When Frank Gilmer says he has "a feel for Albuquerque and my neighborhood," he might be underestimating the power of his institutional memory. Mr. Gilmer is a deacon at the First Baptist Church on the corner of Broadway and Central, which sits across the street from the retired Albuquerque High School, whence he sprang as a member of the class of '46. He'll tell you about the days when Broadway was the main commercial street in the city, with its parallel access to the bustling railyards and medians plush with grass and shade trees. He remembers the fountain in the middle of the Broadway and Central intersection, placed there for thirsty horses providing transport along Route 66 in the dust bowl days of the Great Depression.
Reflecting on the decades henceforth, Mr. Gilmer recalled the time, not too many years ago, when his once glorious high school transformed into a monastery of sorts for winos and drug addicts finding sanctuary in its well-concealed, decaying rooms. The area, Mr. Gilmer says proudly, has come a long way.
With the city's nuisance abatement task force recently shutting down the Gaslite motel following a multitude of prostitution and drug arrests within its confines, combined with the transformation of old Albuquerque High into trendy condominiums, the East Downtown corridor, or EDO, seems to be destined as another new urbanism success—following the Downtown entertainment district and Sawmill neighborhood templates—in and around the city core.
"We're so pleased looking at that new development across the street," said Mr. Gilmer after speaking before the City Council's Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee last week. "Now that can happen in the whole area."
In fact, it is happening along Central between I-25 and Broadway, where several new restaurants, including The Daily Grind which will offer patio dining, are planning to open in the near future next to the new SolArts art gallery and theater. Although the Gaslite has taken on an abandoned look since being closed down two years ago, a multi-story development offering retail storefront on the ground level, second floor residential units and a parking structure is in the works, according to an area business owner.
Mr. Gilmer spoke before the committee on behalf of his church's 700 parishioners, advocating for passage of the EDO master plan. The plan is the result of a five-day, public charette held at the Baptist church in September 2003, where local residents, community members, business owners, developers and city planners met with urban landscape architects to collectively design the plan. The plan was privately funded by the Broadway Central Corridors Neighborhood Association, which represents approximately 200 property owners, businesses and residents. The plan has since received unanimous approval from both the city landmarks commission and environmental planning commission, and will be voted on by the City Council on Feb. 23.
From the church's viewpoint, any improvement to the area, even if it added more residents, would be advantageous. "Our primary business as a church is saving souls," Gilmer said. "If you have more souls available, all the better." Encouraging infill development would likely increase the value of the 10 acres the church owns at the northwest corner of Broadway and Central, as well.
The general goal of the master plan is to create a "Main Street" environment along Central between Broadway and I-25, and along Broadway between Central and Coal, by maintaining the look and design of historic buildings while expanding pedestrian access to retail services, and above all, increasing the corridor's population.
Critics of the plan who live in the surrounding Huning Highland and South Broadway neighborhoods have also spoken at the aforementioned city commission hearings, expressing concerns that new housing could drive up property taxes, and calling for limits on building heights along Broadway and Central. A proposed upscale supermarket at the corner of Central and Arno that would sell some type of alcoholic beverage also has raised the ire of several area residents.
As a homeowner in the Huning Highland neighborhood and an outspoken member of the Downtown Historic Neighborhoods Alliance, Charles Incendio said he opted not to participate in the public charette, but supports the idea of a master plan based on "community ideals."
Mr. Incendio said opponents of the master plan want assurance from the city, local merchants and developers that the historic character will be preserved while the area undergoes redevelopment. He was particularly upset about any new liquor sales in the area. "There are 34 liquor-serving establishments in the Downtown core," he said. "What's the point of putting another one here?"
Being teetotalers who abstain from, if not abhor, the presence of liquor in one's life, you might think the Baptists were on board with the opposition to selling alcohol just one block up the street from their church. "We are teetotalers, but you sometimes have to face reality that the development might call for liquor sales in a supermarket," Gilmer said.
In the next few weeks City Councilor Eric Griego, who represents the EDO district, said he hopes the final plan will reach an amiable compromise. Specifically, he said he introduced amendments that would lower maximum building heights from five stories to four, put controls on the number of individual dwelling units allowed per acre, create buffer zones between new buildings and adjacent houses so the views aren't obstructed, preserve parking access for residents and put restrictions on the kind of libations sold at the supermarket (no miniatures, fortified wine or individual beers). Griego also wants to adopt a "local empowerment zone" concept that was recently passed for the Central area east of Nob Hill, where neighborhood associations can restrict liquor sales based on the area crime rate and city's nuisance abatement guidelines.
Councilor Griego said he also hopes the city will help to create a business improvement agency for EDO, similar to the Downtown Action Team that represents local merchants and works with the city to keep the Downtown clean and safe.
"With the amendments, I support it," Griego said. "I think the master plan will promote a dynamic corridor and really encourage redevelopment citywide. I think we will hear from people saying this area is really friendly to pedestrians and local transit, and I think it is going to bring people back to live in the heart of the city."
Mr. Gilmer echoed the sentiment of area merchants and developers who recognize the need for more pedestrian traffic if a local retail economy is to flourish Downtown.
"As a native having grown up in the area, it would be a great revitalization to have people on the street again and having services available within walking distance," said Gilmer. "People like the idea of a live and work concept—to just commute downstairs to work."
Correction: Last week, the word "benefactor" was misused in Newscity. I referred to the Church of Christ as a benefactor of the Taylor Foundation. The proper word should have been "beneficiary," since the Church of Christ was receiving the money from the foundation, not vice versa. Also, the quote "It was all done in the name Lord" should have read: "It was all done in the name of the Lord."