The largely empty buildings in the Midtown Campus give the impression of something like a ghost town.
In some buildings, chairs and tables are still arranged in classrooms last occupied by the teachers and students in 2018. On the lower floor of the Fogelson Library, books stand neatly in their proper order, spines aligned on the shelves. Lights flicker, struggling to come on in the former gym. Outside, overgrown weeds cut through the fences of former sports courts.
But change is coming for the 64 acres in the city’s geographic center. After years with the land under the city’s control, redevelopment appears to be gaining momentum.
City officials say they will seek the first proposals for housing projects in the new year. Recently, they struck two key deals: one for the expansion and redevelopment of film studios on the southern third of the campus, and another for a future Visual Arts Center that would use existing buildings and create new spaces for education and creativity.
The path to this point has been slow going and indirect. The city bought the former College of Santa Fe campus in 2009 after the school closed, then leased it to Laureate Education, a for-profit business which relaunched the school as Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Laureate briefly considered a plan to partner with a Singapore-based corporation called Raffles Education but dropped that proposal and formally announced SFUAD’s impending closure in 2017.
The city next turned its attention to a large-scale redevelopment of the property as a way to pay off the purchase debt and create community benefits. It sought bids for “master developers” and entered an exclusive negotiation agreement with KDC/Cienda in May 2020. That idea fell through when the partners said it was no longer financially feasible.
That’s when the city took the reins. More than three years later, a government-led redevelopment effort has finally taken shape. A community development plan approved in February after a series of public meetings laid the foundation.
“We were able to get valuable input from our community, both the adjacent neighborhoods and folks who live in the city, to understand how the vision of the Midtown area would look once we start to dig into the ground and start to build different types of buildings for use,” Community Development Department Director Rich Brown tells SFR.
The plan, he says, “addresses the values of how all that development of infrastructure would be done. It’s been great because it’s going to focus on sustainability. It’s going to focus on equity. It’s going to focus on the culture, [and] it’s going to focus on the environment.” And, the top priority out of the gate will be housing
While the Midtown Campus can’t solve all of Santa Fe’s well-documented housing shortage, the master plan calls for 1,100 new residential units that would be executed by private firms who bid on parcels, then build and sell or rent housing.
Some of the housing on the campus will be sold at market rate, but the city has identified four tracts for developments that must be 100% affordable housing. An economic land use analysis prepared by Strategic Economics identified the potential on those tracts for 135 townhouse units varying from rental, to land trust to ownership, as well as 60 multi-family rental units. Bid packets for the request for proposals phase should be ready on the first parcel in January, Brown says.
After the RFP is issued, the city will review the proposals, choose a winning bid, then enter an agreement with a developer, all of which will take about four months, he says. From there, the builder will find financing, with the possibility of shovels in the ground as early as next fall. This all comes in conjunction, Brown says, with planning for sidewalks, roads, power and plumbing so infrastructure work can hopefully start around the same time.
“From about August or September of next year for the next probably two to three years, there will be a lot of work being done at Midtown to get it ready for buildings that need to be built,” he says.
On top of the all-affordable projects, other residential parcels must include 30% of units priced as affordable to low and middle income earners. Mayor Alan Webber says he’s hoping for even more, noting that requirement is “the floor, not the ceiling.”
“The first RFPs going out for affordable housing parcels are really quite exciting,” Webber tells SFR, “and it’s really making good on the commitment to put affordable housing at the front of how the property redevelops.”
Office of Affordable Housing Director Alexandra Ladd tells SFR the city targeted the first two parcels dedicated to 100% affordable housing near the St. Michael’s Drive entrance to the campus.
“The reason [that area has] been chosen is because they have the access from St. Mike’s, they’re served by water and sewer, so they can be developed before anything else happens,” Ladd says. “We really wanted to send that message to the community like: ‘We heard you loud and clear. You do not want this to be a playground for rich tourists. You want this to be an asset for you, a community and a place where everyone can find opportunity.’”
A growing demand for working sound stages and film production in the state has kept the Greer Garson studios active over the years, but now a developer promises even greater opportunities.
PE Real Estate Holdings, a New York City-based real estate development company, received a green light in July from the City Council and the mayor to create a mixed-use film campus called Aspect Studios on a combined 20 acres near the campus entrance on Siringo Road with a total of eight sound studios and other production facilities.
Aspect already had a foothold in the area. Nearly a year before the city’s approval of the studio expansion offer, company Principal Phillip Gesue purchased the privately-owned Shellaberger Tennis Center adjacent to the campus in November 2022 and converted two of its indoor stadiums into what he says are already two of the largest sound stages in New Mexico.
“Sound stages are what drive the film business. That’s where they do all their shooting [and] where they build their sets, and the sound stages are big enough to do even the very biggest series or feature films,” Gesue tells SFR. “When we acquired that property and turned it into a studio, it made the prospect of adding Garson to it and turning that into really a world class production studio, instead of something that is more of a local or regional type of studio, a reality.”
Now, it will acquire the former Garson Film School complex along with the former site of The Screen movie theater, Benildus Hall and the Driscoll Fitness Center for its operations. Additional plans for the film campus include electric vehicle charging stations, an all-day café and more. Gesue says Aspect Studios has a commitment to hire its operations staff locally. Just with the acquisition of the tennis center, the urban planner and real estate developer hired six locals. But there’s more to come, he assures.
“That’s just one building. When Garson is added, and when we have more businesses coming in, there will be a multiple of that as full-time staff, and that’s for just me as the real estate owner,” Gesue says. “The businesses that come in and actually do their productions in the space hire hundreds of people…All those people are local between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. And when we have a big show that comes in, those 200 staff positions—a vast majority of them are filled locally.”
Meanwhile, on the other corner of the campus, an anchor arts organization is planning its next chapter. The Santa Fe Arts Institute once thrived on the energy of the Midtown Campus. Its building, co-located alongside both colleges that operated there since the 1980s, enabled an important connection to the wider community. The organization supports 50 to 70 artists annually, providing them with lodging and studio space, a communal kitchen and laundry facilities.
But with college students no longer around, the atmosphere shifted and the group “has been lonely in that little corner of campus,” says Executive Director Jamie Blosser.
Restoring vitality, therefore, became one of the institute’s primary interests.
“I think that my board and staff and I felt as though we needed to really consider how we could be a bit more in charge of our own destiny, and thinking about from the very beginning, from 2018, how we might try to have a hand in shaping the redevelopment of the campus,” Blosser tells SFR.
The institute partnered with several arts, design and educational organizations to form the Midtown Arts and Design Alliance, which in August entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement to lease the Visual Arts Center.
The institute serves as developer and operator for the center, a project that envisions art and design programming; education and workforce training development; and an investment in renewable energy. It will incorporate the instructional, office and gallery spaces in the Marion Center for Photographic Arts, the Thaw Art History Center, Tishman Hall and the Tipton Lecture Hall.
The alliance worked with the University of New Mexico Design and Planning Assistance Center to develop “a pretty robust public engagement process,” Blosser says.
“We really see arts and culture and design in Santa Fe is more community driven…So how can we support one another in ways that you don’t always see nonprofits coming together to do? We’re starting to talk about shared resources,” Blosser says. “It’s all very much in the beginning stages, but I think that we know we’re in the process of building that team and starting to think about how we can really reach out to the entire community.”
A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts focused on creative place keeping paid for the Midtown Block Party in October 2021. More than 1,000 visitors attended, with many filling out surveys about what they’d like to see happen on the site.
“That was a great partnership with everyone involved including the city,” Blosser says of the event. “We really are focusing our project on the work we’re all doing but also what we heard that day.”
Feedback called for an arts and culture hub that connects youth and families and also offers education, enterprise and service.
For the next year, the Visual Arts Center project will remain in the “feasibility phase.” This means the nonprofit will work with MASS Design Group to look at space planning, check the condition of buildings and obtain cost estimates, Blosser says.
Such assessments will need to happen campuswide. Before potential developers can get serious about their projects, the city has its own work to do. The next order of business is building streets and parks space.
According to Brown, the city estimates the project’s infrastructure will cost $30 million over a 10 to 15 year period for “all the things that happen on the ground.”
“We are incrementally putting some of that money into play,” Brown says. “We are working with our Finance Department and the city manager to make sure that the work that needs to be done now is getting funded.”
While late city audits have prevented the state from releasing about $3.2 million the Legislature allocated for the first infrastructure on the project, Webber says the city’s isn’t stuck.
“In the meantime,” he says, “we’re using other resources to move forward on Midtown with the utilization of dollars from different parts of our general fund budget and our operations budget.”
In the long-term, the city expects to see a return on its investment. Officials project more than $74 million in revenue, including $28 million from land sales and $38 million in projected future tax revenues. Considering nearly $48 million of estimated costs including infrastructure, outstanding bond debt and pre-development costs, the city says it will end up with $26 million in potential returns.
“Our goal was to demonstrate that it wasn’t in the red,” project manager Daniel Hernandez says. “Even with all of the public objectives that people wanted to see, there was still the opportunity for the city to come out in a positive number and not a negative number.”
Brown tells SFR the redevelopment investment has the potential to yield 2,000 jobs over six to 10 years, starting with construction and engineering jobs for the infrastructure and the film industry economic sector with jobs for productions. Webber adds “it’s not just the immediate jobs, it’s the pipeline of jobs” as well as the “social capital” that need to be considered.
“We’ll be investing in future artists of Santa Fe. We’ve got a great history and deep roots in arts and culture, but if you don’t reinvest with every generation, you run the risk of becoming a less attractive, less vibrant community,” the mayor says. “So if that goes forward, and we have a new center for young people to take up the arts and become skilled at all kinds of artistic expression, it may not create a ‘job,’ but it may create an artist, and that’s an incredibly valuable part of Santa Fe as an attractive community.”
The city also plans to refurbish and reopen the Fogelson Library by July 2025. Brown says the city’s Public Works Department is working with an architectural firm to create “a 21st-century” design plan as the next step and there’s no estimated cost at present.
“It’ll be a mix of arts and music and services and digital services and interactive programming and possibly childcare,” Brown says. “Because libraries now are not just the books. There are many, many things.”
As development moves ahead, the surrounding area and neighborhoods are bracing for impact. City officials tell SFR they have been working with residents of the nearby Hopewell Mann neighborhood on an anti-displacement strategy.
Organizations like the Chainbreaker Collective previously expressed concerns about gentrification as a result of the Midtown project. Chainbreaker Executive Director Tomás Rivera tells SFR the nonprofit has been vocal in the planning process because the neighborhood is “greatly vulnerable to displacement after generations of disinvestment.”
“We always say there’s not a silver bullet, there’s a silver buckshot. What it fundamentally boils down to and what we’ve heard very clearly after years of organizing is that community control is the absolute most important fundamental cornerstone for preventing gentrification,” Rivera says. “That allows the people who are directly impacted in the neighborhood to actually decide how it gets developed, as opposed to external market forces.”
Rivera says the city deserves a lot of credit for the efforts it has taken to get “deep community engagement” prior to developing design plans.
“Dealing with gentrification and displacement is not an easy thing to address,” Rivera says. “It is an imperfect process. It is Santa Fe trying to build a plane as it’s been midair for decades…Of course, nothing has been built yet, but we have really seen the input from the community development plan being taken seriously by elected officials, by city staff, and it is our job as Chainbreaker to make sure that continues to happen.”
Chainbreaker has also zeroed in on sustainability, which Communications Organizer Cathy Garcia says encompasses more than just LED lighting, solar panels and recycling.
“Those things are critical, but we are also talking about if there’s a safe space for teens to hang out where they’re not going to get harassed, are all of the sidewalks safe for elders with mobility issues? Are they wide enough for strollers?” Garcia says. “When you talk about all of that stuff being related to health and like quality of life, simply focusing on are there enough solar panels is still not getting to the heart of the matter.”
The redevelopment plan calls for new connecting pathways, bike routes and green/open spaces, plus two plazas—one in the middle of the former campus and another to the northeast.
Hernandez also points to water topics as major aspects of the development plan: not just that it calls for low water-usage requirements, but it also minimizes water flowing away from new structures.
“We wanted to make sure that we could retain and or detain during storms so that water wasn’t rushing off the site into the public stormwater system and/or to adjacent neighborhoods,” Hernandez says.
While the pieces of the project continue to come together little by little, Hernandez estimates the city is still seven to 12 years from full completion, and “probably closer to 12 at that.” In a typical development process, he notes, it can take two to three years alone for design work, planning and financing prior to construction.
“We want to get those RFPs out as early as possible so that we can get those projects moving forward,” he says.
Next month, officials say, the city plans to announce a director who will oversee the new “Metropolitan Redevelopment Area” in and around the campus. That employee will take on the full leadership role of the Midtown project as well as future efforts to improve nearby property. Both Hernandez, who works on contract, and Midtown Asset Development Manager Lee Logston will directly report to the MRA director.
Also on the horizon, a bidder who wants to use the 500-seat Greer Garson Theatre Center for a performing arts venue has made a proposal that staff expect to present to the governing body next month.
Rivera says tangible progress is happening at the right pace.
“Real authentic community change takes a long time…We’re used to having sort of soundbite news flashes and soundbite policy being made, but really doing it with the intention—we think that is an investment that we want to see continue, because this is going to last us for generations,” Rivera says. “Fifty years from now, they won’t say, ‘Oh my god, they didn’t build this quick enough.’ They’ll say, ‘Thank goodness they put enough time into this.’”
Learn more about the Midtown campus project at midtowndistrictsantafe.org.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify when the city approved a community development plan.