“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” said Alexander Pope in 1733.
If Pope were around today following the machinations of the midtown campus development, his optimism would be misplaced.
Still, every new entity brought on to “help” our dreams for midtown brings forward fresh enthusiasm and hope. It is touching to see but ultimately frustrating for long-term watchers. And so it is today with folks from the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning and the Bay Area design firm Opticos.
They are facilitating a new round of listening and community engagement to see if anything has changed since we were listened and engaged in 2018. Having been engaged and heard this past Wednesday in a one-hour, small-group format at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, not much has changed. Except patience.
That is gone, at least for me.
Earnest newcomers build on optimism from the city’s purchase of the campus in 2009, which led to optimism by the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, which failed in 2017. Then optimistic Bay Area transplant Matt Brown was hired to run the Office of Economic Development and inherited the challenge.
Brown’s background was an entrepreneur in gaming. He devised a “fun” engagement process that led to a handful of local design firms offering visions. The public was invited to put colorful stickers on them to show support. That led to the official adoption of the 2018 “vision” by the City Council.
Then Matt Brown left and was replaced by another Bay Area transplant, Rich Brown, who brought in another Bay Area expert, Daniel Hernandez, to oversee a curious process called a Request for Expressions of Interest. Teams coalesced to express interest, and seven potential master developers submitted hopeful proposals.
One group was selected for serious negotiations but fled after realizing it was buying a pig in a poke. In so many words, the group said the city should pay it to take the thing off Santa Fe’s hands. Decrepit infrastructure, old buildings, onerous civic engagement and no real offer of any financial help led to “thanks, but no thanks.”
Now the city has decided it can be its own master developer. News flash: No, it can’t. There is history on how it could be done. The city bought vast acreages on the south side in the early 1990s and then also the Railyard area.
Both were successfully developed, but not by the city. Instead, nonprofit corporations were established with real developers with real development experience to run the shows. Not planners and visionaries; hard-nosed developers. It kept city politics at arm’s length.
Both developments survived five different mayoral administrations. The current impetus for midtown development could be over after the Nov. 2 city election and we’d be back to square one. Again.
The Opticus people are designers, planners and architects. Their presence implies they have been engaged to carve up tracts, figure out roads and access points, and divvy up spaces to satisfy the broad menu of community desires.
Meanwhile, the city has still not executed the land swap with the state that former city asset manager Matt O’Reilly negotiated, nor come to an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service on its land adjacent to the campus. Both parcels block connectivity to Franklin E. Miles Park and Camino Carlos Rey. Without those properties under city control, master planning is futile.
A more fitting Pope quote would be: “A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying in other words the he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”