses Wise Fool New Mexico and Teatro Paraguas, as well as some underground music venues and in-home studios. The location was selected after a year and a half looking at sites throughout the city, Conn says, in a search for the right mix of the required qualities for low-income housing tax credits and a "catalytic area" the project could fuel.

"There are so many great groups that are in that area already," Conn says. "We felt like this was really doing something in a neighborhood that already naturally was growing that direction and was a really good anchor project to support that district."

The proposed site housed the city's sewage treatment facility until the 1980s.

"That's why we're funding all of this environmental assessment work right now. We want to make sure that if there's any contamination at all, it's stuff that we can mitigate through a cleanup process and make sure that we can get a good clean site," Werwath says.

Assuming all goes well with that assessment and they're able to put in an application to the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority for low-income tax credits this year, Werwath says, people could be moving into housing there as early as summer 2017. A city contribution of cash, land and/or fee waivers of 10 percent of the total project cost, or up to $1.4 million in this case, is "critical" for qualifying for a low-income housing tax credit.

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