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Kyra Murzyn, stage manager at the Lensic Performing Art Center, swaps out dates on the marquee Friday, with the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi seen in the background. Though the cathedral is still considered incomplete, its height has long been the benchmark for buildings in Santa Fe. But some city councilors want to raise the allowable building height in limited parts of the city.

Issues over water use, sprawl and population size have dominated the development discussion in Santa Fe for decades.

But the next debate may have people peering up.

Way up.

Spurred in part by entrepreneur John Rizzo’s vision for a Santa Fe Innovation Village in the Las Soleras development, some city leaders have kicked around an idea that would amend the city’s land development code under some circumstances and allow some projects to be as high as 75 feet, or seven stories.

If the idea were to come to fruition, some types of developments — “qualifying innovation projects” and “qualifying innovation village projects” — would not be subject to maximum allowable height limits.

City Councilors Roman “Tiger” Abeyta and Signe Lindell have sponsored a bill they hope will encourage job creation by providing incentives for technology and innovation companies to develop large vacant tracts of land across the city. Within that proposal is a partial alteration of the land development code that includes height restrictions.

“It’s something that I think is worth taking a look at,” Abeyta said in an interview. “Some of our biggest issues have to do with affordable housing and the lack of diverse jobs and a diverse economy.”

However, building heights have long been a sensitive topic in Santa Fe, and if history is any guide, agreement on the proposal is far from assured.

The measure was supposed to be discussed at a meeting earlier this month, but it was pulled for further discussion, clarification and outreach. Abeyta acknowledged there was a lot of concern over height requirements.

“I understand the concerns with height,” he said. “But this isn’t something that applies to everywhere.”

Daniel Werwath, acting director of the Santa Fe Community Housing Trust, said he has no dog in the fight, but he’s seen misinformation circling on social media about the bill, including the belief that it could lead to a proliferation of taller buildings across the city.

Community bulletin boards, emails and letters sent to The New Mexican also have ripped the proposal, many claiming it would allow out-of-state developers to change the landscape of the city.

The measure would apply only to buildings in a planned-unit development district. Those areas would consist mostly of offices for people employed in jobs or industries that help build the local economy and residential developments.

The proposed project would still have to go through the same process as other large developments — including an early neighborhood notification meeting, recommendation by the Planning Commission and final decision by the mayor and City Council.

Rizzo’s plan is still fluid and details are relatively slim. He said 20 percent of the residences would include affordable housing, but he said he believes the project will help Santa Fe compete in the technology sector.

He said he understands how incendiary the topic of height limits can be.

“The thing that makes Santa Fe so appealing are the incredible views — the mountains and so on,” Rizzo said. “You don’t want to do anything that impinges on those sight lines.”

Abeyta said the concern over height was expected. He said he’s working with the city’s Land Use Office to figure out where the measure would apply. Abeyta said it would affect two areas — the Las Soleras development near Beckner Road and a portion of Airport Road. He added an area near the midtown campus also might apply, but further clarification is needed.

Abeyta, who represents District 3 on the city’s south side, said he believes the changes would attract more business opportunities, particularly to his district.

“I want more than just fast food, Walmarts and car dealerships on the south side,” Abeyta said.

Werwath said the conversation about the proposal has been interesting, largely because there are plenty of spaces across the city where developers can build at above-average heights.

For example, he said, Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center is about seven stories high.

Werwath said some developers shy away from building up for a variety of factors, including fire code issues and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, which make some projects unfeasible.

He added plenty of residents erroneously believe the city has an ordinance that prevents buildings from being over three stories tall.

Though the city doesn’t have an overarching ordinance for all buildings, it does have a complex land use code as well as overlay district that sets various height requirements depending on a combination of building types and locations.

For the most part, height requirements on most buildings are capped at 45 feet, with some industrial zoning allowing for 75-foot buildings. Others, like the Historical Overlay District, set more stringent design standards.

Developers can seek exemptions. A number of hotels, including the Inn and Spa at Loretto, La Fonda on the Plaza and Eldorado Hotel and Spa, were allowed to build taller than their underlying historic zone.

The city also approved an amendment in 2019 allowing building heights in the Midtown Local Innovation Corridor Overlay District along St. Michael’s Drive, often referred to as the Midtown LINC, to overstep the South Central Highway Development Corridor, which slightly overlaps the Midtown LINC. The amendment allowed for buildings up to 52 feet.

“There is a lack of nuanced conversations about land use,” Werwath said. “It signals we will have huge trouble fixing affordable housing and climate change if we can’t have nuanced conversations about this.”

Still, working around some of these zoning requirements has often proved difficult, leading to community pushback.

Jennifer Jenkins of the Santa Fe-based development consultant firm JenkinsGavin Inc. oversaw the approvals for the recent Zia Station mixed-use project. When constructed, the project will bring nearly 400 residential units, including apartments and town homes, to the 21-acre site near the Zia Road Rail Runner train stop.

To clear a path for the project, the developer sought to rezone a portion of the project out of the South Central Highway Development Corridor. Established in 1986, the corridor sets development parameters along St. Francis Drive, including a two-story building height limit. The corridor was intended to preserve view lines as motorists enter the city.

Jenkins said she expected some pushback from the community on the rezoning request.

“We are in a very height-sensitive community,” Jenkins said.

She was correct.

The project drew opposition from members of the nearby Candlelight Neighborhood Association and a couple of planning commissioners who said they felt the changes ignored the intended purpose of the South Central Highway Development Corridor.

Some opponents argued the project would take away from the area’s scenic views. One of them, Candlelight Neighborhood Association President Ed Aku Oppenheimer, said that while he didn’t have an issue with the development, he took issue with the process by which the project was approved.

He said he has a similar concern about the proposal sponsored by Abeyta and Lindell, adding the city should explore a zoning map overhaul.

“This [legislation] could be fine,” Oppenheimer said. “We are not concerned about new ideas and new ways of going with development in Santa Fe. We are concerned about the way the city is doing this.”

The city has approved a $500,000 growth management study, which could inform potential changes to the city’s land use development code.

The study falls just short of a robust general plan update — the city’s general plan, which serves as an overarching blueprint in the city, is more than 20 years old.

At the time the study was approved, former Land Use Director Eli Isaacson said building heights could be addressed in the study, if that was the will of Santa Fe residents.

(27) comments

Alder del Tangio

I'll make an assumption - that those advocating for more and more development in Santa Fe, despite the impact and unknown sustainability, fall into two camps: 1. Those who can gain financially i.e. developers and those looking for campaign contributions from the former. 2. People who have never lived in a city that has become choked by congestion. There is always an attempt to tie affordable housing into these proposals - that's fool's gold because they do very little to address that problem.

Rachel Thompson

Under the heading of FWIW, West Virginia is offering people $10k to move to one of 3 cities in the state if they meet certain qualifications, such as the ability to make a full-time income while working for an out-of-state employer. That's how they hope to grow the state's economy recognizing that at least for now, there are few good employment opportunities for professionals. But they have plenty of water. Vermont was (is?) paying people to move there. Maine or parts of Maine also, I think.

Rachel Thompson

The point, being, WV is recruiting working blokes, not companies. But while we're at it, we all worry and complain about how new structures may look, while every day we drive up and down Cerrillos (at least I do) which could definitely use some sprucing up, shall we say? What if we took a long term approach to encouraging redevelopment along Cerrillos, perhaps one day getting better and higher use from some of the huge parking lots along the road. More importantly, my guess is that perhaps a quarter of the businesses along Cerrillos aren't thriving, and might be bought up and replaced with (not tall) new business offices that would be close to Midtown, once it takes shape. I don't know about all the business owners along Cerrillos, but a couple of the weekly and monthly residential offerings that are pretty shabby are owned by folks in town with other luxury buildings, and some out-of-staters. Then there are the massage places, etc. Cerrillos Road has a tremendous amount of potential, but developers like to focus on either end of the city instead. Either downtown or on the way out of town (more sprawl). Big tax breaks are sometimes used to get people to buy buildings in run-down areas. What incentives could we offer businesses?

Angel Ortiz

And slowly our quiet beautiful community can now mirror WV? As a local, I find this extremely unappealing. If WV is such a success perhaps some here should consider relocation Santa Fe's issues began when we began to sell out to out of state developers in the 1990s.

Peter Romero

We either move forward or get left behind as usual. We need to do something about the views when you drive to and from the SF airport. It looks line a 3rd world country. I wonder what people thing when they see that first.

Lupe Molina

I'm surprised for the repeated call for a water study when the city already does that every year: https://www.santafenm.gov/water The opposition to this is more about people not wanting to live in an urban environment and I understand that. But towns grow. This is a capital city and a major tourist destination. If you want to leave, your property values are probably higher, you can cash out. But the economic future of the city should not be hindered by subjective feelings of quaintness. I don't want Santa Fe to become Austin either but I am also not willing to artificially stifle its growth in a way that's already hurting our childrens' opportunities.

Garrett Shaw

This! [thumbup]

david cartwright

I don't mean to burst this bubble of "build tall buildings and they will come," but go to the very heard of the venture capital and tech world--Palo Alto and Menlo Park--and you will not find any high rises other than two forlorn buildings that are laughed at by the locals. High rise office buildings don't mean automatic wealth and jobs, and they certainly don't mean (and shouldn't mean) government housing projects. Indeed, building/zoning standards that are reasonably and enforced across the board are what brings value to a community like Santa Fe.

Lupe Molina

But those cities have grown unsustainably resulting in urban sprawl that's destroying the environment and livability of northern California. It was similar sentiments against going vertical (well represented here) that caused that sprawl.

Joan Conrow

No, Lupe Molina, it was not opposition to vertical that caused California's sprawl, but the availability of relatively cheap land surrounding more expensive urban areas -- just like what you see in New Mexico and pretty much everywhere else.

Lupe Molina

Hmmm, I don't know if that's true. Could be! But building vertical requires less land and creates an economy of scale that would seem to consolidate expenses and maintenance. Plus, just google "bay area high rise opposition" and find a deluge of articles of community groups opposing vertical construction. I think it's just nimbys.

Vince Czarnowski

Politicians always use the terms "affordable housing" and "city jobs" to disguise what these developments are really about. It's all about the money that they and the developers will get in the end.

Barry Rabkin

Santa Fe is NOT going to stop building construction. It is NOT going to even pause building construction to study water management / availability issues. You're wasting your typing time if you believe that will happen. Becoming a metropolitan area was not discussed anywhere in the column. Building tall buildings throughout Santa Fe was also not discussed anywhere in the column - constructing higher buildings in PARTS of Santa Fe (city/county) were discussed. People will continue to come to Santa Fe every day of every month of every year - Santa Fe needs to have homes and apartments for them to live. Santa Fe also needs more high-tech and other high-skilled professionals to live here and generate more tax revenue (from their salaries, from the purchases they make as a matter of living here). The small, dusty artist community that defined the Santa Fe of decades ago is long gone. It ain't coming back.

Khal Spencer

[thumbup] A lot of this discussion is "I've got mine, to blazes with anyone else"

Lupe Molina

Yep! Bingo.

Alder del Tangio

Barry - so it sounds like you are either happy to have or resigned to having traffic jams, smog, density and all the other congestion issues that make over-developed cities undesirable to live in. What this article is alluding to is "creep", i.e. slowly eroding away the codes so developers can get what they want. Personally it's not the Santa Fe I wish to live in, nor do I want to leave. That's not NIMBYism. It saying stop the huge explosion of development that has occurred in recent years until a real growth sustainability study gets completed. Lupe keeps referring to the annual water study. That's done by the city and it's a starkly different picture than what independent experts are predicting for NM's water.

Alexander Brown

Did those of you who voted for Councillors Abeyta and Lindall want 7 story tall buildings in Santa Fe ?

If yes , retain them , if no Vote Them Out.

"All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth ," G T

The slower Santa Fe grows the better chance it has of retaining anything of the character that has defined it. The City Different ?

Not for much longer.

Joan Conrow

It's important to note that the city initially planned to just push this through, but only backed down to allow more citizen input after a public outcry. And so long as the city follows the quasi-judicial process for decision-making, citizens will have very limited say on where these multistory buildings are erected. Daniel Werwath claims he doesn't have a "dog in the fight," to use his unfortunate metaphor, but that seems a bit disingenous since he seems to support anything with even a minimal affordable housing element. As for the writer who talked about Honolulu's tall buildings, the traffic in that city is insane. So unless Santa Fe also plans to upgrade its infrastructure, expect more traffic woes and a decreased quality of life to accompany these high rises. But the core issue is this: Before the city decides on this bill, or anything else that will contribute to more intensive development and water use, it should conduct a thorough and honest analysis of the longterm water situation. It's madness to keep building like there's plenty of water when every climate model says the Southwest should expect to have continuing severe drought conditions.

Stefanie Beninato

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup] Thanks, Joan.

Gail Larson

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup] Well said, Joan!

Khal Spencer

Honolulu has plenty of high rise buildings in the central part of the city. No one ever accused it of being an ugly city or lacking skyline vistas of the Koolau, Waianae, or the ocean. But we do need to fix other things, i.e., the tax code and our massive illiteracy rate, if we really want to crawl out of the doldrums.

I'd say go ahead and do this, but carefully.

Felicia Morrow

Santa Fe would be wise to conduct an in depth study of the future availability of water in the county and then determine what population can be supported on a sustainable basis. Visions of a growing metropolitan area are unrealistic if you cannot guarantee your citizens water.

Lupe Molina

They do that every year. This paper just reported on it a few weeks ago....

Khal Spencer

Most of the water usage in New Mexico is for agriculture. Residential use is considerably less than 10% of the total.

Charles W Rodriguez

If the city of Santa Fe wants to attract more business development, the single biggest thing the state of New Mexico could do is repeal the gross receipts tax. This is such a repressive tax that prevents companies from wanting to locate here. But, this is suchj an established and entrenched tax structure, I doubt legislators would ever be willing to repeal it. Instead, they have half hearted attempts to bring in new business, like this idea for allowing high rise buildings.

Barbara Harrelson

I agree with Mr. Rodriguez. A better educated workforce and a fairer tax structure would do wonders for NM's economy--today and in the future.

Stefanie Beninato

For several years, Peter Wirth introduced a bill that would have reduced the GRT but it would have applied across the board (except hopefully food and medicine)...And would these bldgs be for residential or office? For the latter, see what is happening in larger cities like NYC where employers and employees are rethinking the need or use for traditional office space post pandemic.

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