Few aspects of life in Santa Fe remain untouched by the impacts of COVID-19. A plan to revamp Midtown Campus, a 64-acre, city-owned property near the intersection of St. Michaels Drive and Cerrillos Road hangs in the balance among them.
Yet, Dallas-based master developers KDC/Cienda are still assessing the site and drafting a plan.
Over the summer the developers introduced their team of local partners in a series of online presentations, which spanned a broad vision of a new cultural, economic and educational hub in the geographic center of Santa Fe they say would benefit everyone.
Yet for many Santa Feans who have lived through cycles of high hopes and promises for the campus followed by mediocrity and mounting financial woes for the city, the sales pitch falls flat.
Even more disconcerting for some is the idea that the redevelopment might actually succeed, pushing out the area's diverse communities who can no longer afford to live there and creating another largely white, gentrified, cookie-cutter version of Santa Fe.
In the wake of COVID-19, who will be able to afford to live, work and shop at Midtown?
The development plan is in the works, so at this point it's still just a patchwork of overlapping dreams of what the campus could be, backed by an impressive lineup of Santa Fe movers and shakers.
There are basic infrastructure challenges that need to be solved first. Developers and the city still must figure out who will maintain control of what and how much money will change hands. No one's talking yet, for example, about whether new water rights must be purchased. The broadband infrastructure needed for high-speed internet to support the tech and media enterprises they want to build "barely exists," according to Bill Guthrey, vice president of KDC.
But some pieces of the proposal are on the fast track toward breaking ground, and the development team seems to be on the verge of announcing more concrete plans on a few projects. The city is negotiating an agreement with a University of New Mexico group for another round of public input, and several local organizations tell SFR they are getting ready to publicize their own projects related to Midtown.
As we all wait for the action to start, it's the perfect time to get caught up on what's being proposed, who's involved, and what's at stake for Santa Fe residents.
The team of local partners spent about 15 hours on YouTube describing their fantasy for what the campus could become. We watched it all and present some highlights below, as well as interviews with people who live in the area.
The Midtown Campus has been many things—most recently a series of failed educational experiments.
The Christian Brothers bought the land from the government in 1947 and founded St. Michael's College among converted army barracks. In the 1960s the college changed its name to the College of Santa Fe and began to flourish—fueled by young men evading the Vietnam War draft by going to school. With over 1,000 students, the school saw its highest-ever enrollment but fell into financial difficulties when the war ended.
As the city's arts reputation grew in the 1980's, the College of Santa Fe shifted its focus in the same direction and attracted wealthy donors such as actress Greer Garson and her husband Buddy Fogelson, after whom the Garson Theatre, Garson Studios and Fogelson Library are named. The Santa Fe Art Institute opened on campus in 1985. Yet, the college continued to struggle financially throughout the 1990s and finally went under in 2009.
At that point the city purchased the campus and signed a 26-year lease with a for-profit educational company that founded the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
The university closed in 2017 amid lawsuits alleging the company never intended to fulfill the terms of the contract. It stopped making lease payments and the city took over the property in 2018. As the months tick by, the city's $2.2 million annual debt payments continue to add up (by the time the debt is paid it will amount to $39 million), and public demands for community participation adds to the pressure to get it right.
Officials adopted new zoning rules allowing for more density along the St. Michael's corridor, and last summer the city put out a call for Midtown Campus proposals from master developers. This May, after months spent narrowing the pool of 21 proposals, the city entered a 12-month exclusive negotiations agreement with KDC/Cienda that could be extended to 16 months as the developers assess the campus and prepare a plan. The city will decide whether to sell or lease the property to the developers as part of the final agreement.
Midtown Campus is currently home to a temporary COVID-19 emergency shelter, the Santa Fe Recovery Center, the Santa Fe Art Institute, Garson Studios film production company and a police substation. A movie theater leased by the Center for Contemporary Arts is shuttered due to public health orders.
One of the most concrete proposals for the campus thus far is an increase in film production capacity. At the first in a series of online presentations, representatives of the film industry painted a picture of massive new production facilities at the campus bringing thousands of new jobs to the city and the industry flourishing amid a host of fledgling startups and incubators exploring the latest developments in media technology.
The local partner leading the charge on this front is Pacifica Ventures—the company that put New Mexico on the map as a film production destination of the 21st century.
Pacifica Ventures is responsible for some mega success stories of film and television created at the Albuquerque Studios that include Breaking Bad, The Avengers and True Grit.
The film production company wants to take over the building used by Garson Studios and expand it to include six new sound stages. The proposal might be one of the first projects to get off the ground because it would likely be among the quickest ways to start turning a profit on the property while other projects are still being figured out.
"Once we get the go ahead, we can be in business in less than a year," said Hal Katersky, chairman and CFO of Pacifica Ventures, noting on YouTube that global demand for state-of-the-art sound stages has rarely been higher.
"The amount of work is insatiable, the demand for sound stages and for trained people to work in them is unlimited right now, and these are high paying jobs," he said.
Education and Employment
Santa Fe Community College, the Santa Fe Higher Education Center and University of New Mexico plan to collaborate on the campus to provide new educational opportunities leading straight into careers in the medical and film industries, among others.
Santa Fe Community College hopes to create a film education program in which the school would offer technical programs and two-year associates degrees in film production to train professional crews for the industry, SFCC president Becky Rowley tells SFR. The school would work with UNM so that students who complete the SFCC program could transfer to the university system to learn in screenwriting, set design or directing to complete a four-year degree.
This is essentially the structure that already exists at the Santa Fe Higher Education Center, which opened adjacent to the campus in 2015 and provides a pathway for Santa Fe students to earn bachelors and masters degrees through collaborations with New Mexico universities.
Rowley hopes to expand the dual credit film program for high school students, and partner with Christus St. Vincent to expand the licensed practical nursing program SFCC offers for Capital High students and add training programs for jobs such as surgical technicians.
Tim Castillo, an architecture and digital media professor at UNM, introduced the university's plan to create a new innovation incubator called "The Aquifer," which he described as a "center for art, design and innovation" in gaming, artificial intelligence, digital fabrication, robotics and environmental visualization. The center could also offer courses or degree programs in art, design, film and historic preservation, as well as offer internships for students who want to work with tech startups or film productions located on the campus.
The Built Environment
The development team has mused about its dreams for creating a space that is welcoming to a diverse group of people. They imagine a place where someone can live and work and take their kid to daycare, all within walking distance.
KDC/Cienda partners have joined forces with Yes Housing, a company whose mission is to provide affordable housing projects to New Mexicans across the state; Homewise, a local organization that helps finance homes for lower to middle income homebuyers in Santa Fe; and The Aberg Group, a property company behind market rate apartment complexes at the Railyard Flats and Capital Flats, a new development being built on Cordova Road between Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive.
Mike Loftin, director of Homewise, said the intention for housing at the Midtown campus is to include options for buyers and renters at different income levels on site. Loftin said he hopes affordable housing will exceed the city's mandate of 20%—though he said he can't make any promises until the assessment of the campus and existing buildings is complete.
"We are not just talking about housing here we are really trying to create a community and a neighborhood that is beneficial to everyone," he said.
Erin English, a senior engineer with design firm Biohabitats, said the company will help design sustainable infrastructure, such as rain water harvesting and recycling systems.
"We know we have some other looming crises, beyond the pandemic in terms of climate change and what that might do to our water cycle and watershed," she said, "and so Midtown becomes the place for Santa Fe to pilot and innovate and collaborate on what it means to future proof ourselves in terms of climate resilience and adaptation around water."
There is more at stake at Midtown than simply whether the developers will be able to pull off everything they've promised or leave the city once again to wallow in debt.
A demographic map shows that Santa Fe is a fairly segregated city. Though the population is nearly equal parts Hispanic and white, the American Community Survey data from 2018 shows a stark divide between the historic neighborhoods to the north that were gentrified decades ago—where the average age is over 60, the median income ranges from $60,000 to well over $100,000, and the population is roughly 75% white—and the quickly growing neighborhoods along Airport Road, where the population is about 80% Hispanic, the average age is 30 and the median household income is between $50,000 and $70,000.
In between lies Midtown Campus.
Over the last few months, the development team has offered a vision of a cultural hub bursting with jobs and educational opportunities for locals; with bus routes that will make it easily accessible and open to the rest of the city, a design to connect people from different backgrounds living and working onsite and celebrate Santa Fe's cultural heritage and diversity through public art.
But if done wrong, the development could instead add momentum to the cultural and economic pressures that have pushed Santa Fe's old Hispanic families further and further from downtown.
At its most basic definition, gentrification is what happens when higher wage earners start moving into a lower-income neighborhood, pricing the original inhabitants out through rent hikes and increasing property taxes, followed by new businesses that cater to the needs and tastes of higher earners rather than the people who already live there.
Often there is a racial component to this process: The affluent newcomers are frequently white, and the displaced are communities of color.
There's one neighborhood in particular that has both more to gain and is at greater risk of gentrification than any other from the development of Midtown. Separated from the campus by St. Michael's Drive, the Hopewell-Mann neighborhood median household income is $36,000, and 65% of residents are Hispanic. In 2009 the neighborhood was 72% Hispanic and the median household income was $21,000–the lowest in the city.
On the Southside, public investments and amenities such as parks, bike lanes and grocery stores may be spread thin, but 60% of homes are owner-occupied and residents enjoy a fair degree of stability. In Hopewell-Mann, half of residents are housing-insecure, meaning they spend more than a third of their income on housing costs.
The vast majority are renters.
"I think that any time you have this level of development, particularly on this scale, right across the street from one of the most disinvested and vulnerable neighborhoods to displacement, it's going to increase the displacement pressures on the neighborhood and likely result in gentrification," says Tomás Rivera, executive director of the Chainbreaker Collective, a local community group that published a study identifying Hopewell-Mann as one of the most vulnerable neighborhoods to gentrification in the city.
"Our top concern is not just the end result at Midtown, but making sure the process by which it gets created is done in a way that is mindful of protecting the surrounding neighborhoods against displacement pressures," Rivera says.
The web of narrow streets lined with a mix of stick-built homes, mobile homes and traditional adobe sits insulated from the rest of the city by three major thoroughfares with St. Mike's to the south, Cerrillos to the north, and St. Francis to the west. Closer to the campus, single-family residences give way to rows of apartment complexes followed by car dealerships and auto shops. On the west side along the train tracks, old warehouses have been converted to modern loft apartments and studios above pricy cafes, gyms and boutiques—signs of a slowly encroaching wave of white wealth.
Residents offer guarded responses about the new development when SFR asks. Many are unclear about what the plans are or offer skepticism born from a few decades of watching people come in with big ideas only to see them fizzle.
People raise a laundry-list of concerns—one man worries upscale apartments will bring more cops to "protect all their new shiny toys from los barrios"—while a woman in another neighborhood to the west of the campus worries new traffic from the development will bring "unsafe people into our quiet and peaceful streets."
Sitting in his yard talking to a neighbor, Harold Garcia says he's worried the development will impact the supply and price of water, cynically joking, "Are they going to bring their own water with them from Texas or what?"
Garcia has lived in the same house for 52 years. He's skeptical that the new development could benefit locals, and mostly, it comes down to jobs. "Who are they going to hire? In this town I can find you a sombrero, a tamale, whatever you want. But a job?" he shakes his head. "I can tell you none of the local people will be the contractors or electricians over there. This is a sleepy little town, and they're trying to force it into the future by bringing in outsiders."
But not everyone thinks change will bring harm.
Hopewell-Mann resident Curtis Windham is enthusiastic that more retail and community spaces in the area could improve the neighborhood and make Santa Fe a better place for young people. He brightens when he hears developers aim to expand the film industry and reopen the Garson theatre.
"I love acting," he says, "Santa Fe needs more entertainment and creative things to do for young people. Right now there isn't anything for the youth in this whole town, really."
Windham's grandmother is a long-time resident and property owner in the neighborhood, and he himself has lived in Hopewell-Mann on and off for most of his life.
Mike Loftin of Homewise said helping more long-term residents of the area become homeowners and helping low income homeowners with property maintenance costs are key strategies for combating displacement. He said Homewise plans a homeownership fund for the area, and education about tools such as property tax freezes for low-income elderly and disabled homeowners.
Michaele Pride, director of the Design and Planning Assistance Center at UNM, says the city is also a responsible party in combating gentrification.
DPAC is one of the oldest community design centers in the country, founded in the '60s on a philosophy of using urban planning as a tool for racial equity and justice rather than profit. The city is negotiating an 18-month contract with DPAC to design a community engagement strategy for the Midtown Campus.
Pride tells SFR DPAC will start by creating a community advisory committee drawn from the surrounding neighborhoods and the wider Santa Fe metro area.
DPAC plans a policy analysis to advise the city on how best to protect its most vulnerable populations, and based on the feedback DPAC and the committee gather between now and January, DPAC will advise the city and the developers on how to best meet local needs.
"We want to fight racial and economic inequities, we cannot forget about policy—because policy is the instrument through which racism persists," Pride says.
Rivera of Chainbreaker says if done right, "we look at Midtown as an example of what could actually help this dynamic."
Jamie Blosser, director of the Santa Fe Institute of the Arts and a partner on the development team, said during an online presentation that her organization is about to start a new project in collaboration with nonprofit Littleglobe called "Six Degrees of Connection" to collect the personal stories of people in all the neighborhoods surrounding the campus.
“We hope this will inform the development at Midtown Campus,” she said, sharing her vision of the campus as a place where public art and collaborative art spaces validate local people’s experience by involving them in the process.