The old Santa Fe railroad district Downtown has been a sad, familiar sight for decades. The dilapidated pre-World War II buildings, the busted windows and the chain-link fence have become such a familiar part of the landscape, area residents have gotten used to ignoring them. But City Councilor Eric Griego has maybe, and perhaps finally, come up with a plan to resurrect the area.
Over the last five years, rumblings and rumors about an exposition center being built on the location had given some people new hope for the area. Or maybe you've heard about a Wheels Museum moving into one of the old historic engine shops. Or possibly you've heard about an arena replacing the condemnable structures, or a digital film studio, or a new rail line. And maybe, after five years of rumbles and rumors, you've given up hope for a revitalization, because nothing seems to have happened yet.
Well, Councilor Griego feels that frustration, and he's trying to do something about it. At the Dec. 6 City Council meeting, Griego's proposing to condemn the property, thereby allowing the city to acquire it so that it can be redeveloped. Currently, 27 of the 40 acres on the site are owned by the Urban Council of Albuquerque, a nonprofit volunteer group that has been working for the last five years to find partners to help with a new urban design and construction. However, the Urban Council has gone through a dozen different developers to date during their luckless quest.
The Urban Council is interested in redeveloping the land not only because sprucing up the area would reap huge benefits for Albuquerque's Downtown revitalization efforts, which benefits economic development throughout the city, but also because their investment in the project would reap financial rewards for them as well. The group could receive a portion of the revenues from the project, and would use the money to focus attention on some of the neighborhoods in the area. Therefore, the completed project would in itself be a source of continuing charity towards Albuquerque communities.
The latest developer to sign on to the project is Renaissance Development Co. Inc., of Fort Worth, Texas. Ed Casebier, president of the company, said that since joining the project in February plans have been moving along smoothly and efficiently. Casebier said that he is worried about Griego's bill, because if the city did acquire the land, the time it would take to complete the project would lengthen. He said that the Urban Council would most likely drop the project, and that all of the plans for the site would need to be remade.
Currently, Casebier said the project is coming very close to groundbreaking. Renaissance Development is waiting for a deal to go through with Digital Media Group on bringing a digital film studio into the location. Once the deal is finalized, a process that could take anywhere from eight to 12 months, Casebier said construction would begin within a few months.
Griego, however, is worried about Renaissance Development's plans. He said that so far Casebier and his associates have been unwilling to partner with the city to maximize the redevelopment efforts, and Griego fears that this could compromise the full benefits of the project, as well as the other efforts that the city had made Downtown. In an interview with the Alibi last week, Griego said the real purpose of introducing the bill is to encourage the developers to work with the city; and that if they don't work with the city then the city will take it upon itself to finish the project.
Griego stated when speaking of the various developers the Urban Council has worked with, "Frankly, the reason why [the project] has languished for five years is [because] they have managed to politic, if you will, the involvement of the public sector, neglected officials, and so they have managed it miserably. They've excluded people, they've not been open, and that's why here we are five years later still trying to get started."
Griego said that if at any point the developers agree to work with the city, the bill will be dropped. But the councilman says that this project is too large and too important to the city to be stalled any longer. He wants to ensure that the redevelopment is compatible with the revitalization efforts that the city has already made.
Robert Vigil, vice president of the Barelas Neighborhood Association, said that he is looking forward to seeing something happen with the site, but that so far there has been a lot of talk and no action on the part of the developers. "We're hoping that whoever does the project will just work with us and be community-friendly," said Vigil.
Once the project is completed, regardless of who eventually takes charge, Albuquerque's Downtown district should look very different from how it looks today. Within a couple of years, Griego wants to see the rail yard transformation complete, and hopefully within 10 years the area will be equipped with a multi-use district that showcases features such as new hotels, restaurants, shops, offices and pubs, along with housing, a new museum, a digital film studio, and one of the largest exposition centers in the Southwest. The site will also likely be one of the stops along the impending light rail lines coming to Albuquerque by 2006.
The finished project will bring tourism, jobs, culture and revenue to a currently static Downtown district. "This is an incredible opportunity to redevelop a historic site in the heart of the city," Griego said. "The city looks forward to partnering with the private sector and the nonprofit sector and the neighborhoods to do a really, really exciting redevelopment." It sure would be nice to think so.