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.
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.