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Is New Mexico’s Massive New Housing Development Primed for Failure?

Fighting sprawl in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
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The proposed site of the Santolina development.

The proposed site of the Santolina development.

About 10 miles southwest of downtown Albuquerque, a scrawny coyote prowls among the sagebrush and desert scrub on an open mesa overlooking New Mexico’s largest city, which has a population of 550,000. This is the site of a proposed 14,000-acre master-planned development called Santolina, projected to house more than 95,000 people in some 38,000 homes over several decades. The plan includes a town center and several villages clustered around an “urban core,” as well as schools, retailers, offices, and open spaces. If all goes according to plan, the anticipated 2040 build-out of the community would make it larger than Santa Fe, the state capital.

While it has passed some initial hurdles, the proposal has drawn the ire of many. In early November, days after Halloween, protestors dressed as zombies disrupted a county zoning commission meeting, prompting officials to delay the hearing 60 days. Earlier in the year, opponents from around the state arrived on farm tractors outside another commission meeting, bearing signs proclaiming “Agua es Vida.”

“Santolina poses many negatives: impacts to an already strained water supply, increased air pollution and traffic congestion, and much, much more. And all of this at the expense of taxpayers who will have to foot the bill for this unneeded sprawl development where there is no existing infrastructure,” says Virginia Necochea, director of the Center for Social Sustainable Systems and member of the Contra Santolina community group that vehemently opposes the plan. An alliance of dozens of residents and representatives of local non-profits and neighborhood organizations, Contra Santolina has staged protests, sought media coverage, and helped organize and bolster legal challenges to the project.

Recently, a partner of Contra Santolina, the non-profit Health Matters New Mexico, conducted a Health Impact Assessment. The survey determined the development “will likely cause … long-term air quality issues resulting from the erosion of sand dunes during high wind events,” would add a “20 percent demand to existing [water] resources,” and will ultimately “add to the existing housing supply and … remain vacant far into the future.” The latter point would, in turn, cause the local housing market to further depreciate — a particularly salient problem, given the fact that it has been slower than others to recover since the housing market crash.

The Santolina website, on the other hand, cites projections made by the Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments and the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research that says the area’s population will increase to more than 438,522by 2040, and includes the following comment from a spokesperson for the local water utility:

Our long-term water supply planning, which anticipates an eventual population of one million in Albuquerque/Bernalillo County in the next 40 years, takes growth and the year-to-year vagaries of drought into account. We are not at capacity in terms of production and would still have excess capacity even with the addition of Santolina.

Opponents aren’t buying it, and are quick to point to research by Columbia University that suggests a severe drought in the forecast. “At full build-out, Santolina would consume more than 14,000 acre-feet of water per year,” Necochea says. “To put that in perspective, that’s about the equivalent of one-and-a-half times the annual water usage for Santa Fe. This would not help our region as it is facing one of the worst droughts in the last 1,000 years.”

As for the cost to create Santolina, the developer, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, originally said there would be no net expense to the city and the county. During initial hearings last year, attorney John Salazar, representing WALH, said: “The developer has committed to pay 100 percent of the project infrastructure. And there’s no request for a subsidy. There’s been no request that the county provide incentives to bring this project to the county.”

“At full build-out, Santolina would consume more than 14,000 acre-feet of water per year.”

Eight months later, however, Santolina officials requested the establishment of 40 tax increment development districts, which would divert as much as 75 percent of tax revenues from sales within the development, and up to 45 percent of future property taxes, to the developers. Eventually, they convinced county commissioners to allow for 20 such districts.

“Such financing to support infrastructure costs within the development imposes big costs on taxpayers … to provide resources to far-flung developments while reducing funds to meet current needs across the county,” Necochea says. “WALH aims to get more than $500 million in tax breaks. Meanwhile, the county has approximately $450 million in unfunded capital infrastructure facility needs [currently in its 2014–20 Capital Improvement Plan] and the financial impact of Santolina infrastructure development cannot add to this unfunded amount.”

Additionally, a highway project proposal that would connect the future community with others on Albuquerque’s West Side would require the public to pony up more than $90 million to build it as well as donate lands to allow construction, routing badly needed funds for current maintenance away from the county,” Necochea says.(The proposed road project earned the distinction of ranking in the Public Interest Research Group’s Top 12 list of “Highway Boondoggles” for 2016.)

Furthermore, Necochea and other opponents of Santolina say that these developments don’t always work out as planned, pointing to the case of another Albuquerque master-planned community on the other side of the Rio Grande. Mesa del Sol broke ground in 2005, with plans for about 38,000 homes, like Santolina. More than 10 years later, fewer than 200 homes are occupied in the community, an eerie and abysmal reflection of imprudent hope.

Necochea had hoped the example of Mesa del Sol would serve as a sobering reminder to county commissioners. Perhaps it hasn’t.

Some 2,000 miles away, Levittown, New York, is regarded as the prototype for mass-produced suburban housing in America. Built between 1947 and 1951, with demand often outpacing supply, Levittown offered affordable homes to thousands of families, while reflecting the discriminatory standards of the government, which discouraged racially integrated development. Nearly 70 years since Levittown’s first homes were constructed, the monolith of suburban homogeneity it spawned is now ubiquitous and admonished not only by community activists but by urban planners and environmentalists.

Even the United Nations has pushed for alternatives with its Agenda 21, written in 1992, which won pledges from 178 countries, including the United States, to promote sustainable development, investment in infrastructure, and the rehabbing of old buildings. (Interestingly, there is “organized” opposition to the voluntary plan in the form of Resist 21, which, according to a piece written by Alana Semuels in TheAtlantic last year, is a group influenced by the Tea Party and claims the agenda is a “strategy that seeks to transform America from the land of the free to the land of a collective.”)

Yet the case of Santolina is all too familiar, with like-minded, large-scale master-planned projects cropping up throughout the country. Semuels’ piece examines why such projects remain prevalent, even as smart growth advocates encourage developers to stop buying and building on empty land and instead focus on rehabbing existing land and building more compact, walkable communities near public transit, which are more environmentally responsible and save money and resources in the long run.

Among those resources is a viable workforce of residents who yearn for a sense of place and community. In 2010, the Knight Foundation and Gallup surveyed 43,000 people in 26 cities to determine what attracts residents to their communities. The survey identified “physical beauty, opportunities for socializing and a city’s openness to all people” as the most important factors. It also found that communities with the highest levels of attachment also had the highest rates of gross domestic product growth and the strongest economies.

“If I have learned anything from my career in urban planning, it is this: A community’s appeal drives economic prosperity,” says Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. “While change is inevitable, the destruction of a community’s unique character and identity is not. Progress does not demand degraded surroundings.”

It’s that last point that has opponents to Santolina worried, as they fear the project will not only prove an exorbitant cost to taxpayers, but will also eat away at the region’s unique agrarian heritage.

A system of gravity-fed ditches called “acequias” runs throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley, even through the heart of Albuquerque, as it has for hundreds of years. Per the Health Impact Assessment, they represent “one of the oldest forms of self-governance and hold great cultural and political importance to the community. Acequias make it possible to cultivate locally grown food, contribute to a healthy ecosystem, and recharge the underground aquifer. The ancient ditches help communities connect with their sense of ‘place’ and form the basis for a strong connection between the people who farm the acequias and water.” And, according to Santolina’s opponents, that sense of place is now in danger.

“This is a failed pattern of development that these communities have faced for generations — the destruction of historic, established neighborhoods and communities for the sake of speculative development,” says George Luján, of the SouthWest Organizing Project, a community activist group that works primarily in low-income communities of color and has partnered with Contra Santolina. Luján continues:

It’s not always like bulldozers come through and wipe everything out in a day. We see the changes happen over time, where commerce is moved out of our neighborhoods. Agriculture is moved away from small farmers. There is simply not enough water to sustain more sprawl development, but when anything like this is built, it is the small farmers who suffer. That’s why it’s difficult to create the next generation of farmers here in New Mexico. We have the people, the land, and the knowledge, but instead of capitalizing on it, we’re squeezing them out.

According to the Health Impact Statement, Santolina’s forecasted water demand — more than 8,600 gallons of water per minute — would indeed require additional purchases of water rights from farmers and “negatively impact our local farming sector and the unique character of Bernalillo County.”

These are serious considerations, especially so given the fact that the state and the city have struggled to keep residents in place and attract meaningful long-term investment. Albuquerque mayor Richard Berry, who has been scrutinized for fast-tracking a contentious transit project and for ongoing problems with his police force, has been trying to position the city as entrepreneur-friendly for years. But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city’s population grew by only 1,227, or 0.2 percent, from July of 2014 to July of 2015, representing the third worst growth rate of 12 major cities in the region.

In terms of attracting young professionals, McMahon says research indicates that “Millennials choose where they want to live and then they look for a job. They also seem to value authenticity in communities.” In a 2015 Urban Land Institute survey, 73 percent of Millennials across the country reported being “very or somewhat likely” to move in the next five years; and 63 percent said they’d like to live in a place where they do not need to use a car very often.

“We have the people, the land, and the knowledge, but instead of capitalizing on it, we’re squeezing them out.”

Indeed, demographics are playing an enormous role in creating opportunities for cities to reinvent and distinguish themselves. A Progressive Urban Management Associates 2017 Global Trends Report indicates that the Boomer and Millennial markets, which have fueled downtown growths, will likely continue doing so “particularly in those cities that offer jobs, housing, amenities, and activities that respond to their needs.” In fact, a report this year by the George Washington University School of Business found that, in all 30 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, the majority of new real estate development is taking place in walkable, urban neighborhoods.

With numerous surveys also indicating an oversupply of large-lot single family housing in almost all major markets, and growing demand for small-lot, attached, multi-family, infill, and other types of housing, the landscape is clearly poised for change.

“The reason for this is, of course, because, before the recession, we built houses like every single family was the Walton’s, with the mom, the dad, two kids, and a dog,” McMahon says. “But today’s nuclear families represent only a quarter of all American families. The one-size fits all solution no longer works in a world where so many different buyer groups want different things.”

In his book The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, urban studies theorist Richard Florida writes that every historical epoch has its own spatial fix: In the agrarian era it was “40 acres and a mule”; in the consumer era, it was sprawl; in the technology era, it will be the city, the town, and the neighborhood. It is an observation McMahon often cites, and can be translated into a simple urban planning equation: “Design a city or a project around cars, you will get more cars. On the other hand, if you design a city or project around people, you will get more people and better places,” McMahon says.

Despite the growing popularity of walkable communities and urban living, McMahon concedes that “not everyone is going to move into a city and there is still a … market for suburban living. Having said this, I would also say that the successful suburbs of the future will be those that embrace mixed-use and provide a diversity of housing choices and transportation options.”

But McMahon bemoans the fact that, in many states, rural lawmakers have disproportionate influence, making fresh soil without the constraints of existing infrastructure an easy appeal to developers.

“Old habits die hard,” he says. “Some homebuilders continue to deliver cookie-cutter large-lot subdivisions because rural land is cheap, it’s often easier to entitle greenfield projects and because this is all they know how to do.”

Referencing the 2040 population projections for Albuquerque, which seem dubious given the city’s current stagnant growth rate, the Santolina website states: “While infill may accommodate some of the growth, other options are required to serve the region’s citizens and employers as well as maintain livability and economic viability.”

Livability and viability are open to interpretation, it seems. That’s why McMahon and other smart growth advocates urge city planners and residents alike to take ownership in shaping the growth of their communities, such as those protesting Santolina are trying to do.

As he puts it: “Do you want the character of your city to shape new development, or do you want new development to shape the character of the city?”