Finding enough places for people to live in Santa Fe has been challenging for decades, especially when the word “affordable” is added to the mix.
That’s why, as Santa Fe’s homebuilding boom continues, it makes sense to add retail spaces as another location where homes and apartments can be placed. Why not? More people are shopping online and companies are allowing remote work, two trends on the rise during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, the need for retail space — for offices, shopping or small businesses — appears to be declining. Empty buildings are becoming as common as weeds in the medians, and it does no one in Santa Fe any good to leave them vacant.
Homewise CEO Mike Loftin and others are looking at strip malls — something Santa Fe has in plentiful supply — as one starting point for commercial/residential building. The possibilities are clear: Place living units in one spot while putting cafes, coffee shops, salons or boutiques in another. A benefit would be residents who can walk to patronize local businesses, as well as business owners or employees who can walk to work.
For years, though, the idea that retail space might turn into residences has been more of a what-if conversation — something that has happened in empty malls on the East Coast or in metropolitan warehouses, but rarely in places like Santa Fe. Instead, we’ve seen residential areas transformed into business spaces, as occurred on Canyon Road and around downtown, where former homes are now law offices and art galleries.
Now, with retail space emptying, city leaders, developers and those in the nonprofit sector with money to invest in affordable housing can take empty buildings and put them to better use. One developer is already taking the lead in this effort.
Jeff Branch, developer of San Isidro Plaza near Cerrillos Road and Zafarano Drive, isn’t thinking only about empty retail space — he’s moving now to reimagine his shopping center to one with tenants and traffic and — even during the pandemic — thriving stores.
The 14-screen Regal movie theater, to be sure, is closed because of the pandemic, but local businesses such as Plaza Café Southside are operating. The Lowe’s home improvement store anchors the center and has been open throughout the crisis. Branch’s vision could show how retail space can be transformed.
Parts of the center would become apartments, with 15 percent of the 180 to 200 residences meeting the city’s affordability standards. The theater complex is slated for “experiential” retail — there’s talk of a children’s discovery museum — with Meow Wolf founder Vince Kadlubek signed on to help imagine what could be. Most impressively, Branch wants to remove the parking lot as major design feature to improve density — the lots are “antiquated,” he argues. Instead, there would be a plaza and food hall, places to attract families and allow entrepreneurs room to experiment.
For folks on the south side, the new design would provide places to shop, be entertained and to try different experiences.
What happens at San Isidro could affect empty lots and buildings in other parts of town, most obviously the abandoned Kmart on St. Michael’s Drive. Repurpose that building, turn vast asphalt lots into office or retail spaces, and the world begins to look different. It’s urban infill of the sort that won’t offend the neighbors — always a problem in Santa Fe when new housing is being proposed.
Transforming the parking lots can’t just be about filling in the asphalt with buildings, either. Planting trees, using green design and creating structures that consume less energy and water all can be part of improvements. Just reducing asphalt square footage is good for the planet, especially if what remains is built so runoff can drain to the ground below.
Empty retail spaces aren’t the only targets for transformation. Hotels are being bought and repurposed for affordable housing — the hospitality sector also has been hit hard by the pandemic, and creating more permanent quarters for lodgers could prove a better business model going forward.
Transformation can be expensive and isn’t always possible because of the cost of retrofitting and repurposing. That’s when governmental policy can come in, perhaps with tax credits and other incentives for developers who take eyesores and make them into safe, affordable housing.
For now, we are watching Branch’s plans for San Isidro Plaza. He presented his initial plans at a recent Early Neighborhood Notification meeting and expects to return in February with an amended development plan to submit to the city. He’s not reacting; he’s rethinking conditions on the ground. Such ventures could help Santa Fe provide housing and revitalize our city — both of which we need to emerge from this era of upheaval and uncertainty.