Santa Fe City Council voted 6-3 on Wednesday to award a $75,000 year-long contract to U3 Advisors, a consulting company based on the East Coast, to manage civic engagement for the development of the Midtown Campus.
But at least one councilor questioned whether a large national company with little understanding of the cultural complexities and history of Santa Fe will be able to engage in genuine collaboration with diverse communities surrounding the campus and make residents feel that their concerns are getting heard.
Councilor Renee Villarreal said the search for proposals was limited, noting that the city did not send the request out to the New Mexico Association of Planners, whose members include "most planners in the field who work around community engagement" locally including Albuquerque based firms.
The consulting firm is tasked with understanding the demographics, the historical values and the cultural assets that make Santa Fe unique and collaborating with stakeholders such as advocacy groups and neighborhoods residents to create a "community-oriented" policy goals and a plan for continued engagement in the future.
Villarreal worried that's a tall order.
"I really think that local community partners make sense and I have consternation that an outside group with very limited time to be able to facilitate a community engagement process where they could do that kind of work and really understand," said Villarreal. "What tends to happen is outside groups come in needing to understand and learn in a very short period of time and what happens is they tend to extract information from us instead of working hand in hand."
Villarreal, who represents the northside District 1, was joined by Southside councilors Chris Rivera and Roman "Tiger" Abeyta, both of District 3, in voting against the contract.
This concern rubs at a sore spot from the city's community engagement process that took place last year.
City attempts in the spring of 2018 to gather public feedback about how to redevelop the campus garnered scrutiny from many community groups who felt that the city did not do enough to seek out enough diversity among respondents. As SFR reported at the time, the majority of ideas for the future of the campus were submitted by residents who were white and middle-aged or older, demographics that do not accurately reflect either the neighborhoods around Midtown or the previous use of the site as a college campus.
City Economic Development and Communication Administrator Liz Camacho tells SFR the coming engagement process will incorporate work that is already being done by community groups as well as creating new opportunities for input that will inform decisions about development, among other things.
Part of this job, as stated in the contract, is to present the city with specific recommendations for avoiding gentrification of the neighborhood as a result of the development . This includes policies "to mitigate unintended consequences of growth and development … For example policies and programs that facilitate community and neighborhood stabilization, preservation, and enhancement without displacement."
The city is in the process of soliciting Requests For Expressions of Interest (RFEI's) from businesses, developers, nonprofits and others who would like to contribute to what the future Midtown District could look like.
At least 140 interested parties attended public tours of the campus over the weekend of Sept. 6 -9, a city spokeswoman tells SFR. This isn't yet a request for formal proposals, but it's the first step in narrowing down possibilities for what kinds of development proposals the city will ask for in the future.
Camacho says the civic engagement team will help "gather metrics to create criteria for the evaluations of expressions of interest," and assures SFR that diversity and collaboration as metric for success.
U3 Advisors proposal stood out among the four proposals submitted because they had urban planners on their team, have ample experience working with projects of the size and scale of the Midtown Project, and have worked on education campuses, says Camacho.
The bulk of the projects conducted by U3 Advisors are on university campuses including the University of Arizona, and Columbia University, but the company also has some experience withurban planning work at a city-district level. The company has offices in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Detroit.