Monday, August 4, 2014

Mixed-Use Is a Fine Idea, but Quality Still Matters

Mixed-use development to promote opportunities for walkable lives is a fine idea and worthy of praise.  (Mixed use development as a small dental office above a sprawling strip mall in the name of complying with the letter, but not the spirit, of a zoning code is an abomination that needn’t be mentioned further.)

But merely configuring a project as mixed use isn’t enough.  Design and construction also matter.  They’re particularly important as long as we subsidize the cost of gasoline and roads, allowing folks to easily look elsewhere if a mixed-use project doesn’t meet their lifestyle needs.  And a failed mixed-use project can be worse that no mixed-use project at all.

I found an example of this during my recent travels in New Mexico.

 One of my worries about the recent trip with two old friends was whether appropriate accommodations could be found in the middle of the summer tourist season.

The three of us, who get together every summer for a week of baseball and beer, have a well-defined travel aesthetic.  We’ll pay top price for good tickets, good beer, and good food, but we’ll cut corners on lodging.  (To no one’s surprise, our wives don’t join us for these trips.)

We insist on safety in our rooms and we generally believe that cleanliness is a nice feature.  But elegance is absolutely unneeded.

The high point of my travel planning skills came during our New England trip of 2012 when two of the hotels I selected were partially converted to emergency welfare housing between when I booked the rooms and when we arrived.  It was the sweet spot of my logistical career.  Of course, a fourth guy who joined us that year still mutters about the stains in his Poughkeepsie hotel room and hasn’t rejoined us for any trip since, but these weeks aren’t for the faint-hearted.

I was unsure if I could find hotels that met our standards in New Mexico, particularly in the tourist meccas of Santa Fe and Taos during July.

I needn’t have worried.  Even the most upper-end tourist destinations have lower-end chains scattered around the edge of town.  And in Santa Fe, I found a particularly interesting lodging option.

The Santa Fe Suites are located a few miles south of downtown.  The name is elegant, but the prices were surprisingly affordable.  And the location is quirky, tucked between a shopping center and a New Mexican arroyo, with the only access being through the shopping center parking lot.

Within a few minutes of checking in and looking about at the site layout and room design, the truth became evident.  Santa Fe Suites hadn’t been intended as tourist lodging.  They had been built as the residential component of a horizontal mixed-use development that included the shopping center, probably intended as housing for the employees of the stores.  (To be fair, I didn’t think to confirm this conclusion with the staff, but it was so evident from the site that it really didn’t need confirmation.)

It was a reasonable approach and one for which I would normally applaud both the zoning code author and the developer.

But the units were so poorly designed and constructed that the development never had a chance.  I suspect that any prospective tenants looked about, turned up their noses, and drove a couple of miles to an apartment complex that better met their needs.  The development fell into bankruptcy from which it returned to a new life as budget travel accommodations.

The design and construction deficiencies were many.  The walls were thin.  The layout was awkward for anything other than sleeping.  The inadequately ventilated bathrooms were already showing signs of mildew.

But my favorite was the threshold.  The underlayment beneath the thin aluminum threshold hadn’t been installed, with the result that the threshold crinkled and flattened whenever I stepped on it, returning to its original shape when I moved on.  I quickly learned to step over the threshold.

To be clear, I’m not complaining about Santa Fe Suites as lodging for our travels.  The price was great and none of us were at all put off by the clunky details or traces of mildew.  The rooms met our needs.

But I can nonetheless bemoan the opportunity that had been missed.  Santa Fe would have been a little better place if the apartments had worked as intended.  Instead, the buildings will occupy the land for thirty or forty years until their lifespan expires, they’re demolished, and another developer tries to get it right.

This blog is usually about ideas for land use.  But Santa Fe Suites is a reminder that execution matters just as much.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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