Ever notice people complaining about “ugly” new apartments never cite the apartments that aren’t ugly? Critical opinions are so much easier than constructive ones.

I learned early on as a contractor to keep aesthetic opinions to myself. Getting dragged into the “What do you think?” conversation with a client made me cringe. My silent thought was always, “Just make a decision and let’s get going.”

That was frustrating for many clients, because most people seek validation for their tastes. If you agree with them and say something looks great and then they change their mind, you’re left holding the bag — defending a decision they abandoned. Not a good place to be.

I learned to shrug and offer an amicable “whatever.” At the expense of angering architect and designer friends, I have to admit I really don’t care. You’re all great.

It’s kind of the same thing with “neighborhood character” and “managing growth.” I don’t know how to measure the former and am certain the latter cannot be done.

Baked into the first notion is neighborhood character must be preserved. That almost always means no change, including to the vacant tract where dogs walk, wildflowers bloom and prairie dogs gambol.

Managing growth is fraught with legal liabilities and unintended consequences. Mayor Alan Webber is floating the idea of spending $200,000 with an outside firm to study whether we can create a growth management plan. Current citizens are encouraged to participate. Wow. Thanks for the invite.

Managing growth sounds reasonable and civilized, as if we just had the political will to ignore greedy developers, it could actually be done. Developers and builders don’t create growth, they serve it. The only effective limit to growth is cost. If it costs too much to live someplace, you either move or never come. Aspen, Colo., is a great example of how well that works.

But Aspen never had families tracing their roots back 400 years.

Some say we should just put a moratorium on new building permits. But that invites this response: “Great, I’ve got mine, now close the gates. And gee, the value of my property keeps going up and up as wealthy gentrifiers snap up whatever becomes available at whatever price.” Are we ready for the million-dollar double-wide?

Problem is, we don’t have gates to close. Managing growth imagines that it can be done. But like pretty apartments, nobody in my 35 years of watching growth in Santa Fe has ever proven it can be done.

On the other hand, we can have “smart growth” — another value-laden term without consensus definition.

For me, it would start with harvesting, treating and reusing every drop of water that hits an impervious surface.

Santa Fe has the lowest per capita daily water use of anywhere in the western United States, which is impressive, but per capita water usage in Auckland, New Zealand, is half of Santa Fe’s.

To do better, pass new multifamily water-use restrictions as we have now on new single-family homes. Immediately.

The housing shortage is real, and the lack of affordable housing is a crisis. The proof is the ever-rising median price index of homes. All the “ugly” new apartments have barely made a dent in the problem, if at all. The city should bond to build infrastructure for new housing with tight strings attached so developers practice maximum sustainability and affordability.

Neighborhood character and managing growth is not about ugly or pretty buildings. It is always about people. Especially people whose roots are deep and with a wish for their kids and grandkids to live in the same town where they grew up. Even if it means renting an ugly apartment.

Kim Shanahan has been a Santa Fe green builder since 1986 and a sustainability consultant since 2019. Contact him at shanafe@aol.com.

(4) comments

Gary Cascio

While Auckland may have half our annual water consumption, they also have 49 inches of rain a year compared to Santa Fe's 15 (which I guess has not gotten that high in years).

If Santa Fe had that much rain a year to water our yards and gardens I suspect our water consumption would get closer to Auckland's.

Stefanie Beninato

I can name a few, Kim. The city's renovated housing on W Alameda St and the project being done on Siler by Werwath's organization. Even though the latter is three stories, it has setbacks on upper floors and distance between the bldgs. My only regret is that it is oriented to have the greater mass facing E-W rather than N-S which would have taken advantage of solar gain.

Bill Roth

thanks Stephanie for the shoutout on the Siler Yards project. As for passive solar orientation? Always a good thing, but not necessarily a primary concern, given the fact one can build highly energy effect structures oriented any direction, with good decisions in regards to the building shell and mechanical systems... Which was made with that project, fortunately. It is Net Zero. And yes, the west Alameda units are some what visually pleasing. But, then again, I like Rail Yard Flats, and the Capital Flats project too, and find, like NM inter faiths housing project on Siler, they are appropriate architecturally for the neighborhood. In regards to restricting design? All those cool early turn of the century houses we love in and around south capital and Don gaspar? with the current design restrictions in place in the city core, those things would never had been allowed. Trying to dictate development decisions based on previous patterns never works. One needs to respond to current times, just like those builders did to accommodate an influx of easterners, with homes that reminde them of home! And yes- pass the multifamily green building code now, perfect timing with the pressure of new multifamily projects in the pipeline...

Barry Rabkin

Excellent column. Definitely one of your best. (I agree with all of your points.)

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