Make Infill and the Planned Growth Strategy Work
By Greg Payne
The Albuquerque Journal took aim at the Planned Growth Strategy (or PGS) recently in a three-part series that explored the explosion of growth outside Albuquerque. Sandoval, Valencia and Torrance counties have seen their populations double since 1980 while Bernalillo County has only (only!) had a 33 percent increase, according to the paper.
The Journal's editorial board wrapped the reporting up with a what it all means analysis, titled "City Helps Fuel Surrounding Boom." The Journal opined that city policies—especially the PGS—were pushing growth and development outside Albuquerque's municipal boundaries and into places like Rio Rancho.
A quick refresher for the Journal: Rio Rancho didn't spring up after PGS adoption in 2002. That city's growth and development had been underway for decades. The real catalyst (but not the only one) for Rio Rancho's boom was Intel—an event that happened long before the PGS was on the drawing boards.
Regardless, it appears the Journal will point the finger at the PGS anytime a new subdivision or Krispy Kreme locates outside Albuquerque's city limits. Of course the PGS makes a great straw man when you ignore (as the Journal's coverage did) critical issues like water. It's doubtful Rio Rancho will ever become "Dallas to Albuquerque's Fort Worth" unless, that is, wishful thinking can recharge the aquifer.
Which isn't to say problems don't exist with the PGS, its implementation or impact fees—they do. If those hurdles aren't addressed at some point, the PGS legislation will be repealed and burned in effigy should the economy ever take a dive.
Not only would that be unfortunate for Albuquerque, it would almost guarantee no other city makes a similar effort. Remember, the core principle of Albuquerque's planned growth strategy is to encourage some of the city's new growth into existing neighborhoods in order to revitalize and redevelop those areas.
Following are just some of the issues PGS advocates have failed to adequately address, providing opponents ammunition.
Neighborhood Associations are Not Realistic about “in-fill”
The goal of in-fill is encourage growth and development in existing neighborhoods. For that to happen, neighborhoods will change. But the single biggest impediment to redevelopment (or development) in existing neighborhoods is the NIMBY syndrome.
Neighborhood associations are vital to our civic culture, but there's a responsibility to meet in-fill development halfway. Every vacant lot can't be a park. Every vacant building can't be a community center. It would bankrupt the city.
More importantly, if residents insist existing neighborhoods remain static—that what they look like today is what they look like forever—in-fill and the PGS won't work.
Inconsistent Commitment from the City Council
What is often lacking from the Council is leadership that finds common ground between developers and neighborhood associations. Think of the blighted, vacant Nob Hill lot that occupies the old Baca's Restaurant as an example of how the system works now.
At the urging of some area residents, the City Council killed a proposed mixed-use development that would have been an enormous improvement to the site. Councilors may pride themselves for backing local voters over business interests, but is what remains a real win for the neighborhood? Isn't it possible for both sides—developer and neighborhood—to get what they want?
Councilors are demanding developers operate under a new paradigm. They would do well to think about a new thought process for themselves, too.
Redevelopment Remains the Most Difficult Type of Development
If the choice before a developer is a) a large, single-family subdivision on the edge of Rio Rancho supported by a friendly local government without neighborhood association opposition, or b) a protracted battle over a small in-fill project (think about EDO and the Huning Highlands area) with a hostile City Council and unending, unrealistic demands from an agitated neighborhood association, where would you invest your time, energy and capital?
If the city wants more in-fill development, the process has got to become easier, friendlier and more consistent for the sort of development we at least say we want.
No Understanding of the Market
Rio Rancho is experiencing a housing boom because there's a demand for the product. While just a hunch, the typical home buyer (like Albuquerque's Westside) is probably a moderate income family in their 20s or 30s.
For urban revitalization to succeed—and to redirect demand—there has to be an effort to reach that market. But consumer demand isn't something that can be legislated, either. You have to produce a product people actually want to buy.
Despite those challenges, the Planned Growth Strategy isn't the city's death knell. It is still our best opportunity to renew existing neighborhoods and bring a more urban environment to Albuquerque. While the Journal chose its path long ago—moving to the city's edge, as far away from Downtown as possible while landscaping with nary a thought to water use—it doesn't mean the rest of us should follow their lead.
And it certainly doesn't mean we should give up on the PGS before it's been given a real chance.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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