February 27, 2017

Santa Fe legislators seek curbs on parcel’s redevelopment

Santa Fe is the hometown of the state’s two most powerful legislators, and they are using their collective might to try to restrict what can be developed on the downtown parcel that’s now home to Garrett’s Desert Inn and Santa Fe Bite restaurant.

Speaker of the House Brian Egolf and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth grew up in and around Santa Fe’s Historic District, so they have written Senate Bill 409 to protect it. The measure would shape redevelopment at 311 Old Santa Fe Trail.

The New Mexico State Land Office acquired the 2.7 acres in a land swap. State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn said there is interest from developers across the country in a 60-year lease with the state to bring in retail, residential and commercial tenants.

The property sits 1,000 feet from the Plaza and in the middle of the city of Santa Fe’s Historic District, which is governed by the Historic Design Ordinance that promotes Spanish-Pueblo Revival and Territorial architectural styles. If the Garrett’s site were not owned by the state, any project would be subject to the city ordinance, which includes height and density restrictions similar to other private buildings in and around downtown Santa Fe.

Dunn said his office has an obligation to maximize the return for the property’s beneficiary, The University of New Mexico. He told those interested in the project that he wants them to honor Santa Fe building and design codes, but he would be able to move a project forward if the restrictions became unreasonable. Representatives of the city of Santa Fe will be among those who help rank the bidders, Dunn said, but he will make the final selection.

Egolf and Wirth, though, have a different vision for protecting Santa Fe’s Historic District. Their bill would subject state building projects to local and municipal government standards, such as the design, construction, alteration or demolition of the exterior features.

Wirth told a Senate committee that the bill would prevent a 10-story building on the Garrett’s site that would detract from the surrounding architecture. The measure has cleared two Senate committee — with Republicans largely in opposition — and now heads to the full Senate.

Egolf said Monday that tourism, preservation and architecture are an important part of why tourists visit Santa Fe.

“I would hate to see something done with that tract that would detract from Santa Fe,” he said.

Wirth is the grandson of architect John Gaw Meem, and used to sit on the board of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation. Meem helped design buildings such as the Christo Rey Church and Zimmerman Library at The University of New Mexico, and he headed a committee in 1957 that authored Santa Fe’s historic district ordinance.

Egolf still lives in the house where he grew up, just north of downtown, and is a past winner of the city of Santa Fe’s Historic Preservation Award. Such personal ties to the state capital’s historic core have motivated both legislators to try to make certain that city standards are honored in any redevelopment.

Dunn’s office is set to put out a request for bids in May with the award selection scheduled for late August. Proposals include those who want to see a hotel at the site, and others who are proposing a mixed-use project for both commercial and residential tenants. A retirement community is also interested in the lease.

The Land Office has determined that a fair price would start at $250,000 a year. The deal would include annual increases and perhaps a share of any gross revenues.

“It’s unfortunate, but if the bill passes, we may be forced to leave Garrett’s the way it is, which would undermine my efforts to generate additional revenue for The University of New Mexico, which is the beneficiary of the property,” Dunn said in a statement.

“The unfounded rumors about a 10-story building to be built are creating hysteria and jeopardizing my efforts to earn revenue for UNM,” he added.

Managers at the Land Office said a 2009 state law approved after a Santa Fe neighborhood dispute establishes a process for permitting state projects inside the city’s historic districts. But that only applies to buildings funded with public money. The winner of the bid for 311 Old Santa Fe Trail would likely have private financing.

Contact Bruce Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.com