copyright 2008 by George Johnson
On the Plaza, New Year's Eve 2007, photo by George Johnson, copyright 2008
1. Retrofit Arithmetic (and Rainbarrel Economics)
2. The San Juan-Chama Shell Game
3. The Case of the Disappearing Aquifer
4. The Creative Hydrology of Suerte del Sur
5. The City, the County, and a Water Tax Revolt
6. Water Numerology at City Hall
(Our story thus far)
7. The Woman at Otowi Gauge
8. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
9. The Las Campanas Connection
(Our story continues)
10. The Engineering Solution
January 2, 2008
47. The "New Urbanism" Scam
A quote in Dan Boyd's story in Sunday's Journal about the zoning mess along Juanita Street is a perfect example of the Orwellian double-think by which otherwise good people persuade themselves they are doing the world a favor by helping destroy a neighborhood.
"I feel infill is an answer to global warming on a big scale," says Gayla Bechtel, a speculator who bought a lot on the old street of single-family homes and proceeded to erect a three-story condominium complex. Welcome to the "New Urbanism." Cram more people into the center of town, the theory goes, and they will consume less energy by shopping nearby and commuting a shorter distance to work.
What the New Urbanists don't mention, as they pocket the profits, is that this increased density puts more strain on infrastructure. Ms. Bechtel's project will be consuming three times more gas, electricity, and water than a single-family residence. It will be leaving three times more garbage and recycling on the curb each week to be carted away. It will be spewing three times more methane and carbon dioxide up the chimney and plumbing vents, and it will be discharging three times more sewage.
As more property is snapped up in the area and condominiumized, the strain will become so great that huge amounts of energy will have to be spent tearing up the streets and replacing the pipelines. Development impact fees won't begin to pay for this. The money will come from everyone's taxes. We all are subsidizing these self-congratulatory efforts to make a fast buck. Meanwhile the sprawl that infill is supposed to alleviate -- this is the No. 1 myth -- continues apace. We get the worst of both worlds.
At least we weren't told with a wink that the Juanita project will be a boon to affordable housing. (Sotheby's lists a new 1,500-square-foot condo on the street for $492,000 -- one block off traffic-choked St. Francis Drive. Enjoy the jake brakes and diesel fumes as you barbecue on your balcony.) Affordable housing was the excuse seized upon several years ago to weaken the land-use codes, leading to a stampede of lot-splits and more mansions on the Eastside. (Please see The Sorrows of San Acacio.)
In his story, Mr. Boyd gives the best account yet of how, way back in 1961, this area surrounding the downtown historic district was zoned RM (for multiple residential) and then forgotten -- until the recent real estate predation. And, he tells us, the same zoning fiasco was almost inflicted on the area between Camino del Monte Sol and Old Santa Fe Trail. It was stopped by neighborhood activists. Back then Juanita Street didn't have that kind of political sophistication.
I guess it was also around that time that the wedge between East Alameda and Palace was zoned RM, opening the way to all those apartment complexes that are being turned into condos -- with more yet to come. A major contender for Bad Development of the Year is on the 500 block of East Alameda (the driveway and address are on E. Palace) where a Texas speculator named Tony Martin (who also operates in Telluride and Napa Valley) is squeezing an entire multi-unit pueblominium in front of a beautiful old territorial-style house.
One consolation is that much of this junk will be languishing on the market for a long time. Judging from all the real-estate signs, almost the entire stretch of Alameda from Delgado Street to Camino Pequeo is for sale, as is the north side of Canyon Road from Cerrito to Alameda.
Postscript to my comments of December 23rd:
Two readers have written to commend another enterprising New Mexican piece from the week of December 18: Anne Constable's sharp analysis of the proposed merger between St. Vincent's Hospital and Christus Health. And Julia Goldberg, the editor of The Reporter, wrote on New Year's Eve to remind me of her paper's in-depth report by David Alire Garcia and Dave Maass on the Galiseo Basin drilling controversy. It's competition like this that keeps the New Mexican on its toes. And there is the heat from the Journal (it's really worth subscribing to the online edition) where Mr. Boyd has been leading the pack on the Buckman Diversion Project. Today we learn that construction bids came in as much as 20 percent higher -- about $30 million -- than what the city and county have budgeted. This could prove interesting . . .
January 10, 2008
Nightmare on Lincoln Street
The one bright moment in last night's mostly nauseating council meeting came just before 10 p.m. when Mayor Coss almost blew his top. I wish I'd had my recorder. Mr. Coss, a true gentleman, was able to maintain his cool, barely. With his teeth clenched and his voice aquiver, he expressed his frustration at the spectacle that had unfolded before him.
Once again the real estate industry had turned a hearing on a proposal to regulate and phase out illegal short-term rentals into a puppet show. Onstage were the workers and contractors whose very livelihood, they assured us, depends on keeping the wildcat industry afloat. (No one asked why they couldn't simply apply for jobs with the legal lodging industry -- hotels, bed and breakfasts, and properly zoned vacation rentals.) There were the out-of-towners with plaintive tales about buying second homes they couldn't afford, depending on illegal rentals to cover their mortgages. There were the anecdotal testimonials about how short-term renters were invariably Quality People, better really than a lot of us who live here. And there were the Quality People themselves, testifying about how much they shell out for three-figure dinners and shopping for luxury trinkets on the Plaza.
Finally there was Tom Simons, the lawyer for the management groups, who extracted permission to speak for nine minutes instead of three, with the promise that we wouldn't have to listen to his clients. (One of his opponents should have tried this: "I'm here representing the 20 members of my neighborhood association. How about if I talk for an hour instead of their storming the hall?") Among Mr. Simons's more incredible claims was that 40 percent of Santa Fe households are already rentals. The neighborhoods, in other words, are ruined anyway. Why not turn over the keys to the tourist industry?
Running through all this was the usual contradiction: On one hand we're to believe that short-term rentals are the linchpin of Santa Fe's economy. Rein them in and the whole house of cards will collapse. And yet there are actually so very few of them. A trifle. Not nearly enough to worry about.
In a few minutes of controlled rage, Mr. Coss managed to capture the infuriating cynicism of all this. I will try to tape the rebroadcast and get his exact words. Dan Boyd extracted a crucial sentence in his story this morning: "If it makes a buck for tourism, do we have to do it?"
With Patti Bushee calling in sick -- great timing -- and the ambassadors for the real estate industry -- Rebecca Wurzburger, Matthew Ortiz, and Carmichael Dominguez -- moving for yet another postponement, it was all just too much.
The game, of course, is to delay a decision until after the spring election. Karen Heldmeyer will be gone, replaced either by a REALTOR®, Robbie Dobyns, or Rosemary Romero (who mentioned at a candidate's reception Tuesday night that her brother is in the short-term rental business). And, the scofflaws hope, Miguel Chavez will be unseated by the carpetbagging Martin Lujan.
After this circus I woke up in the early hours of the morning from a nightmare: I was hiking up Atalaya Trail when I rounded a corner and was surprised by a waterfall. The euphoria immediately evaporated when I saw that a saloon -- pool tables, pounding rock music -- had been built over the water and beyond that, in an alpine meadow, a ramshackle lodge surrounded by tourist cabins. Milling about were thugs with cell phones cutting real estate deals.
Surreal to be sure but a symbol, and a fear, of what is really happening.
January 11, 2008
Patti Bushee called this morning, sounding like death itself, to insist that she really is down with the flu. I don't doubt her and didn't mean to imply otherwise -- only to convey a sense of frustration at how neatly a bad roll of nature's dice played into the management companies' hands. Patti also expressed her dismay at the cynicism that leads to rumors of back-door deals or implicit quid pro quos. We wish her a speedy recovery.
I also heard from Rosemary Romero, the Council District 2 candidate, who wanted to clarify that (at the reception mentioned above) she wasn't advocating for short-term rentals but simply making an honest disclosure.
January 12, 2008
Slums of Santa Fe, Part I
January 13, 2007
So maybe Tom Simons is right. There really are no neighborhoods here anymore, at least not in the most exclusive part of the historic East Side. How else to explain how an ugly trail of spray-paint vandalism all along Camino del Monte Sol could be left unattended for weeks?
I was driving home on December 17 when I noticed a bright blue tag at 965 Camino Santander, a block off Monte Sol ("the Camino" as some old-timers still call it). I reported it the same day to the Parks Department, which is in charge of combatting graffiti, and assumed that the matter would be quickly dealt with. In a story last fall in The New Mexican, Fabian Chavez, director of Parks, had promised to respond to citizen complaints within 24 hours. (Graffiti on city property is to be removed within 72 hours. If the vandalism is on private property, the owner has 10 days to remove it, after which a city crew is supposed to come out and abate the nuisance.)
If I'd continued along the Camino that day, I would have found much more to report: the same pseudo-Oriental scrawls extending down toward Acequia Madre. (A friend who owns a house in the area tells me that his tenants noticed the vandalism in December -- around the time that their car windows were shot out.) Yesterday morning as I walked the neighborhood with my camera, I saw the same tags on grand old homes along El Caminito and Camino Poniente -- two of the most desirable, expensive streets in town. (If you're curious about the owners you can run the addresses through the county's online property-tax database. The only name I recognized was of a prominent local landscape architect. One owner listed an address in Oregon, another in Minnesota. Maybe I'll send them picture postcards.)
In real neighborhoods, where there are homes owned (and occupied) by neighbors instead of real estate investors, people take pride in their community. They band together to remove graffiti themselves or report it to the city hotline. Maybe some of the Monte Sol residents did so, and their complaints, like mine regarding Santander, were ignored.
The police seem to care least of all. Would it really be so hard to connect the dots, to remember that the same tags appeared earlier last year on Camino de Cruz Blanca and are scribbled right now all over the State Labor Department headquarters downtown, across from the blighted De Vargas skateboard/graffiti park?
I am sorry if I sound like a broken record. I have been hammering away on this issue for more than 10 years, and the message never seems to get through.
To report graffiti click here.
January 22, 2008
. . . What Santa Fe could use is a governing body implacably hostile to real-estate development; implacably hostile to the idea of growth for its own sake or change for its own sake; any of those good, sound, virtuous American ideas. Because by changing the physical face of town you demoralize the population. You get them so used to sprawl and ugliness and homogenization that you can never again hope to have a town with unique qualities, but just another plastic American village.
If we could get people like, say, Hunter Thompson, who once ran for the mayor of Aspen, and who simply said in his campaign, "I am implacably hostile to these people you think are terrific, and if elected I will do everything in my power to frustrate them and, if possible, to run their asses out of town." They can go to Lubbock. Lubbock loves this kind of crap.
-- Richard Bradford, author of Red Sky at Morning, quoted in Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog (2001), an oral history of Santa Fe by John Pen La Farge
Lacking anyone vaguely resembling the late Hunter S. Thompson, the 2008 council campaign is off to a lackluster start with the candidates speaking in platitudes and gray generalities. With a couple of exceptions (Julie Ann Grimm on the questionable legality of Martin Lujan's campaign and Dan Boyd on the closed candidate forum conducted by the Santa Fe Association of Realtors), the press coverage has been part of the torpor. The hard questions are going unasked.
In my own district, Rosemary Romero ("Vote for Experience") promises on her web site to support "appropriate infill development," but what does she mean by "appropriate"? Would she support a moratorium on lot splits, which are already destroying the historic districts? She speaks of "addressing planning issues including enforcement," but which issues and enforcement of what? The ban on short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods? A strict interpretation of the much-abused ridgetop ordinance? She promises "protection and preservation of existing neighborhoods." Would that include reining-in the overdevelopment that has sapped the aquifer and turned the Santa Fe River into little more than a drainage ditch?
Like everyone Ms. Romero supports "affordable housing," but does she believe that developers of time-shares (like the ones planned by Greer Enterprises for the Lensic block) should be exempt from providing a percentage of affordable units? Should downtown condo developers (the Greers again, atop the First National Bank parking lot) be allowed to circumvent the affordable-housing requirement by making a donation instead? Does she support Councilors Bushee, Calvert, and Heldmeyer and Mayor Coss in their effort to close the land development loopholes (allowing for easier lot splits and higher density) that were cynically opened in the name of affordable housing? Ms. Romero wants our vote because of her history as a conciliator, which could certainly be useful at City Hall. But sometimes there can be no compromise.
It's not hard to guess where her opponent, Robbie Dobyns, past president of the Realtors Association, stands on these matters. His slogan, "Common Sense for the Common Good," has the friendly vacuity of the Berardinelli campaign of 2004. (Please see The Santa Fe Review archives.) His website is more specific than Ms. Romero's. In his "Plan for Santa Fe" he suggests that our water problems can be addressed by conservation and fixing leaks -- bandaids -- and by the elusive Buckman Diversion Project (which despite other benefits will not bring the city a net increase in water). More puzzling is his proposal that we
restore the Two Mile Reservoir to add water storage in wet years; potentially develop it as a recreation site for the citizens to enjoy; and potentially use it as a mechanism to restore the Santa Fe River.
But Two Mile Reservoir doesn't belong to the city, and it never did. After it became outmoded and was breached for safety reasons, the Public Service Company of New Mexico (former owner of the water company) gave it to the Nature Conservancy, which maintains it as a wildlife preserve. It already is a public recreation site, for walking, bird watching, communing with nature. Was Mr. Dobyns thinking of water skiing? In any case, the city -- even in the wettest years -- stores the maximum amount of water the law allows in the upstream reservoirs, Nichols and McClure. Two Mile would be superfluous. It could conceivably be used as a buffer for slowing the summer monsoon flow and controlling erosion -- if it were the city's property.
January 23, 2008
Short-term rentals again
I'm sure I'm not the only one who groaned when I saw in this morning's New Mexican that Rebecca Wurzburger had held a news conference to announce yet another iteration of her plan to legalize short-term rentals in residential zones. But by the time I got done with the story, I was thinking that maybe this wasn't such a bad compromise. All of the existing units would be allowed to operate indefinitely -- until the property changed hands. This would be a lot slower than the phase-out proposed by Mayor Coss and Councilor Chavez, but at least someday these zoning violations would be gone.
As it turns out the New Mexican left out the most crucial part of the story. We have to go to the Journal to learn that Ms. Wurzburger is making a backhanded attempt to ensure that this nuisance will be with us forever more. There would be a cap of 350 vacation rentals -- and when the number dipped below that, through attrition, a lottery would be held to award more licenses! And you'd get a discount if you operate a whole string of the businesses. Worst of all, Councilor Calvert is supporting this assault, meaning that he really is reneging on his campaign promise. (Please see Pulling a Pfeffer, August 23, 2007.) Unbelievable.
There is a major contradiction between the two stories. The New Mexican quotes Ms. Coss as being in "general agreement" with the Wurzburger amendments, while the Journal has him speaking as strongly as ever in favor of the phase-out: "I'm very sold on grandfathering, a tested legal method of eliminating land uses that are not consistent with the zoning of the city."
The outlook is grim. Councilor Ortiz, with his usual myopia, has made it clear that he doesn't care one way or another about the issue. There are no vacation rentals in his district. Might as well do Rebecca and her buddies a favor. It's an easy way to please rich people who might donate to a future campaign. Councilor Dominguez usually follows Mr. Ortiz's lead. With Mr. Calvert's betrayal, Councilor Wurzburger has her four votes.
In the past Councilor Trujillo has shown more independence than Mr. Dominguez, and his role could be pivotal. If he plays along with the realtors, the sell-out of Santa Fe's neighborhoods is complete. If he backs the Coss-Chavez bill, then it's 4-4 with the mayor voting to break the tie.
January 24, 2008
The Blue Monkey Cult
Judging from the letters one saw in the Reporter, the Blue Monkey had a fiercely loyal clientele. The popular hair salon on Montezuma Street was, it seems, the place to go if you needed your ice-blonde dreadlocks rewoven or a yellow stripe paved down the center of your head.
Even those of us long past the need for such services could sympathize when the Blue Monkey lost its lease. The county bought the building the salon was occupying to demolish it for construction of the new courthouse. The landlords, the Barker family, made out like bandits: $2.4 million for an approximately 5,000-square-foot structure in a neighborhood with a backlog of abandoned commercial property -- $1 million over appraisal, and that was before the real estate crash. But the proprietors of the Blue Monkey, who said they had spent $30,000 to remodel the place, were forced to move out.
And so the vitriol began -- the outraged letters to the editor, the abusive phone calls to county commissioner Harry Montoya. Never mind that the county had offered the salon $110,000 to relocate. A terrible injustice had been done. Dismissing the money as too paltry, Blue Monkey's owner announced that she was declaring bankruptcy and leaving town.
The coda to the story came on Tuesday when county workers arrived at the site in response to reports of a water leak. That was just the beginning of the trouble. The building had been trashed -- by some of Blue Monkey's grieving employees. Working themselves into a frenzy during a goodbye party, they smashed mirrors, splashed the floors with hair dye, marked the walls with obscenities aimed at Mr. Montoya -- committing an estimated $40,000 of felony vandalism before they got tired and went home. Though the building will be torn down anyway, the chemicals strewn about constitute an enviro-hazard, leaving the county with an estimated $5,000 or more of cleanup costs. The ultimate bad hair day.
Things have been pretty boring lately on the Tom Ford webcam, with nothing but a chimney visible above the treeline. But that may soon change. Doug McDowell, Mr. Ford's builder, wrote to me yesterday to warn that his crew will be placing a temporary construction tent over the mansion's guest house to keep the adobe mortar from freezing.
You may see it on your cam and I wanted to make sure you knew what it was. I only expect it to be there about four weeks or until the temperature improves.
Whatever one ultimately thinks of Mr. Ford's hilltop retreat, Mr. McDowell's professionalism and respect for the neighbors has shown him to be a class act.
on to Part 48, Festival of the Cranes . . .
Coming soon: Festival of the Cranes
The Tom Ford Webcam
The Andrew and Sydney Davis Webcam
Santa Fe Review Detours of the Wild West
The Santa Fe Review
subscribe to the RSS feed
See the current flow of the Santa Fe River above McClure Reservoir with the USGS automated gauge.
The Otowi gauge shows the flow of the Rio Grande north of Santa Fe.
Santa Fe water information, a collection of documents and links