Fred A. Bernstein

With a Diocese as a Developer, Emotions Run High in Santa Fe

Especially if the church has already borrowed against the planned buildings

Published in The New York Times, October 29, 2006

SANTA FE'S motto is �the city different,' " said Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe. "Sometimes, I think of it as �the city difficult.' "

Archbishop Sheehan was reacting to a recent decision by Santa Fe's Historic Design Review Board, the body charged with protecting the city's architectural heritage. Last month, the board granted "significant" historic status to the Villa Therese Clinic, which was built in the 1930s by the Sisters of Charity. The nuns there have provided medical services to the poor for more than 150 years.

The clinic sits within a 6.3-acre site that the church owns and is planning to develop.

Because the current proposal, for hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space, would require demolition of the clinic (which would offer services in another location), the church has appealed the decision to the Santa Fe City Council.

The council is expected to hear the appeal in November. And this guarantees that the fight over the Cathedral Project, as everyone in Santa Fe calls it, will continue at least a while longer.

Santa Fe has been rife with development battles in recent years. But the involvement of the church has added a disquieting dimension to this one. Opponents of the project have been labeled anti-Catholic, while proponents have been accused of seeking special treatment for the church.

A "discussion board" on the Web site of the local newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, became the scene of numerous insults, some hurled at the archdiocese, others at the review board.

One thing is clear: To the church, developing the site, much of which is now a parking lot adjacent to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, represents a huge financial opportunity. Already, the church has built an $11 million school - its first in decades - with money borrowed against future revenue from the development.

The site, which Archbishop Sheehan said had been owned by the church for 400 years, would be developed by the Hunt Building Corporation of El Paso, Tex. But Archbishop Sheehan, who is based in Albuquerque, and Monsignor Jerome Martinez y Alire of Santa Fe have been the public faces of the project, rallying Catholic supporters.

"At one point, there were thousands of signatures on a petition in favor of the project - before anyone even knew what was being proposed," said Jane Farrar, a member of the Historic Design Review Board.

In the wake of its decisions about the site, "the board has been portrayed as anti-church," Ms. Farrar said.

"It has been very painful for the members," she added. "Politics is sticky enough - then you throw religion into it, it's even stickier."

Even some supporters of the project say the church hasn't been forthcoming about what the project would look like or why it needs such a large building. No renderings of the planned complex have been released by the church or the developer.

According to Connie Hesch, a lifelong resident of Santa Fe, "The problem is that we haven't been shown a design." In addition, she said, "People don't understand why they have to let some developer come in and build a mall for hundreds of millions of dollars, just to get an $11 million school."

Still, Ms. Hesch, a retired nurse, described the site in the center of town as "a wasted, empty space, and I hope that something good can come of it for the community." The church has plans to include a parish house and apartments for parish priests in the development.

Some Santa Fe residents say they believe the development would benefit the city's neediest citizens by providing the church a large revenue stream. (The church's members are, in many cases, poor Hispanics.)

But others say the mixed-use development at the cathedral site will sound a death knell for the "old" Santa Fe, which had affordable houses for working-class families downtown. Several people who posted comments on the newspaper's Web site said that if the church cared about the community, it would build low-income housing, instead of fancy stores.

Robert O. Frost, the newest member of the design review board, who was appointed by the mayor in July, said he was shocked to hear the board accused of anti-church bias. Mr. Frost, a local innkeeper, said the decision to designate the clinic historically significant was based entirely on whether it met criteria contained in the town ordinances.

"It's a true, old downtown Santa Fe building that is virtually unchanged since it was built in 1937," he said. "We were just doing our jobs."

Mr. Frost said much of the information on the importance of the clinic - information that influenced him to vote for the historic designation - was provided by the church.

But Archbishop Sheehan said he found the board's decision "very disappointing."

"The building was not architecturally significant whatsoever," he said. "We want to be good citizens, but we also want our rights to be respected."

If the appeal to the City Council fails, "we may have to retool our plans for the site," Archbishop Sheehan said. And that could put the church out on a financial limb.

Hunt is already leasing the land from the church - for $1.25 million a year, according to Archbishop Sheehan - and the church has taken a mortgage on the value of the future payments. The $10 million mortgage helped pay for the new Santo Ni�o Regional Catholic High School, the archdiocese's first new school in 42 years.

The school, south of the city center, opened in August with 430 students, replacing two older schools that were not only inadequate but in downtown Santa Fe. The demographics have changed since the old schools were built, Archbishop Sheehan said. "Downtown is mostly stores and galleries - there aren't a lot of families with school-age children living there."

Some wonder if the church isn't hastening that trend with the planned development. Archbishop Sheehan said he chose to work with Hunt because he was impressed with the company's other projects. On Nov. 1, Hunt will open the first phase of ABQ Uptown, a commercial development in Albuquerque, on land that it bought from the archdiocese.

Last year, Hunt asked the design review board in Santa Fe to approve a 350,000-square-foot complex that would have risen to a height of 46 feet and contained a mix of hotel, condominium and retail spaces. "They wanted a very high and very dense project," Ms. Farrar said. "The board has never been asked to consider anything this large before."

In February, the board decided the church could build a structure that alternated among one, two and three stories, to create a stepped appearance. At its highest point, the complex could reach 42 feet, the board decided.

Far from being anti-church, Ms. Farrar said, "the board probably granted the church the largest exception that they've ever given anyone."

Still, the church appealed the decision to the City Council. But the appeal process was acrimonious, according to Gary Sapp, an executive vice president of the Hunt Building Corporation and president of two of its affiliates. At the last minute - after an emotionally charged meeting that went past midnight without a resolution - the church decided to drop its appeal.

According to Archbishop Sheehan, the church believed "the majority of the City Council would have sided with us." The decision to drop the appeal, he said, was based on the church's desire to "be a good member of the community," he said.

"No one cares about the history of Santa Fe more than the church," he said.

According to Mr. Sapp, "in the course of the appeal, the anxiety and angst in the community continued."

He added, "We made the decision that we would take the controversy off the table."

Mr. Sapp said the company had presented a site plan showing how the building would fit into its surroundings, but was not yet ready to release renderings of the project. Still, he promised that it would be in the style of the city's older buildings.

"In a context like Santa Fe, with such a well-defined and narrow palette, getting the architectural details right is actually the easiest part," Mr. Sapp wrote in an e-mail message.

He explained that the complex would probably be about 30 percent smaller than originally proposed, and that there might be no residential or hotel component.

If the Villa Therese Clinic designation is upheld by the City Council, the plan will have to be further revamped, Mr. Sapp said. He said he hoped to break ground, one way or another, "around this time next year."

Archbishop Sheehan said, "I hope the decision on the clinic hasn't decreased the value of the property."

But Mr. Frost, for one, makes no apologies. "Santa Fe is the city different," he said. "And one of the things that make it different is maintaining the integrity of its historic buildings."