Matthew Brown admits to feeling both inspired and overwhelmed when he thinks about the future of the vast former Santa Fe University of Art and Design campus and the purpose it will someday serve to the larger city.
“It really is an amazing thing to contemplate,” says Brown, who is the director of the City of Santa Fe’s Office of Economic Development.
“You can’t help but wonder what the whole thing will look like in a decade or so when it’s alive and vibrant with students and others milling about,” he says.
Brown adds that it will also be nice at that point to look back and say “Hey, we were all a part of making this happen,” he says.
In using the word “all,” Brown is specifically referring not just to city leaders and staff, but the thousands of Santa Fe residents, workers, and business owners who have engaged in a months-long process this year fashioning a roadmap for the sprawling open space and more than thirty structures making up the campus.
Earlier this summer the Economic Development Department released its comprehensive Midtown Campus Project Final Report that called for an environmentally and economically sustainable development on the campus that would include housing, walking and biking paths, and green building features, all designed to connect with the surrounding community.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” enthused Mayor Alan Webber upon the release of the document.
Noting that Santa Fe itself is committed to the issues of economic development, sustainability, housing, and attracting and keeping young people in the city, Webber said the campus redevelopment effort addresses “all of those opportunities and all of those needs in one project.”
For many, the imagined future of the campus has proved engaging largely because of its past.
An additional sense of investment in the property felt by many residents is augmented by the fact that it is owned by the city, which is now working to pay off a debt on the land totaling more than $2 million.
Originally the home of St. Michael’s College, the campus and institution was renamed the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in 2009 by the for-profit Laureate Education, Inc. with high hopes that a growing debt and declining enrollment might be reversed.
But by mid-2015, as reported in the Santa Fe New Mexican, the university had “racked up a net loss of nearly $7.6 million.”
In the summer of 2017, school officials sent out a press release stating that due to financial challenges, “the university cannot continue to operate after the end of the 2017-2018 academic year.”
The release added: “This was a very difficult decision.”
Even as the last of the remaining 160 students or so wrapped up their classes this spring, city officials began what has turned out to be a sweeping and exhaustive study of what should happen to the property next.
That inclusive process has centered on a series of collaborative research sessions generating suggestions regarding the need for housing on the campus, as well as facilities dedicated to education, art, and film.
Participants also repeatedly expressed a desire for a transformed campus that would be a part of the larger city itself.
“We tried very hard to get people from all walks of life involved in order to get as many different perspectives as possible,” notes Brown.
“We wanted to make sure that not just a few voices dominated the process,” he adds.
A subsequent survey of the respondents revealed, among other priorities, that 87 percent were in favor of maintaining the on-campus Garson Studios for film and television production; with 77 percent wanting a working library on site; 58 percent support affordable housing; and 57 percent in favor of seeing studio and/or living-working spaces.
Much less popular were proposals to use some of the campus for government offices, shops and cafes, and a dog park.
Now, with all of this input to absorb, city officials are in the process of drafting a series of Requests for Proposals, the biggest one of which, says Brown, “will be for a party or group of people to come together and develop a land use development plan for the property.”
There will also most likely be RFPs for an organization to do an economic analysis evaluating the various campus redevelopment ideas.
Once the RFPs are published, the city will establish a review panel to review responses, with the goal of ultimately selecting a winning bid.
To many, all of this may seem like progress at a snail’s pace. But participants in the process, as well as city officials, have emphasized from the start that the transformation of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design campus cannot be an overnight thing.
“We all want to do this right,” says Brown, “and that means moving with some urgency and speed, but also with discipline and prudence.”
The RFPs are expected to be issued in just a matter of weeks.
By Garry Boulard
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