Concerns About Santa Fe’s Mid-Town Project Planning Process

Despite Mid-Town planning going on forever, it has not engaged those most impacted by the development. What gives? And why is the City soliciting ideas before completing its economic analysis and community engagement process?

First, a note about our radio show:

Retake Our Democracy on KSFR, 101.1 FM. The show last Saturday with Scott Davis got lots of kudos….for a reason. Scott Davis, TEWA Women United and national trainer for A Call to Men didn’t mince words in describing some of the root issues involved in white male violence.

As is often the case, a topic like this stirred some passion with at least one reader writing to me personally to object to characterizing white males so negatively. This discussion does not point a finger at every white male. It looks at a widespread problem in our culture. I’d encourage you all to listen to the podcast and offer comments here. The show went for a full hour, so those of you who heard the show live can hear the rest by clicking here. Those of you who missed it, can check out the full interview. This Saturday, Aug. 17, at 8:30am, I’ll be talking gun violence prevention with Miranda Viscoli, Co-President for New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence. It should be another tremendous show.

Let’s Listen to the Wisdom of Impacted Communities

Over the past year, the focus of the blog has been on state and national issues as our base has expanded statewide. But there are local issues here in Santa Fe and in other communities throughout the nation that have huge implications for local residents and very often these decisions are made in ways that favor those with access, privilege, time and resources.

Most cities in the US are struggling with the ability to produce enough affordable housing to address the needs of the residents of their community. Skyrocketing costs of rental housing force residents to move 50 or more miles from their place of work, simply to afford rent. This is not good for the environment, the families involved and the local community from which residents have fled in search of affordable housing. But while many cities face an affordable housing challenge, few have 64 acres of prime land in the heart of their city, offering an opportunity to put a major dent in Santa Fe’s affordable housing problem.

The city has conducted an online survey and a series of community input sessions, but as this post describes, that process utterly failed to engage the neighborhoods and people who will be most impacted by this development, those who have the most to gain and the most to lose.

We have a choice: we can move forward with the process and the vision for the Santa Fe University of Art & Design (SFUAD) that incorporates the priorities of those with access and privilege, or it can conduct an authentic outreach, education and input process with those who seldom attend meetings, but whose lives will be profoundly impacted by the development.of the SFUAD.

Today’s post examines the process that got us here and what is at stake. We could develop a cozy mixed use project with theatres, art studios, restaurants, plazas and with market rate housing and a smattering of low-income rental units. And it may be financially successful; it may be a lure for tourists; it may offer many Santa Fe residents a lovely venue for a pleasant summer stroll; but how much nicer does Santa Fe have to be for tourists and those with resources? How much longer can we turn a blind eye to the fleeing employees who make this city work, who staff our hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and construction sites?

Last summer, Roxanne and I travelled the country visiting with city officials and activists involved in implementing a wide variety of innovative initiatives related to employment, housing, and environmental justice. We found one common thread: the most effective projects, the projects that authentically responded to the needs of impacted communities, the projects that uplifted and unified their cities around a common vision; all were the products of a thoughtful, deep grassroots process of engaging those individuals who would be impacted by the project. From Push Buffalo to Cooperation Jackson, city leadership worked with grassroots activists to authentically engage those from whom we rarely hear and then together crafted things that without that input could not possibly have been dreamed. Let’s do that here.

Examining the Santa Fe University of Art & Design: An Opportunity to Listen

Fair disclosure: I supported Alan Webber for Governor, but other than attending his kick-off to the Mayoral campaign, I sat on the sidelines during his race for Mayor. I consider him a friend and so have been reluctant to criticize. Plus, there are many things about the Mayor that I like. He is smart, willing to listen, and generally has progressive instincts. And frankly, I’ve felt he has done a pretty good job. But I have concerns related to his apparent over-appreciation of “entrepreneurship” and “innovation” and a fear that he may not value “local wisdom” as much as would be wise.

I spoke with the Mayor on Wednesday to alert him to the post and to ask some clarifying questions. He was very forthcoming. I will add his perspective throughout the views expressed below.

A theme to Mayor Webber’s campaign revolved around the “city different,” and that we have so much local talent and innovation and cultural richness around which to develop our community. But in relation to Santa Fe’s most important development opportunity in decades, the Santa Fe University of Art & Design, the Mid-Town Project, or as others prefer, the Heart of the City, the Mayor has:

  • Hired a Solvang, California firm to manage the development process
  • Selected Strategic Economics, a California Bay Area firm, to do the economic analysis
  • Selected U3 Advisors, a Philadelphia firm, to manage the community input process, despite the RFP requiring the city to give preference to a local firm
  • Invited proposals for the development of the Heart of the City even though the community input process has not begun.

If Strategic Economics’ proposal is approved, the city will pay them $325,000 to make recommendations about how best to use the 64-acre property. The goal, the city says, is to find the proper ratio of housing, higher education, business, entertainment, and other sectors. It is worth noting that Strategic Economics research is slated to extend for almost a year. And it hasn’t started yet.

U3 Advisors stumbled at the July 31 City Council hearing where their contract was being considered, acknowledging that–oops–they neglected to include travel expenses in their bid. And some councilors questioned how a Philadelphia firm was selected when the RFP called for preference being given to a local firm.

When asked about the selection of outsiders for this important work, the Mayor bridled:

“I have no interest in the critique that ‘Oh, they’re out-of-towners, they don’t understand Santa Fe,'” Webber said, according to the Santa Fe Reporter, emphasizing the experience that many national firms have with projects across the world. “They understand sensitivity to localism.”

Santa Fe Reporter, July 1

In a state where tenure is measured in generations, not years, that quote was destined to rankle feathers among some locals who have resented and resisted “outsiders” who have “chosen” New Mexico as their home. When questioned about the city’s selection of outside firms, the Mayor’s answer demonstrated why having a few generations of roots in New Mexico may be a good thing. He told reporters:

“This is the start of getting proposals in the door. It’s like the Oklahoma land rush. They fired the gun for people to find the best site. We are firing the first gun.”

There is a good deal wrong with this statement. First, citing the Oklahoma land rush is connecting Santa Fe development with the Manifest Destiny-fueled deracination of the indigenous peoples of the Midwest. Over two million acres of indigenous land was stolen by the US government and made available to Oklahoma land rush settlers on April 22, 1889. I am sure Mayor Webber gave little thought to his choice of words. But this is where having a few generations of lived New Mexico experience might have led to a different way of conveying interest in the Heart of the City project.

So there was the unfortunate choice of words, but there was also the timing. The City published a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) announcing that they are beginning to accept ideas for development of the 64-acre Heart of the City, and announcing the “firing of the gun,” well before economic analysis and community input have been completed.

I asked the Mayor about this and his response was that the economic analysis was not central to anyone proposing ideas for how to develop all or some of the project. He also indicated that the community input process would be complete before the deadline for submitting RFEIs and so those submitting their ideas would be able to incorporate the results of the input session. Finally, the Mayor stated that the core elements of the project had been fleshed out months ago and were widely known.

I have several issues with this explanation. First, there is no certainty that U3, the Philadelphia based organization initially selected to do the input piece, will be approved by the City Council. But even if they are, the process couldn’t possibly begin for at least two weeks which brings us to the end of August. With a two-month process anticipated, that would take at least until the deadline for receipt of RFEI.

Second, the premise that the design elements are already known undermines the entire purpose of the community input process. What is the point of asking for community input while at the same time stating that we already know the broad-stroke elements of what the project will be? While I heard the Mayor’s position that the economic analysis is not important to the concepts being solicited from the RFEI, it seems to me if that economic analysis identifies unexpected financial opportunities or financial impediments to different forms of development, this would be important for those pitching ideas to understand. Indeed, the former Economic Development Director, Matt Brown laid out how important the fiscal analysis is to determining what is and is not feasible and to identifying what is the optimum scenario.

“You run different scenarios then look at them and analyze those scenarios and their cost and their impact and their benefits, as a process to identify the optimal scenarios,” Matt Brown told the Santa Fe Reporter of the first RFP back in April. Ideally these scenarios (or responses to the RFEI) would be developed with the benefit of the economic analysis and community input as part of the “cost and impact and benefits,” Brown referenced.

So, we are troubled when we hear that the city will be actively considering developers and concepts in advance of the completion of the economic analysis or the community input process. And it is clear that the city is not just entertaining ideas, but also could very well select one or more elements for implementation before the end of the year, as evident from the following comments:

“We might have a small project to move forward in November,” Project Manager Daniel Hernandez told the Santa Fe New Mexican last week. [Note this is well before either economic analysis will be completed and likely before the community input process can be completed.]

and, also from the New Mexican:
“Her­nan­dez said he would pre­fer land­ing a master de­vel­oper – one en­tity with a vi­sion and a team of de­vel­op­ers and crafts­men — but he ac­knowl­edges as many as 10 or more de­vel­op­ers could be se­lected for spe­cific projects.” [So now the City is open to considering as many as ten developers offering up their plans for the Heart of the City without the benefit of the processes designed to inform those ideas.]

Santa Fe New Mexican, August 8

Despite the Mayor’s clarification, it seems most unfortunate that ideas for use of the property are being actively considered before either the economic analysis or the community input process are completed. It could easily be viewed by some in the community that the City has its own process and timeline and that the economic analysis and the community input process are, at worst, just window dressing to justify rather than inform the plan that unfolds, and at best will have their impact compromised by not being completed prior to consideration of, and even selection of, project elements.

What’s more, we are also troubled by Hernandez’s comments about possibly having 10 or more development teams working on separate projects. That doesn’t convey a clear, singular, and unifying vision, but more of a hodgepodge of concepts generated by disparate developers operating from their vision, not the vision of the community.

This brings me to my closing thoughts. The Mayor has described this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a chance to really define our city, to create a new hub of community life. He has also described the project as potentially unifying the entire community. Well, just as it could be a unifying force, it could also be a divisive force. The difference may well reside in the degree to which local people feel that the development of the Heart of the City reflects their aspirations. And here, the Mayor’s own words in response to the Retake Our Democracy 2017 Mayoral Candidate Survey resonate:

“I believe that a better way to regain the trust and confidence of Santa Feans and, at the same time, move forward on a positive agenda for Santa Fe’s future, is grass-roots based and focused on livability and sustainability.”

From then Candidate-Webber in Retake Our 2017 Democracy’s Mayoral Survey.

But we have not had that kind of grassroots input. During the prior Mayor’s term, a well-intentioned, but deeply flawed community input process was launched that involved a series of input sessions, held during working hours when working families could not participate.

Matt Brown himself opened the Santa Fe Institute of Art input session with a comment acknowledging that the room was jammed with the usual suspects. I attended that session and there was not a single Hispanic in the room.

What’s more, the online survey also drew almost entirely Anglo responses, with only six Spanish-language surveys completed and a reported 17% of Hispano individuals completing the online survey. No matter what outreach strategies were employed, they did not sufficiently engage many important stakeholders and populations in the City. 

I am sure that the city still has the results of the survey and the input meetings. They represent the views of those with access, time, and resources, or as Brown acknowledged, “the usual suspects.” But if the Mayor wants this Heart of the City project to unify the city, he must slow the process to allow for a genuine community engagement process and frankly, we feel that the City should go local in its selection of the organization to lead that effort. A locally led organization will not need a travel budget. They will not need to be coached on local values. They will have the capacity to effectively engage that segment of the population that will be most impacted by what is done with the Heart of the City, the very population from which the City has not heard.

“Very simply, for our city to work for everyone, trust is a must.” Mayor Webber stated on July 17 in the Albuquerque Journal. There is little question that the Heart of the City project will be your legacy, Mayor Webber. You will unify or divide this City based on the path you take to develop this property. You’ve heard from the usual suspects, but now you have a chance to demonstrate that while you value innovation and entrepreneurship, you also deeply value and trust local wisdom.

Let’s do this right. The contract with U3 has stalled for a reason. Put the assembly of developer ideas on hold, allow a local organization with roots in the community to conduct an authentic engagement process, and let’s do something that will serve as your legacy and transform the SFUAD into the Heart of the City.

We invite a response from our Mayor.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne

9 thoughts on “Concerns About Santa Fe’s Mid-Town Project Planning Process

  1. Many thanks for laying all of this out in a way that is comprehensive and illuminating. If the mayor genuinely wants a legacy of progressiveness, he will look to the projects mentioned above (such as Push Buffalo and even Sawmill in ABQ) as models and inspirations for lifting up the heart of Santa Fe. We, the residents of Santa Fe own this land. Never again will a parcel this large be available and in our control. Let’s keep it this way and make it benefit all who live here. It is my hope that the mayor will quickly learn about the value of community and not be tempted by a capitalistic “score” of a “major developer”. To chisel this gemstone into “profitable” chips is a loss to all. May he rise to the occasion.

    • Very good comment, Jennifer. I think I may have to write about community land trust as an alternative to the corporate profitable chip you describe.

  2. The developers are already making plans, and the mayor and his cronies will portray it all as “Innovative or inspiring entrepreneurship.” There is nothing innovative about what they have been doing here for years. Essentially they offer “incentives” to big corporations, to exploit the people of Santa Fe. It is no wonder the only responses were Anglos. Maybe someone should look at how low income housing has already been done here. This city lost out on a lot of federal funding, because they were too busy trying to profit from every dollar. They also ensured the profits of a big our of state management company, that exploit people in the Section 8 program.

    The entire false narrative about innovation and entrepreneurs, is a lie. We have not really seen anything innovative, it is the same old things hyped like it never existed. It would have been innovative to focus on transportation, that way they could build more apartments without devoting so much acreage to parking. the majority of buildings here, are not green, by any stretch of the imagination. They rely on imported lumber, plastics, and gadgets manufactured overseas.

    The “Summit” was incredibly misguided, a back handed way to get funding for behavioral health, that will increase the stigma against the “mentally ill” as intended. The police have a really bad track record when it comes to that subject. The local corporate media failed to point that out. They were glad that assault weapons were not on the table. https://www.abqjournal.com/1353849/anti-terrorism-summit-shines-light-on-nm-vulnerabilities.html

    Our local corporate media proudly stated there were no “hate crimes” because none were reported to the police. So out of touch with reality, that it looks like willful blindness.

    There was a time when the public was entitled to know about outcomes, now that kind of thing is secret. Behavioral health dollars, just like other funds doled out to the various non profits, do not require any reporting on the outcomes. The 2014 debacle drove most of the qualified practitioners out of the state. This left various behavioral health programs without any professional, qualified practitioners. It does not look as if any of the corporate funded advocates, spoke up about the stigmatization, since the entire discussion is good for business. We will see even more in content marketing in our local corporate media.

    Virtually all NM media newspapers and TV follow this conservative, marketing organization. https://www.newsmediaalliance.org/

  3. It is all too easy for a planning process to become top-down, directed by out-of-towners who know best. Keep up the good work.

  4. Pingback: A Look Back At | Retake Our Democracy

  5. Thanks Paul and Roxanne, and Jennifer, Katy and Devin. You are spot on.

    Mayor Webber’s strategic orientation to municipal governance is incorrect, generally, and specifically in his approach to the mid-town site’s opportunity and threat to our city. Simply stated, government is not an enterprise, not a private corporation. Government’s mission is to promote and provide the highest possible quality-of-life for its citizens/ residents. Private enterprise’s mission (despite most attempts to socialize it) is to make profit. Especially in the USA, attempts to approach and manage cities as private enterprises have failed miserably.

    Laurence A. G. Moss
    (MA ,City Planning; PhD, City & Regional Planning: UC-Berkeley)

  6. I and many others are enraged that such a unique opportunity is about to be wasted by a bunch of outsiders who will assume they know best for our treasured City Different. Mayor Webber, although many of us liked and voted for you, you are simply NOT GETTING IT -your approach to this project is DISRESPECTFUL of the community, and that is one thing you cannot have in most cultures, but especially Hispanic culture.
    It’s time for you to have some humility, admit you do not understand the culture here but you are willing to learn, and make a SERIOUS EFFORT to connect with all people, including in our schools and through neighborhood outreach programs. For you to hire a bunch of outside firms when we have brilliance here that is world-renowned, is yes, quite, quite stupid. AND it will be seen that way!! That a Mayor of a city most famous for its art and design went outside to give us standard American neighborhood BS – THAT will be your legacy, and frankly you will not enjoy it. So PLEASE make friends with the people of this town and re-open these discussions in ways that MANY can participate. It’s time for innovation, NOT profit. That’s if you care about the future of this city – so please reassure us that YOU DO. Let us help you! This should not be top-down management.

  7. It is all too easy to do top down planning, and IMO it is the natural approach of the bureaucracy. The county did top down planning and the traditional communities revolted and insisted upon their own plans. The city is not so fortunate as to have traditional communities. People like Valerii and Paul and Roxanne and Laurence and Jennifer and Katy will have to fight for an inclusive approach. Good fortune.

  8. It doesn’t work to insist that members of affected communities come to YOU on your turf to provide input. In order to really get useful input from people who will be most affected by developments – particularly from non-privileged, non-elite people – you MUST go to THEM in their own neighborhoods. You have to ask to attend THEIR neighborhood association meetings. And be prepared for lively interaction, a bit of intensity. Listen!

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