Flyover Country

Airport Road might see zoning redo as residents, business owners say the area isn’t serving them

Helen Chavez locks her front gate beneath a full moon and a chilly wind, then quickly bustles into the mobile home where she has lived for decades on Santa Fe's Southside, just off Airport Road.

Her home—small, but clean and comfortable— backs up to a narrow road and an empty lot. Chavez has fought, fiercely at times, to keep the swath of land from becoming a mobile home park like the one she lives in.

Like other residents and some business owners along Airport Road, she is concerned the area doesn't receive enough resources and thoughtful consideration from the City Council.

Today, Airport's 3-mile, four-lane artery slices between multiple trailer parks and apartment buildings, storage units, a mix of industrial businesses and a few scattered restaurants, as well as an outsized proportion of the city's fast food joints and stretches of empty land. This is Santa Fe's version of flyover country.

Chavez, who was born and raised in Santa Fe, doesn't think enough development decisions for Airport Road are being made by people who live there and fully understand the issues.

She says city officials are out of touch.

"I remember Airport Road when it was a dirt road," Chavez tells SFR in her living room. "There was hardly any stores, any buildings. The city has really destroyed it."

But District 3 Councilors Chris Rivera and Roman "Tiger" Abeyta tell SFR they want to update the Airport Road Overlay District, zoning rules the city first adopted in 2012 that dictate what types of businesses and dwellings can be built—and what can't.

As Rivera and Abeyta consider changes, they contend with a push and pull between residents, business owners and city employees about what it means to improve access to food, entertainment and jobs in the area.

This conversation has deep roots.

Annexing in the Southside

The tension has been present since the city first began annexing sections of the area in the 1990s. As homes and businesses became part of the city limits, many hoped for better services than they got when the Airport Road area was under Santa Fe County's jurisdiction.

But some areas remain overlooked.

Miguel Acosta, executive director of EarthCare, a local nonprofit that operates on the Southside, says residents have faced inequality since long before he arrived 12 years ago.

"City councilors weren't interested because it wasn't the city," Acosta tells SFR. "And the county, well, they had other issues more important. And they kept saying, 'The city is going to annex it, they should start giving it services.' [Airport Road is] like one of those foster kids that nobody wanted. It just kept getting bounced around and ignored, basically."

A mass annexation that resulted from a lawsuit around 2008 brought in the remaining checkerboard land around Airport Road. And in 2012, former District 3 Councilor Carmichael Dominguez began the conversation anew around equality for Airport Road when, with help from Rivera and the community, they designed the Airport Road Overlay District and held listening sessions.

The plan was meant to allow for the creation of a place that, despite widespread poverty and a plethora of empty land, would not become inundated with the typical trappings of low-income areas: fast food restaurants, liquor stores, unattractive architecture and a lack of green space.

While Dominguez is happy with some aspects of 2019's Airport Road, he sees the gaps: a grocery store, more fitness centers and medical services, a wider variety of restaurants and places to socialize. If bringing more amenities like that to Airport Road requires an overlay amendment, Dominguez is pleased that the city is taking the area more seriously.

"In the past it was difficult until we were able to annex that area and have a little bit more control over the future, the development of it," Dominguez says.

Still, the inequality shows up in all aspects of life on the Southside, according to Dominguez.

"When we look at equity in our public schools, that has something to do with it as well, because public schools in other parts of the community are doing well," Dominguez says. "It's not that their teachers and students are working harder than any other teacher or any other student in the district. But they have quality of life services that don't exist in the Southside, like museums, an abundance of nonprofit organizations providing everything from childcare to yoga."

Dominguez hopes the district's councilors will come up with an "equity formula" under which city officials funnel money back into the Southside at a rate that reflects how much its residents spend citywide. Dominguez says that while the Southside has low-income areas, it is also the fastest-growing area with the most young families looking for a variety of services. He also wants to see more community-focused nonprofits in the area.

At this point, District 3 councilors do not have a plan for what changes they might encourage along Airport Road, but Rivera tells SFR one idea is to increase incentives for developers to buy and build there.

Abeyta, elected to the governing body in 2018, points to a proposal he saw about two years ago when he was on the city Planning Commission.

"There was a development that came forward and it was another storage unit proposal and we asked the question at the time, 'Why are we only seeing storage unit proposals on Airport Road?'" he recalls. "We were told by the representative of the developer that in the overlay district, this is really the only thing that fits, given … the rules and regulations. That raised a flag with me that maybe we need to take a look at that."

Airport Road’s Needs

Residents and business owners who live on and use Airport Road are not seeing many of the amenities and development that they want and need. And much of the land bordering the road remains vacant.

According to the Santa Fe County assessor's online map, of the empty lots that are undeveloped bordering both sides of Airport Road, one is zoned commercial-industrial, six are residential and 22 lots are set for retail—comprising about 70 acres in total.

What is developed includes an overabundance of dollar stores, Allsup's, strip-mall shopping centers and fast food restaurants—or mobile home parks—along with at least eight different self-storage businesses on or just off Airport Road.

Rick Berardinelli owns 4231 Airport Road, an empty 1.4-acre lot on which he hoped to build a chapel as an addition to his funeral service business. Instead, he's had the land west of Lopez Lane on and off the market for 10 years—with almost no bites. He tells SFR that it's zoned commercial but doesn't allow any retail sales. A median the city added at some point forces drivers to take a u-turn if they want to turn left to exit. Those are among reasons he says no one is interested in building on the property.

Since it's not currently a desirable lot, Berardinelli considered talking to the city to see "if the city would be willing to trade that property with something I could do, something with commercial or sell it and use that lot as as city property that is basically like an entrance into the south end of town. Some kind of a little park or something like that. I'd love to see the city take an interest in doing that to acknowledge that part of our community."

City staff affirm building on the empty lots has been moving slowly.

"I think that some of the zoning along Airport Road and the size of the lots may contribute to that," says Noah Berke, planner manager for the city's Land Use Department. "I think the cost of land is very expensive. The overlay itself, if you build abutting Airport Road, there's a series of standards you have to meet, including landscaping, parking requirements … architecture requirements, circulation requirements."

Those requirements, combined with the lower rent ceiling on the Southside, could be scaring developers away from the area. Building on the Southside costs just as much as other places in the city, but landlords have to charge less to attract potential tenants.

Colin Keegan, owner of Santa Fe Spirits, a distillery set back off of Airport Road just east of NM 599, tells SFR he recently built an adjacent warehouse that came with an extra $35,000 cost for landscaping that meets the city's requirements.

"It's just as expensive down here to build because it's in the city," says Keegan. "The blanket statements that work on one side of town don't necessarily work on the other. … Here on Airport Road, I just think there needs to be a review of how we can help people grow. Maybe some of the same kind of attention given to that Midtown campus."

Acosta, whose nonprofit EarthCare is surveying Southsiders to get input for the planned teen center next to Zona del Sol on Jaguar Drive south of Airport, tells SFR that so far the main asks for developing in the area are from young families, many of whom can't afford to live even in the available affordable housing planned for Tierra Contenta's third phase.

"[There is a] need to have things here that can guarantee them some kind of quality-of-life future," Acosta says. "They're looking for jobs. They're looking for affordable, dignified housing, not projects. And they're looking for entertainment."

Acosta hopes a piece of empty land at the intersection of Airport Road and South Meadows Road, which is zoned commercial, could become a source for fresh food as well as a gathering place for Southsiders.

While Acosta says the landowner talked to residents about placing apartments and a drive-thru restaurant there, the city Office of Economic Development says the realtor who owns the property is trying to get a Smith's grocery store interested in the lot.

Affordable for Some

Building in the Tierra Contenta neighborhood started in 1995 on 1,400 acres the city owned and turned over for housing.

"Because it's a planned community, hopefully if there's more housing that goes in that phase, that would relieve some of the pressure to put housing in those big vacant lots along Airport Road instead of commercial or community uses," Acosta says.

While Tierra Contenta paved the way for important services like the Southside Library, the Santa Fe Business Incubator and more restaurants on the Southside, the development hasn't connected with some of the lowest-income Santa Feans.

Housing has lagged behind.

So far, the project's two phases have produced 2,691 dwellings. The long-term plan is for about 3,800 houses and apartments, 40% of which are required to be sold or rented as affordable housing.

It also hasn't fully integrated with its neighbor, Airport Road.

Marie Longserre, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Business Incubator, which was started in 1997 as a city-funded project and part of Tierra Contenta's master plan, hopes that Tierra Contenta and Airport Road will start to affect each other more.

"I hope that over time this community and this area, Airport Road, is not simply seen as a suburb with a few tech-and-trades kind of businesses, but that it fully serves the needs of the community," Longserre says. "It should be seen as holistically part of all of the broader community."

But at a recent Tierra Contenta community meeting in the Southside Library, residents expressed concern that even the development's so-called affordable housing units are not accessible to the lowest tier of earners in Santa Fe.

Just under half of the homes in its first two phases and 63% of the apartments are labeled affordable. That's why the number of affordable units in Phase 3 will be lower, since developers have already "overachieved" the 40% requirement, says Justin Robison, executive director of the Santa Fe Housing Trust.

Defining what's technically "affordable" relies on calculations using the area median income identified by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which considers a family's joint income as well as the number of people in the household. That means the lowest earners in Santa Fe will not qualify for affordable housing to buy a home but may be able to qualify to rent an apartment—depending on if there are any available.

"We expect the most affordable three-bedroom home to cost approximately $230,000 in Phase 3 and the lowest possible rent for an efficiency apartment will be a little more that $360 month with utilities included," Robison tells SFR via email. "Some people will not qualify for a mortgage at the most affordable price because their income is too low. "

Planned Opportunity

Another piece of the future puzzle is proximity to one of the five Federal Opportunity Zones in Santa Fe—a triangle-shaped space between Airport Road, Jaguar Drive and Cerrillos Road.

The zones are places identified by the feds in which private sector investors can park their money with certain incentives. Developers build projects that are dedicated to improving blight and financial backers get tax breaks.

The city's Office of Economic Develo-pment says it aims to get buy-in for the zones, yet there's no clear plan. The office also acknowledges Airport Road's needs and has begun outreach efforts.

Staff hosted a recent listening session with the mayor at Dona Clara's restaurant with a Spanish translator as well as a workshop in Spanish at Zona del Sol to help Santa Feans with legal and financial questions about opening or running a business.

Liz Camacho, who works to support entrepreneurship in the immigrant community for the office, says she thinks there's an opportunity to create a "destination" with the corridor on Airport Road that has a cluster of Mexican restaurants.

"That's not where we're starting," Camacho says. "That's a long term goal. But at the moment we've started by reaching out to see what the concerns are."

Rich Brown, director of the Office of Economic Development, tells SFR he looks at the area as "an opportunity to address the food desert" by putting in another shopping center. The office is also looking at the market for "shovel-ready projects" such as a small parcel of land for which they will put out a request for housing proposals at the beginning of the year.

For now, Airport Road remains as it is—half-developed and still dotted with both empty lots and hopeful businesses.

"There's people out there," says Dominguez, the former city councilor. "They're not just numbers and demographics. They're real people who have feelings and have their struggles in life and enjoy life … earn an honest living. I don't think that there's just one formula to it. I think that if you come up with one formula or one idea that works today, in five years it might change."

What else is happening on Airport Road?

• The park next to the old Eberline facility will see no changes for now. Santa Fe County purchased the 22 acres north and east of the former radiation detection equipment plant in 2001 under the Open Space and Trails Program. Since the surrounding land's annexation, the county has not moved forward with the plans, and the property remains vacant.

• The Santa Fe Regional Airport has a major expansion coming and many in the Southside community hope it will lead to new jobs for people living in the area. District 3 Councilor Roman "Tiger" Abeyta tells SFR he hopes "with the expansion of the airport that there would be some outreach to the community college and Capital High School, specifically for different jobs and training that's related directly to airports." The new entrance to the airport will also likely be moved to where Jaguar Road terminates at NM 599.

• According to its Office of Economic Development, the city wants to start up a US Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields Program in order to clean up contaminated sites along Airport Road to prepare them for development. The EPA would provide small amounts of seed money to the city or state in order to clean up and develop land.

• The third and final phase of Tierra Contenta is gearing up for construction. The coming housing units will be built on 227 acres with a possibility of 1,175 dwellings. Included in the plans are an elementary school (if the school district decides to build), trails, multiple green spaces, and room for a "smaller scale" version of Genoveva Chavez Community Center. Construction on the homes is expected to start in 2022.

• JourneySantaFe presents an ongoing discussion 11 am Sunday at Collected Works, 202 Galisteo St. on the role that resident testimonials can play in ensuring the culture and policymaking of Santa Fe is responsive to needs and dreams, with a special focus on policy-making and residents from Santa Fe's Airport Road corridor.

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