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The New Mexico State Land Office (SLO) obtained control over the Garrett’s Desert Inn site at 311 Old Santa Fe Trail after a complex transaction involving a land swap with the Cochiti Pueblo. The State Land Office is mandated to obtain the maximum financial impact from the property in order to fulfill its role of providing funding for education in New Mexico. And so they began the process of leasing the property, which ultimately encompassed three rounds of proposals.

The public, including Friends of Architecture Santa Fe, was not involved in the first round that saw four proposals: Two of the proposals would have upgraded the motel. The third was a mixed-use development featuring structured parking, multi-family housing, dining and retail venues, and a pedestrian zone along a revitalized Santa Fe River. The fourth came from El Castillo Retirement Residences, proposing to connect the two properties and create a mixed residential and commercial community.

When a viable proposal failed to materialize, SLO re-advertised the availability of the property for lease.

At this point, Friends of Architecture Santa Fe became involved. With the creation of the Charrette Program, Friends sought to raise awareness of design thinking in addressing a balance of preservation, contemporary urban development, and livability issues in the City.

Given the high visibility of the project in the Historic District, Friends saw an opportunity to demonstrate the value of this kind of approach. So Friends began its process with an Orientation Session for architects and designers on April 17, 2017, hosted by the SLO at their offices, directly across the street from the Desert Inn. Participants were able to get an overview of the site and the possibilities. Following this, each design team had eight weeks to prepare a public presentation.

On June 16, 2017, Friends held an open public meeting at form & concept, featuring the proposals of four outstanding teams of designers and builders. The proposals were critiqued by an all-star panel of architects, academics, and business leaders. These sessions demonstrated the great possibilities for this property, and introduced the concept of design thinking in dealing with projects.

There were only two bidders for the SLO second round, both proposals to modify the exiting motel. Allan Baer AIA, Friends Board member and co-founder, was asked to be a member of the three-person citizens’ advisory design review team. The project selected by the design team was not awarded the project by the SLO, but the winning bidder proved unable to make the financial guarantees required, and so the process was begun again, for a third time. The following is Allan Baer’s report on this third round process: “Two of bidders were entities with active Santa Fe hospitality locations: the winner has two Comfort Inns and the Econolodge Inn & Suites on Cerrillos Road, and the other has the Hotel Santa Fe. The third bidder was a venture by the Los Poblanos Historic Inn in Albuquerque. All the proposals were for continuing the use of the existing motel, much like the second round, with mostly modest modifications to the existing buildings. All three proposed keeping the Santa Fe Bite restaurant, and two added an outdoor patio connection to the river. Basic work identified in all the proposals included providing required ADA accessibility to both the restaurant/meeting rooms portion and to five guest rooms, and updating all guest rooms with new finishes, fixtures, furniture, lighting, and air conditioning.

The winning bidder was the group that owns and operates Comfort Inns and Econolodge motels on Cerrillos Road. The lease with the SLO has been signed and they will take possession in September. The bad news was their proposal for exterior remodeling shown in the rendering was distressing because it redid the exterior from the “1950’s architectural hotel era to an appearance to be harmonious with the old Santa Fe style of exposed timbers, vigas and adobe masses,” including the cardinal sin of showing viga ends in both directions in the same space. The good news is that they have since thrown out their competition design and hired a member of AIA Santa Fe, architect Eric Enfield of Architectural Alliance, to rework the design to preserve and enhance the “1950’s architectural hotel era.” While there was no significant work proposed to mitigate the impact of the current parking lot on the Old Santa Fe Trail streetscape, or landscaping in the site, perhaps all that can be improved during the design process ahead.

The two losing proposers were not ranked but it is important to remember that the SLO selection is constitutionally limited to a single metric: maximum return in rent to the SLO for the benefit of the University of New Mexico. The Hotel Santa Fe proposal stated that their “intention is to fill the want and need for chic motel/inn style lodging preferred by both successful Millennials and Baby Boomers.� Images by Barbara Felix Architecture & Design of Santa Fe show a significantly improved parking lot with additional landscaped areas and a more developed gate/view shield along the Old Santa Fe Trail. Interior images promise a contemporary look to the guest rooms and common rooms. The exterior image shows no hint of any fake Santa Fe features.

The most ambitious proposal was from the Los Poblanos group. The drawings and images from AOS Architects of Santa Fe show a highly developed vehicular entrance, parking lot landscaping, and outdoor guest amenities, in addition to the riverside area for the restaurant. But the winning gesture within this proposal by far was in urban design. They proposed a new building along the street frontage that would house an art gallery, and by eliminating the gaping hole of the parking lot, provide Old Santa Fe Trail with a more urban streetscape. Unfortunately this otherwise excellent effort shot itself in the foot with several proposals outside the scope of the bid parameters, including an overly complicated financing structure that did not simply return a portion of the rent directly to SLO, and included an unacceptable condition to lease parking from the SLO building site across Old Santa Fe Trail.

Both of the losing proposals appeared to give more back to the City than the proposal from the high bidder has promised. Hopefully the process following the lease signing will see improvements benefitting the urban fabric. An initial meeting of the developers with the Old Santa Fe Association, which I attended representing Friends, was encouraging.�

In retrospect it is the bid format SLO uses for cattle grazing leases that is the problem, with the sole criteria being the return to UNM, and with no mechanism provided for revising proposals after submittal. Clearly it is not the best way for important urban projects to be developed without proper consideration of the impact on the greater urban fabric.

Garrett's Desert Inn - A Design Charrette Project  
Garrett's Desert Inn - A Design Charrette Project