Santa Fe city government has to decide what to do the 64-acre college campus it owns, including the Greer Garson Theatre, after the Santa Fe University of Art and Design shuts down. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The people have spoken. An array of Santa Fe creatives translated those words to concepts. And the people spoke again. Now, it’s up to city government to come up with what city planners are calling a “strategic vision” for the 64 acres of prime real estate near the geographic center of town that will soon be vacated by the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Mayor Alan Webber in an interview at City Hall on Wednesday. “Getting clarity about what we think the future use of that property is that best serves the future residents of Santa Fe is a big deal.”

Current residents, too, but the point is that the decisions made in the next few months will last for generations.

A year ago this week, the city received notice from Laureate International Universities, which has operated the for-profit university on the campus for the past nine years, that it would close the school at the end of the current school year. SFUAD’s last graduating class will go through commencement ceremonies in three weeks, and the lease with Laureate expires June 30.

Since learning the news, what to do with the property became a $40 million question. That’s how much the city still owes on a loan it took out with the State Finance Authority to purchase the property when the College of Santa Fe folded in 2009. While revenue generated from leasing the property to Laureate covered debt service payments to the state for the past nine years, the city is now on the hook for payments of $2.23 million a year for the next 17 years.

The city would love to attract another institution of higher learning to the property, but nothing has materialized yet, and may not. Yet, as identified through a community survey conducted in January and February, the city may be able use the site to address other issues, such as expanding affordable housing inventory, and growing the film and digital media industries.

The online survey was part of the “collection phase” for the Midtown Campus Project, a three-phase process led by the city’s Economic Development Department that is supposed to culminate in a “Final Strategic Vision” for the property. That would essentially be a road map for how to proceed with developing the property that already contains valuable assets, such as the Garson Studios professional film studio, the well-equipped Greer Garson Theatre and the Fogelson Library.

Public participation

There’s a lot of lingo to digest as the project moves forward. The city’s description of the Midtown Project says the end product will not be a “master plan” or a “development plan.”

“Rather, we are developing a strategic vision that defines the desired uses and combinations of those uses; defines undesired uses; identifies buildings most likely to be retained, repaired or replaced; and identifies optimal locations for infill and those for retaining as public spaces,” it says.

But City Councilor Mike Harris, whose district includes the campus, prefers using a different phrase for what the project is working toward.

“I use ‘civic consensus,’ ” he said in an interview Wednesday. “What I hoped would be accomplished as a result of this process is a civic consensus about what can be done with the property.” Harris said the emphasis throughout the process has been to let the public define the campus’ future use. “It’s meant to be an engagement process and, overall, I think it’s been a dynamic process.”

The process was led by Matt Brown, the city’s economic development director since June. With a background helping to develop Bay Area startups, working with Fortune 500 companies, and consulting for Toys R Us and Disney, Brown adopted some of the same methodologies he used while working in the private sector.

“This process was designed to fundamentally be market research, using some of the same techniques used in market research, which is part of my background, as well as collaboration and some traditional public processes,” he said. “So the design of this has really been a kind of intersection with a couple different disciplines.”

Brown said the public outreach component is critical. The public is involved in two of the three phases.

“I’m grateful for the public participation. It’s been incredibly valuable,” he said.

After gathering information from more than 2,200 survey responses during the collection phase, the “visioning phase” was set in motion. The city hired five design teams consisting of architects, urban planners, landscape designers and developers to create descriptions and visual representations for what the campus could become, based on the public input received in the first phase.

Atkins Olshin Schade Architects; the architectural planning firm Autotroph; Spears Horn Architects; Strata Design, in partnership with radicle and Groundwork Studio; and Surroundings Studio were each paid a $5,000 stipend to produce conceptual ideas for the campus.

All the firms are local. They came up with different ideas and philosophies for mixing housing, education, film industry and open or recreation spaces on the property

Last week, the final Evaluation Phase got underway with a public viewing of those ideas. All five teams presented their visions to the public at three different sites around the city and received more feedback about how their designs might be refined.

For those who missed the viewing sessions, summaries and videos of the presentations can be viewed on the city’s website, www.santafenm.gov. Be prepared to spend some time – there are many documents to first find and then sort through, as well as a lot of aspirational language from the designers. The public still has through Sunday to comment on the ideas through a survey accessed from the website.

A linear sequence

Councilor Harris attended one of the viewing sessions, and liked what he heard and saw.

“People were engaged and were asking questions of the presenters. For me, it worked and I hope it worked for a number of other people,” he said.

Harris had high praise for the design teams and the renowned Santa Fe Institute multi-disciplinary think tank, which helped coordinate the visioning phase. For him, each design team took a different approach that leads in the same direction.

“When you look at them, to me, there’s kind of a linear sequence to the five proposals, starting with the Strata design. They’re the ones who describe a phased approach to the campus, which I think is entirely appropriate,” he said.

Strata and its collaborators came up with what they call a “Creative Innovation Watershed.” It likens its three-phase approach to a watershed, infiltrating, meandering and replenishing.

“One of the points they make is that during the first phase, it’s important to keep the campus alive, and I think that presentation is a good starting point,” Harris said.

Next, in his view, comes the Surroundings presentation, which calls for creating an “EcoDistrict” to drive development with sustainable infrastructure.

“Really what they are saying is in order to keep this moving forward, we have to consider how infrastructure is developed at the site,” he said.

“The proposed Mid-Town EcoDistrict plan leverages existing street infrastructure to create a city block grid of flexible infrastructure corridors,” a synopsis of the group’s effort states. “This reuse and renew approach can markedly reduce infrastructure costs over an all ‘new’ strategy.”

Then, Harris said, comes the “Midtown Motion Link” that was presented by Spears Horn Architects. “Spears’ presentation was an urban plan specific to the 64 acres,” Harris said. “They think it’s important to continue with the urban form of downtown Santa Fe, with buildings close to the street and on-street parking.”

A central plaza is part of a conceptual vision for the soon-to-be-vacated Santa Fe University of Art and Design campus prepared by architectural planning firm Autotroph.

The Autotroph and Atkins Olshin Schade presentations expanded that vision, he said. “They tackled the problem in a similar way and looked at what might be possible with outlying properties that are owned by the state of New Mexico, the federal government and privately owned,” he said.

Within the visions were ideas addressing the height, location, colors and architectural style of buildings; what types of housing and commercial units might be included; and, for open spaces, landscaping, sustainable planning, and creating new locations for ingress and egress.

‘A lot of moving parts’

So what happens next?

“Before too long, we need to talk about some of the things that will be happening at the property this summer,” Harris said, hinting that there may be news relating to activity on the film front. “Nothing is set. Hopefully, we can announce something soon.”

Independent of talk about what to do with the property itself, Harris said there may be more the city can do to refinance or pay off part of that $40 million still owed for the city’s purchase of the campus.

“The critical discussion will be covered in the next 18 months when we get into what to do about renewing the bond, refinancing the bond and potential sale of parts of the property,” he said. “There’s really a lot of moving parts to all this.”

At one point, a review panel will be involved, economic development director Brown said, “to make sure we haven’t missed anything and remove bias.” The panel would be made up of about 15 people selected to represent “the totality of our community,” he said.

In the end, it will be a matter of the Economic Development Department putting all the information that’s been gathered into the “Final Strategic Vision” for presentation to the mayor and City Council, where issues such as a governing structure for the development will be considered.

Mayor Webber said the end result will be a framework for moving forward with plans.

“We’ll need to be able to entertain relationships going forward with a need for a governance structure to set up how those are done, whether it’s along the model of Tierra Contenta (where a corporation was created by the city to implement a master plan for residential development) or some other model where there are public-private shared relationships, or there’s a governing board that says we will take the city’s interests and represent them to developers,” he said.

“That’s the next step – to work those details.”

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