Bringing new life to the heart of the city
By Cyndi A. Wood
On the former campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, numerous buildings stand dark and empty, and there is a feeling of slumber. There is some activity—production companies have leased the Greer Garson Studios and temporary artist studios are being created in an unused building by Vital Spaces—but the relative quiet, amplified by restrictions due to the pandemic, belies the robust development efforts underway to breathe new life into the area with a vibrant, new Midtown District.
When SFUAD closed two years ago, it handed 33 buildings on 64.22 acres back to the city of Santa Fe, an unusually large site for a city this size. “For a while now the city’s been looking at how to redevelop and redefine St. Michael’s Drive and portions of Cerrillos Road to spur mixed-use development that integrates housing and work opportunities on a pedestrian-friendly streetscape,” says James Feild, senior vice president for land development, Cienda Partners. “This development can really have a transformational effect not only on the campus, but on the whole Midtown area of Santa Fe.”
In 2018, the city launched a public engagement campaign to generate ideas for the property’s redevelopment. Common themes began to gel, and this input helped create guidelines for the future development effort. The vision is to create a dynamic urban district in the geographical heart of the Santa Fe that benefits residents throughout the city, a community in which to live, work, play, and learn in an environment of innovation and creativity. The city guidelines prioritize mixed-use and residential housing, technology and innovation, higher education, film and multimedia, public open spaces, and arts and culture.
At the same time as the city was doing this work, local individuals and organizations with an interest in developing the site were already coalescing, basing their ideas on the public input and envisioning a collaborative campus with arts, film, education, and housing. “Santa Fe has always been known as a center of art and creativity,” says Alexander Dzurec, principal of Autotroph Designs. “And we’re really trying to expand that for the 21st century to include cutting-edge forms of technology and artwork and jobs that people could actually make into careers.”
Sage Morris-Greene is the project planning coordinator for Team Midtown, the selected development group, and she and Justin Golding began the early discussions and formed the initial team. “While we were putting together local team members, we focused on partnerships—who was going to work well together to create co-programs for a really vibrant environment where you are giving people many different options and opportunities,” Morris-Greene explains. “For example, the higher education partners—UNM, Santa Fe Community College, Higher Education Center, and YouthWorks—are working with the film studios and the public high schools so that students of all ages and backgrounds can start onto this education pathway. We’re going to have studios specifically for the students so they can be training with equipment right away, and they’ll be able to intern at the studios. So we’re setting up education pathways that lead directly to a career right on the campus.”
To develop such a complex campus environment, they reached out to KDC and Cienda Partners, companies with strong ties to Santa Fe that together bring experience in commercial development, public-private partnerships, and historic rehabilitation. This May, the City officially selected Team Midtown to begin pre-development activities. These activities include surveying the condition of the existing buildings, their contents, and facilities to see what can be repurposed, as well as continuing to engage the public and gather information and feedback. This phase will take at least a year, and possibly more.
The public input portion of this effort has been derailed somewhat by the emergence of the novel coronavirus. The Meet the Developer series had to be moved online, with the presentations, discussions, questions, and feedback streaming through the city’s YouTube channel. “We’re going to have to wait to some extent until we can actually meet with people in public again and reach out to diverse members of the community so that they can be included the process,” says Morris-Greene. “And that’s important to us. We definitely want people to be seen and heard.”
Once gatherings are possible, the developers hope to have a safe, socially distanced public engagement event once every month or two, and the community
partners and the city will likely hold events, as well. The team has also planned early activation events to reinvigorate excitement for the site and get people to see the buildings in order to prompt ideas. Team Midtown will use their website to provide updates, post plans, conduct polls, and gather other forms of feedback.
While this input will inform the plan and eventual design, the team is not starting from scratch. “Because we’re starting with the information that was gathered by the city,” Morris-Greene says, “the guiding principles for our plans are the same things the citizens said they wanted.” Stantec, the national urban design firm, worked with these goals and design principles along with the Midtown Team’s thoughts to come up with a starting point. “We quickly coalesced around the idea that there probably needs to be a central promenade running between the Fogelson Library and the existing quad that connects to Cerrillos Road,” Feild says. “We’re also trying to weave everything together so there’s not just an education district over here and a film district over there. We want the various uses to work together to encourage people onto our pretty, new, walkable streets.”
Dzurec says, “This is really a great opportunity to look back at Santa Fe’s past and learn from it, but do it in a way that’s forward thinking. I see it as a place for architecture that is still rooted in historical precedents, with plazas and courtyards, portales and colonnades, and stepped building forms, but in a much more modern and contemporary way.”
“We are very committed to keeping the buildings that we know have a profound history in Santa Fe,” Morris-Greene says, “so the Fogelson Library, Greer Garson Theater, Garson Studios, Benildus Hall, the Visual Arts Center, those kinds of buildings we’re definitely going to keep. It will take some time to go through and make sure that the due diligence is done correctly, that we understand the buildings’ significance properly, that we have adequately catalogued the arts and the inventory.”
Feild says he has never worked on any project that has such a treasure trove of existing art, furniture, fixtures, and equipment. “I don’t think there’s anyone that could tell you what all is here. Every time we go into a building, my head spins at the assets that the city owns and can be put to good use, that need to be inventoried and taken care of.” The Fogelson Library has existing library books but also a collection of fine art and rare books and pottery. Other buildings have rare photography collections. A signed piece of furniture in the Visual Art Center may be an important artwork. And on and on. “And sometimes it’s a little spooky, you know. You open a door and look in what had been a classroom or a darkroom, and it looks like people just set the pencil down and walked out.”
For historic preservation of the artworks, the team will be working with the Christian Brothers and others to determine what needs to be conserved and how. Some of the artworks may be placed with local museums. And then there is the significant amount of public art on campus, such as the murals and sculptures. “Because a big part of our development is walkability and outdoor public spaces,” says Morris-Greene, “we’d like to create a walking art path throughout the campus that has a lot of these pieces situated on it, and also commission new artworks from local artists to weave together the past and the future.”
The team has also discovered that the existing utility and information grids on campus are quite outdated. “We’re going to be building a whole lot of new square footage, so now is really a great time to look holistically and think big picture about technology, energy, and other infrastructure systems,” Dzurec says. The team is looking at microgrid work and sustainability efforts on a whole campus level and considering what is needed to future-proof the site in terms of technology and environmental sustainability.
Flexibility in buildings is going to be key, explains Dzurec. “One of the things brought about by COVID-19 is that a house isn’t just a house anymore, it’s also an office. It’s exciting to see how this notion of work and social distancing are going to play into design and planning in the future, and determine how we can provide flexibility in our master plan to allow things to change over time and not become obsolete within 10 or 20 years.”
But as an early effort, signs point to the film industry. “There are production companies that have the Garson Studios leased today and others that would like to be there as soon as they can,” Feild says. “That tells us that if we were able to produce some new soundstages we could probably start to get those jobs on site faster. So that may be the place we start working first.”
Members of Team Midtown include KDC and Cienda Partners as the master developers. Local team partners continue to be added and include: for education, University of New Mexico, Santa Fe Community College, Higher Education Center, and Santa Fe Art Institute; for housing, HomeWise, Yes Housing, Aberg Property Company, and Phase One Realty; community members Christus St. Vincent’s, YouthWorks, and Live Arts Santa Fe; and for entertainment, La Fonda on the Plaza and Pacifica Ventures, representing the film industry and creator of the Albuquerque Studios. Consultants include Sage Morris-Greene and Justin Golding; Stantech Urban Design, Architecture and Engineering; Hogan Group; and Autotroph Design.