Appetite for Destruction
"With a little luck in the next three to four months we'll have three motels taken down."
When the Gaslite Motel was open for business in East Downtown, it symbolized the kind of urban decay that makes Albuquerque feel like a town that hates itself. The place was, for decades, a well-known home for the destitute and depraved, a magnet for drug dealing, violent crime and likely spot to see a shoving match between a pimp and a whore in broad daylight.
Then, back in 2002, the Safe City Strike Force shut down the Gaslite, and the owner quickly sold the property to a local real estate investment company headed by David Blanc. The corner of Walter and Central seemed destined for a new beginning. However, Blanc and associates boarded up the place, encircled it with razor wire and seemed content to let the property languish for a few years. Meanwhile, other East Downtown redevelopment projects proceeded with alacrity, slowly transforming Central between Broadway and I-25 into one of the city's trendier corridors.
But after local residents recently complained that squatters and transients were entering the premises on a daily basis, the city stepped in once again to put a stop to it.
"You'd see a window opened one day and closed the next," said Karla Thornton, a nearby homeowner. "We were concerned it could burn down. It's an eyesore and we want it to go away."
This month, residents will get their wish.
Deputy City Attorney Pete Dinelli, who directs the Safe City Strike Force, said increased reports about the Gaslite being illegally occupied led to an agreement with Blanc to allow the city to tear it down in the next 30 days. Dinelli said the owners of the property will be billed for the demolition costs after the job is finished. Had the city and the owner not reached the demolition agreement, Dinelli said a condemnation proceeding could have followed and the owner could have been forced to sell the property. (Blanc declined to discuss future development plans when contacted last week.)
Kay Adams, president of the Huning Highland Neighborhood Association, said she was glad the Gaslite shut down three years ago and is now thrilled that the building will finally be demolished. "Can I push the detonator on the dynamite, please?" said Adams when informed of the agreement. "I mean, get it out of here."
The Safe City Strike Force, which is run out of the City Attorney's office, is comprised of representatives from the Albuquerque Police Department, fire department, city planning office, city family and community services department and the District Attorney's office. Its primary purpose is to enforce the city's nuisance abatement ordinance by combining city departments under one umbrella organization and avoiding too much departmental overlap.
On a weekly basis, the representatives review between 35-65 properties that have been identified as a public nuisance after a prolonged period of "calls for service" (a euphemism for calling the cops), said Dinelli. The list of properties under review mainly includes bars, apartment complexes and motels.
Dinelli said the latest action in East Downtown reflects the continued progress the city is making toward cleanup and redevelopment along Central throughout Albuquerque. In the past three years, the task force has taken some form of corrective action on 41 motels, shutting down five of them. This summer, the city plans to add more to the list.
"With a little luck, in the next three to four months, we'll have three motels taken down," said Dinelli. In addition to the Gaslite, the city has accelerated efforts to condemn and tear down The American Inn near Nob Hill and also plans to demolish the Route 66 motel further east on Central.
The aggressive work of the Safe City Strike Force is perhaps best viewed along a two-block stretch near Washington and Central. The American Inn sits among an enclave of boarded-up or demolished motels, including DeAnza Motel, The Royal Inn and Zia Motor Lodge, where sun-bleached and neglected signs stand like tombstones high above the sidewalk and the parking lots are filled with weeds sprouting through the cracked asphalt.
Once shut down, each of these properties now await a chance to blossom into a revitalized urban landscape. When this will happen, though, is anybody's guess. For example, after Zia Motor Lodge was forced to close by the city last November, it didn't take long for a squatter's fire to burn it. The city exercised what Dinelli called “emergency authority” and destroyed the remaining building. Compass Bank then foreclosed on the property. (The Alibi was unable to reach a company representative for further comment.)
As for the Royal, the city filed a nuisance violation lawsuit against the owner, closed it down and then reached an agreement to demolish it. The owner then sold the vacant land to a private developer and part of the proceeds went to reimburse the city for the demolition cost. But there are no signs of redevelopment taking place.
Then there is the Route 66 motel. Dinelli called it one of the most disgusting motels he'd ever seen, citing collapsing walls, overwhelming stench, open sewer lines and severe roach infestation—all conditions discovered while rooms were still being rented. As a result, the city purchased the building outright and plans to have it leveled sometime this summer.
Nonetheless, because of the romanticism and commercialization of the bygone days of Route 66, tearing down old motels has been a difficult pill to swallow for some residents, including Dinelli, who was born and raised in Albuquerque and has served as both a city councilor and judge before becoming deputy city attorney. But the problems, he said, are too severe to ignore.
"Unfortunately the fabric of Route 66 is torn and tattered," he said, "I'm sensitive to historical significance, but these are rags that should be disposed of."
City Councilor Eric Griego, a strong proponent of redeveloping blighted areas in and around the Downtown core, agrees but cautioned that landlords sometimes use the condemnation process as a way to get overvalued payouts when selling to the taxpayers. Griego said redeveloping the Gaslite is an important “anchor” to keep the East Downtown momentum going, but added: “I think a challenge for all of those motels is making sure we preserve the ones that can be preserved. Some, on the other hand, really aren't historically significant.”
At least one Nob Hill motel has been worth saving. The DeAnza Motel remains closed for now, but the city plans to preserve it as a historical landmark.
With so much urban decay to combat, the city has managed to put together a system for enforcing the nuisance abatement ordinance that appears to be, bureaucratically speaking, efficient.
It starts when a commercial property attracts a large number of calls for service. Soon thereafter, the list of criminal complaints can result in a nuisance designation by the city's nuisance abatement task force. The city will then pursue a court order to close down the business and inspect the property, checking for building code violations. If the building is structurally unsound in some way (plumbing leaks, electrical hazards or a broken boiler, for example) the city can then exercise a series of options. First, the property owner will receive a letter calling for corrective action before the business can be reopened. Or the city and property owner can enter into a nuisance abatement agreement and determine if the building will be vacated, sold or demolished. If the property owner does not comply, the city can file a lawsuit to shut the operation down. Or, if all else fails, the city will move toward condemnation proceedings, which thus far has rarely happened.
"I think it is a real exciting time," said Dinelli. "It's an opportunity to eliminate problems and encourage redevelopment."