In the long line of efforts to revamp the Midtown Campus, another proposal is on the table.
During Wednesday’s governing body meeting the city heard a presentation to establish a Metropolitan Redevelopment Area at the Midtown Campus. The designation would open more funding options to renovate the city-owned space and create a commission to plan the improvement of infrastructure around the former college campus.
To achieve that designation, the city would have to declare the Midtown Campus, and potentially spaces outside city property, as a “blighted” area.
The legal designation, city attorneys explained, includes a broad category of characteristics, describing part of a municipality that could benefit from economic improvement. Those characteristics can include deteriorating structures, lack of adequate housing facilities and defective street layout, among others.
Since the city acquired the Midtown Campus from the College of Santa Fe in 2009, the property has served a number of functions—most notably as the site of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. More recently the campus has served as a COVID-19 testing site, emergency housing and studio for film productions.
After a partnership of private developers pulled out of a plan to lead building on the site last year, the city aimed to oversee that effort in-house. In February, the City Council approved a resolution to take the next steps for the redevelopment of the Midtown Campus—though the measure left room for interpretation, calling for proposals and studies for the reuse and redevelopment of the property.
The resolution directed the city manager to make recommendations to the City Council, exploring the possibility of establishing an MRA.
Attorneys said Wednesday that among the benefits of establishing an MRA at Midtown campus are potential funding sources, including money from the Local Economic Development Act and anti-displacement funds for people affected by the plan. (The presentation didn’t indicate which, if any, residents would be displaced by such a plan.)
The proposal would also ensure the City Council maintains control of the redevelopment project, while maintaining community input as commission meetings would be open to the public.
The drawbacks include more bureaucracy. The commission established as part of the MRA designation would provide recommendation to the City Council, and therefore another layer of approval.
Santa Fe has used an MRA once before when developing the Railyard district, which lifted the burden of day-to-day responsibilities off the city’s shoulder while maintaining the municipality’s regulatory authority.
Albuquerque also used an MRA to develop the Sawmill Area into a mixed-use area of affordable housing and businesses.
The proposal for the Midtown Campus MRA outlined three potential areas to designate as blighted, some included areas outside of city owned property.
Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth took concern over the unsavory designation required to establish an MRA. She asked if designating a residential area as “blighted” would impact property values and ultimately result in the changes necessary to improve those neighborhoods.
“Can the neighborhood embrace it, in a sense, because they know we’ve identified it as lacking in some of these areas and it’s an opportunity to fix it, but does it actually get fixed?” she asked.
Marcos Martinez, a senior assistant city attorney, said he posed that question to Albuquerque. The city assured Martinez that the designation doesn’t “negatively or positively” impact property values. He added that the plan stemming from the MRA must address the problems causing blight.
Councilor Signe Lindell asked what other options that city has to move forward with the redevelopment of Midtown besides the MRA, noting “It seems like we got one choice here that we’re putting all of our effort into.”
Martinez said Santa Fe could always resume the Request for Expressions of Interest process which ultimately led to the termination of the city’s agreement with KDC/Cienda, the master developer hired by the city, in January 2021.
Martinez said the infrastructure problems were part of the reason the agreement with KDC/Cienda fell apart: “They began to identify many of the problems that were in that list of a blight designation as stumbling blocks before they were prepared to develop the properties.”
Martinez noted that the Midtown LINC Overlay was another attempt to spur development, which resulted in lackluster success.
Of the MRA, Assistant City Attorney Andrea Salazar said, “It gives us a diversity of options and a bunch of redevelopment tools we wouldn’t otherwise have.”
The master developer estimated the cost of redeveloping the Midtown Campus to be $30 million. The city approved $4.5 million in the fiscal year 2023 budget for Midtown Campus expenses, including the annual $1.7 million debt service—chipping away at the millions the city still owes for purchasing the property. Santa Fe spent $3.7 million on the campus in the fiscal year 2021.
To proceed with the MRA plan, the City Council would need to designate a region of Midtown as blighted via a resolution—the governing body took no actions on the matter on Wednesday.