Recent controversy over a local building heights proposal is symptomatic of how Santa Fe, no longer a small town, continues to struggle with urbanization after decades of sprawl.
City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta sponsored a bill to allow certain projects to build up to 75 feet in select locations. However, just before it was scheduled to get a hearing before the Planning Commission, he withdrew the proposal.
The bill would have amended the city’s land development code to establish two new types of projects: “qualifying innovation projects” and “qualifying innovation village projects” consisting mostly of offices for people in jobs or industries that help build the local economy and residential developments.
Some residents, including members of the Old Santa Fe Association, had concerns administrators would be able to approve such projects without adequate public input.
While city Planning Manager Noah Berke said a preliminary development plan still would have required neighborhood notification and public hearings, the idea touched on the locally sensitive issue of building heights.
Not just building heights, but housing densities are often a source of complaint about proposed developments, including projects outside Santa Fe’s architecturally controlled historic districts, which already include some of the city’s densest neighborhoods.
Urban planners have long noted the efficiencies and community benefits of fostering compactness versus gobbling up vacant land at the margins, which is the pattern of many postwar American cities in the automobile age. Public transit is less viable, pedestrian life virtually disappears for many and municipal services such as police and fire protection become ever more costly, not to mention environmental impacts.
Certainly, taller buildings are not appropriate everywhere, and the issue is likely to be addressed when the City Council next considers changes to its general plan, last updated in 1999.
We can’t allow the invisible hand of the marketplace to guide all land-use decisions. But any notion that a new structure taller than two stories is inherently bad would be misguided.
Issues spawned by population growth have been a friction point in local politics for many years, even while the city inexorably spreads south and commercial clutter lines its southernmost entrance. And city and county decision-makers have not always seen eye to eye on expanding the urban area.
With growth, Santa Fe is far from a dying town. But it’s most certainly a changing city, and that is the rub. It’s not just long-term worries over water supply, it’s often what is happening to the skyline or mountain views, or to that old Santa Fe semirural aesthetic where coyote fences were once meant to actually keep out coyotes.
Longtime residents, many with deep ancestral roots, can feel resentment toward the changes. Some are OK with it.
But even if you think stopping growth is a good idea, slamming the gate on would-be newcomers or people who simply want to live inside the city where they work has never been viable. Nonetheless, managing change at a rate at which the vast majority of townsfolk can absorb is difficult.
While brown stucco building styles have extended beyond the city’s more tightly regulated zones, things are more dynamic outside the historic core. Multistory apartment blocks have sprung up in the Railyard and immediately south along biking and walking trails with easy access to shopping and transportation hubs. They also have been rising farther south in a city with low vacancy rates and rents that remain unaffordable for many.
This is not all bad, and we believe there are appropriate places for construction of more multiple-story buildings after ample opportunity for public input.