Times change, and so has the vision for what is described as a major “mixed-use transit oriented” residential development planned for Santa Fe’s south side.
At least in the eyes of the Pulte Group, which this week submitted an application to the city to amend the master plan and rezone portions of Las Soleras, a massive development of unused land between the south end of Cerrillos Road and Interstate 25.
While reducing the density of homes within the residential development, the proposal calls for less open space and doesn’t solve traffic problems created by an incremental approach, critics say.
As the name suggests, the overall development of Las Soleras – solera is a method for aging alcohol drinks or vinegar with ingredients blended over time – is to be accomplished fractionally over many years, and include a mixture of residential, commercial and recreational space.
A small fraction of the commercial space has already been put to use, with McDonald’s leasing space off Cerrillos Road, and Century Bank and State Employees Credit Union and Murphy Oil having purchased lots and set up shop. There’s a Starbucks in operation. Also already in place is a 7,225-square-foot Veterans Administration health clinic at the intersection of Cerrillos and Beckner roads.
Presbyterian Healthcare Services bought a large lot and space is reserved for the state of New Mexico to build a so-called “super complex,” though it remains to be seen what becomes of those sites.
The master plan calls for more commercial space along Beckner Road and other yet-to-be-constructed roads within the development. Las Soleras’ website also refers to a “pending” Rail Runner stop along I-25 next to the development – an idea included in the original master plan and long discussed among public agencies.
While Las Soleras has been in the works for more than a decade, Jim Siebert, who submitted the plans to the city on behalf of Pulte on Monday, said the entire 550-acre development didn’t receive approval until 2009. The properties now under zoning review are owned by two separate companies, both managed by Gordon “Skip” Skarsgard.
Siebert said Pulte – which acquired Del Webb, a corporation specializing in building adult communities targeting couples 55 and over, in 2000 and Centex Homes, which aims to attract first-time home buyers, in 2009 – is going after both markets with the Las Soleras development.
He explained Pulte is taking an “age targeted” approach for part of the acreage along the lines of a Del Webb project, aimed at older people who may feel more secure in a gated community. The houses will consist of moderately sized, single-story homes selling for between $300,000 and $350,000.
The second type of home Pulte plans to build at Las Soleras is aimed at a more “traditional” market segment, be that first-time home buyers or second-home buyers. These homes could be one or two stories, depending on demand, and could be priced a little higher.
Pulte’s revised plan calls for “downzoning” some residential areas to make them less dense than originally proposed. “The change in density reflects market demand for single-family residential housing that accommodates a broad spectrum of households,” according to the application.
Siebert pointed out that the density would be close to what now exists in the nearby Nava Ade neighborhood. The proposal will first get a city land-use staff review, then go to the Planning Commission and onto the City Council.
Big plans draw concerns
This isn’t the only residential development planned for Las Soleras. In August, the city’s Planning Commission gave preliminary approval for Ross’ Peak, which would include 204 homes on 32 acres.
Pulte’s new plan calls for 302 homes to be built on 102 acres, but that’s just the start. When complete, Las Soleras will include about 2,000 individual residences for 10,000 people, according to its website.
“Las Soleras is a community that provides the best of both worlds by delivering amenities and conveniences one would expect from a new, modern master-planned community, while maintaining the timeless and classic ambience that makes Santa Fe such a unique place,” it says.
Las Soleras promises to include “a healthy balance of commercial, residential and recreational space, with over 125 acres of parks and open space, and more than 5 miles of trails.”
But residents of neighboring Nava Ade, bordering a portion of the north end of the development, have expressed concerns about traffic flow issues and the reduction of open space under Pulte’s plan.
“Right now, without anything other than school traffic, we have a problem,” said Richard Lang, a Nava Ade Homeowners Association member who served on an ad hoc committee for Las Soleras for eight years prior to the master plan’s approval. “It gets to be severe gridlock every day.”
One of the problems, Lang said, is there is only one way in and out of Monte del Sol Charter School at 4157 Walking Rain Road, which has an enrollment of about 350 students. Roads in the neighborhood are narrow, too, which Lang said makes it difficult for any emergency vehicle to get through. And he said Pulte’s future plans for roads in neighborhoods don’t do much to relieve traffic flow and connectivity with major traffic carriers.
One change to the master plan of concern to Nava Ade residents is that the extension of Walking Rain Road would now cut across 5.7 acres that had been designated as open space for a park.
“I was astounded,” Lang said when he learned of the change at an Early Neighborhood Notification meeting on Dec. 16. “For them not to include that six-acre park is unimaginable to me.”
Lang said earlier plans for the area were in the new urbanism vein, shooting for a “self-sustaining” community with small retail and commercial development along with homes.
Also dumbstruck was Robert Jessen, head learner at Monte del Sol. According to minutes from the December meeting, Jessen said the park was important to the school because presently students don’t have much space to play. Jessen, who could not be reached for this story, also said redirecting Walking Rain Road was a bad idea and that the subdivision design conflicted with the school’s future plans.
Siebert said this week that the Planning Commission had approved two locations for a park, one within the Pulte development and another to the southwest.
“We are going to have open space adjacent to Monte del Sol,” Siebert said. “Whether it’s the open space they were thinking about, I don’t know.”
Siebert did say that, under the latest plan, there would not be enough open space to build ball fields of any kind next to the school. The application addresses the issue only by saying open space will be utilized to connect with the city’s trail system.
A walkable community?
One big question is whether the housing market in Santa Fe can bear the influx of a development that, when complete, will consist of 2,000 new homes.
The outgoing president of the Santa Fe Association of Realtors says the time seems right for the number and type of homes that Pulte, a national company that got its start in Detroit, is planning for Las Soleras.
“We have reduced the number of on-the-market homes quite a bit,” said Coleen Dearing. “It’s definitely something the market needs as long as it’s affordable, and by affordable I mean up to $350,000. Homes in the $200,000 to $350,000 price range are short in supply, especially new construction.”
Also alluring is that the development is designed to have easy access to public transportation. The way Santa Fe has evolved, she said, makes it difficult for anyone to get from the southern reaches of the city to downtown.
“I think the fact that they are approaching it as mixed use is a good idea,” she said. “The availability to transportation is a step in the right direction, especially if the Rail Runner station goes through. That would be a huge benefit.”
The application also considers modifying city bus routes to serve the subdivision.
But Kim Shanahan, executive director of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association, says the proposal is a step away from what was originally planned for Las Soleras.
“When it was approved over a decade ago, it was very much in time with walkable communities and urban planning, and it was designed to be that,” he said. “So having a Del Webb community” – gated for older homebuyers – “in the middle of it may negate some of the multi-uses that had been intended.”
Shanahan wondered about the fate of the Rail Runner station that’s been suggested for Las Soleras along I-25 and noted that Santa Fe’s population growth has slowed significantly in recent years. Aside from last year’s annexation, which increased the city’s population by about 13,000, the population has only grown about one-half of a percent per year, or about one-third of what it was 10 years ago, he said.
Shanahan’s other knock on the development is that Pulte tends to utilize its Albuquerque labor force, so it wouldn’t necessarily mean jobs for the local contractors and workers he represents.
But Shanahan agreed that market conditions could be favorable for such a development. It would create competition for developers Homewise, Palo Duro, Ross’ Peak and others, which would be good for the consumer. Pulte’s targeting of the 55 and older set may be the right approach, he said.
“One could say that, given the demographics, the aging baby boomers and the way the city is evolving, a Del Webb may very well find success,” he said. “It could be that Pulte going into that narrow market segment is brilliant.”
Siebert said Pulte wouldn’t be taking the risk if it didn’t think the Santa Fe market is ripe.
He noted the decline in building permits for single-family homes, down from 518 per year prior to 2009 to an average of 168 since then.
“So what’s happened is there’s a pent-up demand that has been created,” he said. “The cost of housing has come down in Santa Fe, so people living in Rio Rancho and other communities and working in Santa Fe will have an option.”
Siebert also said that Pulte has “never given up” on the Rail Runner station and remains optimistic that it will eventually happen.
Up in the air
Las Soleras could prove to be a good option for state government workers who now commute to Santa Fe, if the state office complex ever gets built.
Just prior to Bill Richardson leaving office as governor, a preliminary purchase agreement was in place for the state to pay $6 million and swap 4.4 acres of state land in the Galisteo Business Park near St. Michael’s and Galisteo for 20 acres within Las Soleras. The site had been chosen over 16 other locations vying for what would be an $80 million complex to house the Human Services, Health, Children Youth and Families, and Aging and Long Term Care departments.
Supporters said consolidation of offices now spread across Santa Fe, mostly in rented office buildings that are privately owned, would increase efficiency and could save the state $118 million by 2048. Detractors said it would create a glut of vacant office space around town, increasing the vacancy rate from 15 percent to about 26 percent if the state moved out all those agencies.
Gov. Susana Martinez has delayed closing on the deal through a series of review extensions. A spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration said this week the matter remains under review.
In 2012, the state Board of Finance, which the governor chairs, voted to eliminate the requirement that a Rail Runner Express stop be located there. That same year, the Legislature directed $4 million that had been set aside for the purchase instead be spent on renovation to the South Capitol Complex on St. Francis Drive south of downtown.
Paperwork that Pulte turned in to the city indicates the company is confident the state complex and a Presbyterian hospital project that’s also been up in the air for Las Soleras will come through.
“This project also provides housing within a short distance of the future development that will occur on the 40-acre Presbyterian Hospital site and the New Mexico State office complex that is anticipated to the southwest of this project within the Las Soleras development,” states a Pulte application questionnaire.
Presbyterian Healthcare Services purchased its Las Soleras land in 2008, but has never committed to building anything there. Considering how much land it bought, there has been much speculation that it would first open a primary care clinic and later a hospital.
A spokeswoman for PHS said this week it was focused on opening a primary care facility on St. Michael’s Drive across from Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center and had no plans to announce development on the Las Soleras property.
John Mahoney is the developer of the previously approved Ross’ Peak plan and a partner in the Las Soleras residential project. He said the purpose behind Las Soleras remains to create a self-sustaining community that would do more than serve the labor force in that part of town.
“In addition to having the housing and having the retail, the idea is to have a place that will help create new jobs for Santa Fe and New Mexico,” he said. “The idea as it comes forward now is to do something that is well planned and well thought out to serve the community for the next 100 years.”
By: T.S. Last (Albuquerque Journal)
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