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Santa Fe Railyard celebrates 10 years as ‘people’s place’

September 14, 2018

In January 1997, about 100 Santa Fe residents piled into an exhibition space at the Center for Contemporary Arts, picked up crayons, markers and pencils in a rainbow of colors, split into teams and drafted a course into the city’s future.

Despite having little to no experience in city planning or site design, residents sprawled out plans on large tables and set to work doodling and discussing. Their task: Design plans for one of the City Different’s most historically significant pieces of real estate — the then-blighted industrial expanse known as the Railyard.

“It was absolutely joyful to see people from all walks of life, all areas of the city, all ages come and spend days marking up site plans,” said Steve Robinson, an architect who now heads the board of the nonprofit that oversees the property.

What has followed since those sessions has been a decadeslong crawl to completion of the 50-acre property, punctuated by a crippling recession but spurred forward, onlookers said, by the same community passion that drove those early days.

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the Railyard’s grand opening. A decade in, the property, which spans the 40-acre north Railyard area along Guadalupe Street and a 10-acre tract near the intersection of Cerrillos Road and Baca Street, is 95 percent leased, with one parcel unspoken for. Vacancy in the buildings stands at 7 percent, with 90 percent of those empty storefronts in the beleaguered Market Station building, which houses REI.

The southern end of the Railyard, known as the Baca District, plays host to an eclectic mix of cafes, shops, studios, consignment shops, design centers and high-end furniture stores. A path connects the Railyard’s southern end to its northern hub, where on a busy Saturday, it’s not uncommon for all of the district’s 900 parking spaces to be filled, with residents and tourists alike flocking to a variety of events.

“The diversity of activities that happen here, the kinds of festivals and events, music and art and so forth — and therefore the diversity of people it draws — it’s really gratifying to see that come to fruition,” said Sandra Brice, who oversees marketing and events at the Railyard.

Still, getting to this point hasn’t been easy.

In 2005, Richard Czoski took the helm of the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp., the nonprofit contracted by the city to develop the Railyard. It was a time of intense activity, with construction nearly underway on the site’s $19 million infrastructure, and a push in motion to recruit developers.

The Railyard commission’s main charge then was to award ground leases to developers, who would own their structures while the city retained the land beneath. The Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp. collected rent on the land, paid its own expenses and then paid the balance to the city. The same system stands today.

But mere hours after the Railyard’s grand opening on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008, Lehman Brothers announced plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, setting off a period of intense volatility in an already downturned market. The Great Recession marched beyond Wall Street and settled over Santa Fe.

By the Railyard’s opening, Czoski had secured ground leases for 95 percent of the parcels, but financing dried up during the recession, and developers ran for the hills. It took the better part of 10 years to recover those commitments.

During that stretch, Czoski said he dropped rent prices and tried to get creative, but there wasn’t much he could do. Finding tenants would have been a tall order even for a private-sector commercial endeavor. The Railyard’s unique arts- and community-centric, local-first focus made the task even tougher, he said.

The great experiment

By the time residents drafted their multicolored site plans during that winter weekend in 1997, the question of what to do with the space had been one of the city’s most pressing issues for decades.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway had owned the land since before 1880, when the first train pulled into the Santa Fe Depot. But the coming of the interstate had reduced the once-vital rails to footnotes in the city’s transportation history. Railroad structures fell into disrepair, leaving city leaders under pressure to abate the blight.

Thus began a great experiment.

More than 6,000 Santa Fe residents contributed to an unprecedented public conversation about the Railyard’s future.

The city shelled out $21 million in 1995 to purchase the property from the Catellus Development Corp., an arm of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway.

“The city,” Robinson said, “took a leap of faith.”

The Railyard’s master plan, approved by the City Council in 2002, honored the requests of the original community-drawn plans, reserving three parcels for cultural uses and emphasizing the importance of supporting nonprofits and local businesses.

Robinson said locking in local tenants has been a boon for the community — but a drag on the project’s bottom line.

“Only a municipality can go out 20 or 30 years before it expects a financial return,” he said. He sees it as an investment in the city’s future.

Between the land purchase, construction of the 10-acre Railyard Park and the infrastructure, the city has invested $74 million in the project, paid through the issuance of four bonds. Two of those bonds were paid off in 2010. The balance should be paid by 2029, at which point the city stands to make a seven-figure sum each year.

The living room of Santa Fe

Long before the city reaps financial rewards from the project, the Railyard likely will be fully built out.

Market Station wrapped up a contentious bankruptcy process in February, and its new owners are actively seeking leases. Robinson said he estimates it’ll take 18 to 24 months for four leased but as yet unfinished parcels to be completed — two in the Baca District and another two near the water tower in the north Railyard.

“I see the Railyard growing into really central importance for the people of Santa Fe as a community asset, which was the original goal,” he said.

The delays along the way haven’t come without fallout.

Joe Schepps purchased the Sanbusco property just north of the Railyard in 1984, hoping to get in on the ground floor of what promised to be a booming commercial sector. He had a hunch trains would start running anew along the line, spurring development.

They did — but not until 2008.

“Pioneers get shot in the back by arrows sometimes,” he said.

Schepps waited for things to take off, but even when they did, the project’s density didn’t attract enough foot traffic to keep Sanbusco afloat, he said. That, combined with the downfall of his anchor tenant, Borders bookstore, spelled the end. He handed the keys back to the lender in 2012.

What Schepps sees now in the Railyard is a district that’s about 80 percent successful, he said. He bemoans the city’s decision to entrust so much of the planning to community members. Still, he said he can’t help but marvel at the district on those packed evenings when music is blaring from the Railyard plaza, Second Street Brewery is hopping and lines have formed at Violet Crown.

“I’ll walk out of the theater, and it blows my mind, and all I can think is what an idiot I was on the timing,” he said.

That collective community enjoyment, in a space he describes as the living room of Santa Fe, is exactly what Robinson said he’s hoped, all these years, to see the Railyard achieve.

“The people of Santa Fe have, by and large, come to appreciate it as their own,” he said. “And for me, that’s the most important consequence of this great experiment in deep democracy, is that it’s a people’s place.”

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