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Reclaiming the Heart of Santa Fe: Parkland Acquisition

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Trust for Public Land helped to negotiate the acquisition of a 50-acre former railyard for the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, paving the way for the creation of a public park on part of the largely vacant site. The acquisition, which cost substantially less than the appraised value of the parcel, saved the city millions of dollars and won praise from open space and parks advocates. An editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican said the proposed park, located a mile from the historic downtown, would help "unify a city sundered a century ago by tracks, ties and cinders."

Project Background

The railyards, built in the late 19th Century by the Atchison, Topeka, and Sante Fe Railroad, once bustled with activity. But as railroads declined, the site fell into disuse. While the nearby downtown boomed with the tourist trade, the railyards became a symbol to many Santa Fe residents of a missed opportunity to reinvigorate the city's identity and public space.

The city made the property's acquisition a major priority after efforts to develop the site by the Catellus Development Corporation, the publicly-held successor to the Santa Fe Railroad, proved unsuccessful. Mayor Debbie Jaramillo, a former city councilperson and major proponent of the acquisition for the past two years, included the issue in her recent mayoral campaign. The Neighborhood Coalition, a civic group dedicated to neighborhood-based development, rallied support for the public purchase of the railyards, citing the need for more public space for local use. The group was concerned in part by what some called the "Aspenization of Santa Fe" -- the transformation of public spaces, including the historic downtown Plaza, from gathering spots for locals into tony tourist districts.

The Acquisition

The city purchased the 50-acre property in December for $21 million, or $8 million below its appraised value. The city paid for the parcel -- the largest, mostly undeveloped piece of land in the city's downtown -- with a mix of capital funds and proceeds from a bond issue. The city agreed to set aside 10 acres as a public park that is likely to be linked by hiking and biking trails to other parts of the city. The remaining acreage may be sold to cover the acquisition cost. Possible uses of the land include an Hispanic cultural museum, a teen center, affordable housing, a public plaza and a small conference or convention center.

TPL played an integral role in facilitating the acquisition, negotiating a price and terms attractive to the corporation while saving the city money. It had obtained an option on the property in September and entered into an agreement to convey the land to the city, provided it would set aside the 10 acres as parkland.

Serving as the acquisition entity, TPL enabled the city to save almost $8 million, while Catellus received a combination of cash and tax benefits. Using the Trust's non-exempt status generated tax advantages for Catellus that offset some of the difference between the property's assessed value and its sale price. "It's a classic win-win situation," commented Chris Leinberger, an urban development consultant and volunteer on the task force created by Mayor Jaramillo to pursue the public purchase.

Lessons Learned

The railyard purchase occurred in large part because of the public sector's strong commitment and Catellus' recognition that it really had no other viable option. But TPL played an important role in bringing the two sides together, according to city and Catellus officials. Steve Thompson, a Senior Vice President at TPL, had kept abreast of the project for several years and became an invaluable source of information and advice for both parties. TPL benefited from strong community support for the acquisition, while using its real estate skills to develop advantages for Catellus that made it possible to sell the property under the appraised value.

Next Steps

A master planning process has been undertaken to determine future uses of the railyards. TPL secured a challenge grant from a local foundation to fund broad community involvement in the development of an initial vision for the park and adjoining site.


Steve Thompson, Trust for Public Land, tel. (505) 988-5922

(March 1996)

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