Until two years ago, the city had a Long-Range Planning Division staffed by two planning professionals. One had been with the city more than 20 years. They both retired at the end of 2017.
Mayor Alan Webber’s administration did not replace the positions when he took office in March 2018.
No official explanation was offered, but the presumption was newly hired professionals in charge of key departments and divisions would keep a long-range perspective on their day-to-day activities. And maybe they do.
One of the tasks of the former division director was shepherding the work of the Capital Improvements Advisory Committee — nine citizens appointed by each councilor and the mayor to advise how impact fees collected from developers should be spent on capital improvements to parks, roads, police and fire.
That group still exists and has had a couple of interim staff liaisons to assist in the work of the committee. Full disclosure: I’ve been a member of the committee since it formed more than 20 years ago, appointed by Cris Moore, Santa Fe’s first Green Party councilor.
Another job of the former division director was overseeing the Long-Range Planning Committee. That five-member group had three planning commissioners who volunteered to serve, along with two “civilians” appointed by the mayor.
I say “was” because, with the retirement of the two professionals in 2017, the new administration no longer believed the committee was relevant and never reconvened the five-member group. Full disclosure: I was its last chairman and a citizen appointee left over from the David Coss administration.
Whether abandonment of long-range planning is shortsighted or fiscally prudent is a debate others can have, but well-intentioned citizens volunteering to contemplate the future, with no authority, doesn’t seem to have a downside. Plus, it was fun.
One of the last things contemplated by the group, with the guidance of the professionals, was “re-malling” — the notion of repurposing sprawling malls dying across America. It’s the kind of stuff planning professionals love to read and talk about at gatherings of their peers.
We analyzed the possibility of something different at Santa Fe’s three big malls: the DeVargas Center, Santa Fe Place, and Fashion Outlets of Santa Fe. We spoke to all three owners and concluded DeVargas was not dying. Just the opposite: It was thriving with the collective movement of stores from Sanbusco to the north-side mall.
We also concluded Santa Fe Place, while struggling in previous years, was feeling bullish about its model, especially with a few hundred apartments proposed to be built across its perimeter road on the south side.
The Fashion Outlets of Santa Fe, on the other hand, seemed ripe for something different after it faced a foreclosure lawsuit in 2017 for its inability to make good on an $11 million dollar loan. Development of premium outlet malls, almost always sited in remote locales near interstate highways, swept the country a few decades ago with the premise that low overhead on brand-name products was what the buying market demanded.
The efficacy of that bet is best demonstrated by the long-abandoned property along Interstate 25 at Budaghers near Santo Domingo Pueblo.
But what about the Fashion Outlets of Santa Fe? The property happens to be smack in between the two biggest developments about to boom on the south side, Las Soleras and Tierra Contenta. The center of the open-air mall feels like a quiet city plaza, shielded from the hubbub of the interstate and Cerrillos Road.
Long-range planners might see a repurposed space as a possible new town center on Santa Fe’s south side with local businesses and services serving the needs of south-side residents and surrounded by walkable multifamily rental developments. That is, if we had long-range planners.
Kim Shanahan is a longtime Santa Fe builder and former executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association.