Last week, I went looking for prairie dogs in City Councilor Sally Mayer's near-Northeast Heights district. I found lots of closed businesses instead.
In case you haven't heard, Mayer has announced she wants another four years as Albuquerque's District 7 councilor. So far, she's unopposed. I wanted to see what difference her past term on the Council has made for the neighborhoods she represents. It wasn't hard deciding what to look for. Mayer has not been known for much beyond saving prairie dogs, opposing a smoking ban in restaurants, promoting plastic lawns and stigmatizing canines.
Mayer pushed for plastic lawns to receive the same public support as xeriscaping. Sure, they don't use water, but plastic lawns are dead zones and too much like tacky plastic slip covers. They might make sense for absentee landlords, but I'm not sure that entire neighborhoods with fake front yards, shining the same brilliant green regardless of the season, is such a good idea. Let's hope plastic lawns never, shall we say, catch fire.
The "dangerous dog" law, Mayer's most recent accomplishment, has just been passed. We'll never know if it works. It's bound to be declared unconstitutional when applied against state Sen. Rod Adair's next visit to town.
So I settled on looking for prairie dogs.
Mayer's district stretches from the outer edge of the north-university area across I-40 to the Heights. I started at Carlisle and headed east on Lomas. I came to nearly an entire block of closed businesses stretching from numbers 4609 through 4617. Just across the street sat a closed restaurant. Next lay an empty lot with prairie dog potential. Finding no sign of the little critters, I continued eastward.
More empty storefronts: 4803, 4805, 4807 and 5203 Lomas, and another nine east of San Mateo.
Across the interstate bridge appeared prime habitat, about a half mile of vacant lots strung together. I scanned the sky for hawks and glassed the ground for black-footed ferrets. No predators. No prairie dogs. Just more closed and empty businesses on this end of Mayer's district: at least 19 on the west side of Eubank, another 19 on the east side.
This is the heart of The Northeast Heights, a supposedly stable part of the city, but Mom and Pop seem to be having a hard time making it.
At the corner of Louisiana and Candelaria sits a boarded up gas station, convenience store and car wash. At 4500 Cutler, a failed restaurant. At 5200 Cutler, a large, empty retail space. At 3716 and 3720 Candelaria, empty storefronts. At 3300 San Mateo, four empty storefronts in a row. Eight stores empty in the 1300 block of San Pedro, four more in the 1600 block. Three abandoned stores at 2626 San Pedro. Four vacant stores at 7200 Montgomery.
More closed businesses on Pennsylvania, Comanche, Menaul, Constitution, Wyoming, Louisiana, and the little side streets that peel off the major thoroughfares.
Despite an occasional bright spot, the emptying of commercial space in this section of the Northeast Heights continues wherever you look. Commercial real estate brokers describe what's occurring as a "shift in synergy." Translated, that means businesses are failing or moving out. According to one broker, retailers are leaving the area and following growth on the Westside as the District 7 population ages. Long, straight, six-lane streets built for speeding cars—the kind of grid on which District 7 was built—cannot attract the new urbanism fueling Downtown's pedestrian oriented renaissance, which is attracting both residents and retail shops.
Many of these Northeast Heights operating businesses seem to be struggling. They look like they could use the same helping hand City Hall eagerly extends to large corporations. Small businesses pay full freight on taxes; favored big corporations building at the urban fringes get to slide. Entrepreneurs in the Heights are subsidizing their own executions.
Small businesses play the role of canaries in mines: When they start dropping you know you're in trouble. A boarded up shop hurts nearby home values. Empty buildings draw vandals and graffiti. Existing businesses have a harder time avoiding a similar fate. Urban decay can be contagious.
Other older sections of the city have their problems. But they have City Councilors doing something to encourage more considerate patterns of growth, including the Planned Growth Strategy, which Mayer opposed every step of the way. As much as they probably adore prairie dogs, Councilors Martin Heinrich, Eric Griego, Miguel Gomez and Debbie O'Malley are concentrating on economic development. Metropolitan Redevelopment Areas have been established in their districts. Mayer's district has nothing comparable.
Mayer's website touts her work on animal ordinances. Not a word addresses the problems facing small businesses in older neighborhoods.
Unexpectedly, I found what might be evidence of Mayer's legislative accomplishments. At 1419 Eubank houses a small business called "Prairie Dog Grooming." (No kidding). I asked the women behind the counter, "How have you benefited from Sally Mayer's years on City Council?" I didn't get an answer. I got a question. "Sally who?"
Sally Mayer did not respond to repeated calls for comment about her record on small business issues in her district.