Making Midtown

An update on the latest attempt for the former Santa Fe University of Art and Design campus to pop again

What is now being referred to as the Midtown Property has had more than one name and more than one purpose over the past decade. At various points an army hospital, a Catholic high school and the College of Santa Fe, what has most recently been the Santa Fe University of Art and Design has had a fraught history. The city bought the land in 2009 to try to keep it in use as a school, then SFUAD pulled up stakes in 2018. The city is still paying off the resulting debt, although a refinance effort that would potentially save the city millions is working its way through the approval process.

Now, officials are taking another shot at making the property into something Santa Fe can be proud of once more.

The city has issued its first request for proposals (RFPs), a step toward its goal of turning the former university campus into a kind of creative-class destination. It would, if reality matches the project leaders' hopes, address more than one of Santa Fe's biggest issues—housing, employment and youth retainment among them.

Daniel Hernandez, a consultant with Proyecto, LLC, was hired in February to manage the project. Though he was formerly based in New York, he recently moved to Santa Barbara, California, to be closer to his parents. He mentions another city in that state, San Francisco, with its sky-high cost of living and rampant gentrification, as a cautionary tale. The goal is to build a new community gathering place for everyone in Santa Fe.

"Oftentimes cities, they choose the wrong team and the wrong developers," Hernandez says. "We are committed to a range of housing types and a range of housing affordabilities."

Planners envision residential development, retail storefronts that fit the vibe of a former art school, educational facilities and studios that create a feeling of activity without becoming a playground for just the rich.

The RFP issued on April 21 is intended to find a firm to provide urban planning and economic impact services. Whomever the city's staff selects will be expected to run scenarios that would determine how much of the development area should be used for housing, business or educational purposes. Proposals are due on May 22; after staff evaluate and choose a vendor, City Council would get to vote on the contract.

"You run different scenarios then look at them and analyze those scenarios and their cost and their impact and their benefits, as a process to identify the optimal scenarios," city Economic Development Director Matt Brown tells SFR.

It's the first step in moving the property from a vision to a fully-functioning development.

Hernandez says some expect to break ground beginning a year from this coming fall, although some elements of the project will take longer than others, and it will be an ongoing effort to make the real world match the vision. There are about 32 buildings that are good candidates for re-purposing, as well as "significant open space" for redevelopment, according to the RFP.

"It'll happen; it will. This administration, [Mayor Alan Webber] chose me, we'll choose the right developers," says Hernandez, a Harvard Loeb Fellow who once worked for the Bill De Blasio administration in New York City. "There's a level of trust that citizens have to have at the very beginning of this." 

Ensuring that the campus, which has historically felt a degree of separation from the city, is better integrated into the community without displacing nearby residents is another major area of consideration, according to Brown.

"I fully expect and hope that the investment and redevelopment that happens there will lift communities that have been underserved historically," Brown tells SFR, "… as well as strengthen the cultures of the neighborhoods of surrounding properties too. I know there's a lot of concern about displacement and gentrification issues, so were doing our best to be very sensitive about that and work on policies so that it's not just an island that gets strong, it's an entire community that gets stronger as a byproduct of investment."

A second RFP, which Brown says will be issued soon, will procure a civic engagement team to fully engage the community in the development process.

For at least one former SFUAD student who still lives in Santa Fe, the renewed plan for his old campus is welcome. After all, the school began to lose its identity and transform into something else before the last classes ever concluded.

"You know, I think it would have been harder if it had happened really suddenly, but we were kind of already used to that, you know what I mean?" Alexis Rezeles, a 2018 graduate of SFUAD, tells SFR. "We were still in school when one of the main buildings, the cafeteria, was turned into a rehab center."

For that reason, he welcomes development.

"It's not as hard to digest because you were kind of in this space where it didn't even feel like a school," Rezeles says. "I would much rather see that space getting taken up and used rather than it being absolutely abandoned."

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