Senior living, downtown style

December 7, 2018

A new three-story independent senior living facility on Old Taos Highway won final approval Thursday evening from the city Planning Commission, assuring a transformation of the streetscape on the north end of downtown near the Scottish Rite Temple.

The 68-unit complex will be an adjunct community of El Castillo, the nonprofit retirement home on East Alameda Street. The new development is to be called La Secoya de El Castillo, a reference to the large sequoia tree on the Old Taos Highway property, formerly home to the Ghost Ranch conference center owned by Presbyterian Church Corp.

Developers say they will attempt to move that 55-foot tree, placing it a more prominent spot on the 2.52-acre lot, along with two other “significant” trees on the site, according to a city case file.

Al Jahner, chief executive of El Castillo, said construction could begin in June. He estimated the construction timeline at 18 months. The property will consist of both one- and two-bedroom units and an underground parking lot.

There is already a waiting list for the new senior facility, Jahner said.

The 36-foot height of the 197,000-square-foot structure — more than 13 feet taller than what was previously allowed at the site — earned the approval of the city’s Historic Districts Review Board earlier this year after negotiations with developers, who agreed to massing setbacks and other changes.

City staff determined the height of La Secoya would not be out of character for the immediate surrounding area, where the Scottish Rite Temple (40 feet, 4 inches) and U.S. District Court structure (57 feet) stand nearby.

Planning commission members on Thursday questioned the height allowance, and although their approval was unanimous, several made it clear they were less than enthused by the developers’ rationale: That the third floor was needed for the project to be economically viable.

“I think I’m reluctantly in favor of this,” said Commissioner Sarah Propst. “It’s a tough one.”

A handful of community members raised concerns about the project, including what they claimed was the potential for increased traffic and the overall size of the development.

Jennifer Jenkins, an agent representing the developers, said the new senior complex was precisely the sort of housing project needed in downtown Santa Fe, particularly as the city’s population continues to trend older. “Do we need another hotel? No. Do we need more galleries? Probably not,” Jenkins said. “But we do need people. That’s what makes [downtown] vital, keeps it alive.”

Some commissioners questioned whether the sequoia would surivive the move.

Jahner said El Castillo has a specialist contractor in place who has a “98 percent success ratio.”

Jahner said total cost of the project is in the “$40 million range.”

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