A nearly quarter-century effort by the city to redevelop the Santa Fe Railyard is approaching its next major stop.
Or, maybe, the end of the line.
With the exception of a few ongoing projects that are expected to be wrapped up in two years or less, leasing of all the buildings on the Railyard is complete, according to the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp., the nonprofit that helped transform — with mixed success — the old, dilapidated and forgotten industrial part of town into a contemporary art scene.
But as build-out of the Railyard nears its final stage, and as Santa Fe looks to its next redevelopment project at a defunct midtown college campus, the city’s first full-time mayor and other influential officials are asking: Does this mean the end is near for the nonprofit that steered the redevelopment project to where it is today?
“Actually, our board has already begun serious conversations about, ‘Well, what happens in 18 to 24 months when we’re fully built out?’ ” said board President Steven Robinson.
“Well, then our role becomes more of management of the tenancy and continuing all our responsibilities under the lease management agreement to manage public events for the community,” he said.
It could be a short-term role.
A lease agreement originally inked in 2002 and extended in 2011 expires in 2030. But Robinson acknowledged the city and the nonprofit may sever ties even sooner.
“While we’re both bound by the lease and management agreement until 2030, the city may want to change that. And if it does, we’ll have that conversation if it comes up,” he said.
For Mayor Alan Webber, the conversation extends beyond the Railyard.
“The question that it raises — it’s open for conversation, it’s not a decision — is what kind of overarching governance structure should the city have for these large-scale developments?” Webber said.
“In the past, perhaps because there was a part-time mayor and a more siloed city government, what happened was each of those projects would get its own governance structure,” he said, citing as another example a nonprofit that oversees the sprawling Tierra Contenta housing subdivision, which picked up plans for a third phase of residential construction after Webber took office.
“As we look at going forward with the northwest quadrant as a housing area, would we want a northwest quadrant development corporation? Or is it time to talk about a city redevelopment authority that would encompass and bring together the development strategies of the city?” Webber continued. “You could conceivably still have these independent or quasi-independent sub-bodies. But does the city need an entity to have a much larger, macro-level view of our overarching development capacity, strategy and priorities?”
Whether the Webber administration pursues a redevelopment authority remains to be seen. But the city historically hasn’t had a good track record at managing projects, though processes are improving.
The Railyard itself may serve as an example.
The Railyard comprises two parcels of property totaling 50 acres, including a 40-acre section southwest of downtown with a landmark water tower and REI store, among other businesses and entities, and a nearby 10-acre tract off Cerrillos Road.
After the city purchased the properties in 1995 and developed a community plan, “the city decided to take over management of the Railyard and tried to bring in developers and tried to make deals,” said Robinson, who has served as board president since 2001.
At the time, existing tenants lacked basic infrastructure.
“They were operating off port-a-potties and extension cords in old industrial buildings,” Robinson said.
“In 2002, the master plan was approved by City Council, and by then, the city government realized that [it] sort of had an albatross around [its] neck,” he said. “The newspapers were just full of articles saying, ‘Hey, look. We bought property seven years ago, and nothing has happened. No dirt has turned. Blah, blah, blah.’ ”
The city then put out a request for proposals to manage the implementation of the master plan.
“That’s where SFRCC came in,” Robinson said, adding that the nonprofit had been formed years prior to “sort of keep track of what the city was doing in terms of managing the Railyard.”
Initially, the Catellus Development Corp., an arm of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, which owned the land, submitted a plan that called for the demolition of all the rails and most existing buildings, the development of new buildings up to six stories high and 1.2 million square feet of development, according to the Railyard’s website.
Robinson said many Santa Feans weren’t on board with the plan, which the city and a redevelopment commission rejected. In 1995, under the administration of Mayor Debbie Jaramillo, the city bought the Railyard with bridge financing from the Trust for Public Land.
“Whenever I speak in public,” Robinson said, “I never fail to mention the very bold move that it took for Debbie to buy the property because she had the local interests as heart.”
The $23 million land-acquisition cost was paid off by the city in 2010. The nonprofit continues to pay rent to the city to cover the cost of $18.9 million in infrastructure debt.
“One of our major missions is to repay the debt the city floated to build the infrastructure, so we’re attacking that at about a $1 million-a-year payment to the city,” said Richard Czoski, the nonprofit’s executive director. “That’s the magic of the 2030 expiration date of our agreement. That’s when everything will be paid back to the development of the Railyard.”
Czoski, 66, has spent the last 15 years on the Railyard project. He is unlikely to be at the helm of the organization when the final check is issued.
“I feel a personal commitment to complete the development portion of it because that’s truly my passion, the development side, so I want to help ensure that I can help the board achieve that goal, which I believe will be achieved in the next year to 18 months, at the most,” he said, adding he plans to step down at that point.
Whether the nonprofit succeeded in fulfilling its mission depends on whom you ask.
Former Mayor Javier Gonzales said that “there were plenty of well-intentioned people from the beginning” of the Railyard project, including the nonprofit’s board and staff.
“They made a great effort to include the community in the public decision-making process, which was important,” he said. “However, the fundamentals of the Railyard development organization impeded the full potential of the district. Leasing land rather than selling, limiting who could lease space in the district, a 20-plus-member board highly involved in the smallest of decisions all led to costs to the community in both money and delays.”
To the future
Webber said the nonprofit is at a pivot point.
“I’ve talked to them in the past several times about what they think their next generation of activities needs to be, and they’re looking at having some different people on the board to change the skill set and the composition,” Webber said. “They’ve already actually done that to some extent, and it’s a different phase in the life of the Railyard.”
Sandra Brice, the nonprofit’s director of events and marketing, said several board members have served for 10 years or more. Two — Bob Dunn and Dave Vlaming — have served since 2002.
“Our board philosophy is that institutional memory for a project as complex as the Railyard is extremely important, so though members serve two-year terms, there are no term limits and many have offered to continue to serve,” she said via email, adding the board also values new input and energy and added new members as recently as this year.
Privately, city officials question whether the lack of turnover on the board has hindered development efforts.
Gonzales, the former mayor, said the city has the opportunity to learn from the nonprofit’s successes and failures.
“I’m hopeful that the mayor and council will do so as they look to the management structure of the future of the Railyard, as well as the midtown district,” he said, referring to the former campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
The Railyard was envisioned as a local gathering place, which some say isn’t happening.
“I’m just disappointed about the lack of activity at the Railyard,” said Simon Brackley, outgoing president and CEO of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s such an asset downtown — it cost the taxpayers so much money every year — and it doesn’t seem to be working as a community or business space,” he said.
On Friday, the city announced longtime tenant Warehouse 21, a youth arts programming organization, would be leaving the Railyard by the end of the year. Increased maintenance costs at the city-owned building were among the reasons cited.
Before Friday’s announcement, Czoski said the nonprofit has done “a very good job” given the constraints of the master plan and trying to do a huge project in a city “with limited economic capacity and capital that a city that size is capable of doing.”
“When you limit yourself by designating 20 percent of the project to be dedicated to nonprofits and subsidize their ability to stay in the project and thrive … that just necessarily results in not as rapid a development horizon,” he said.
The Great Recession also had a significant impact on the project, Czoski said.
“However, the end result in terms of the projects that have been developed since, say, 2011 and those that are on the drawing board are actually more exciting and responsive to the community than the projects we had on the drawing board prior to that,” he said. “It’s really kind of the silver lining to a dark cloud, I would say.”
Webber said the time has come for everyone to ask: “How do we proceed to phase 2.0?”
“Right now is a really critical inflection point for Santa Fe as a whole,” he said. “One particular component of it is this zone in the city that is coming to maturity right now, and we are ready to ask and work on the ‘what’s next?’ part of that area, that neighborhood. But it’s also true of a lot of other areas as well.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.