Working on the Railroad
After years of deliberation, the wheels may finally be turning on a project to redevelop Albuquerque's historic railyard
By Jessica Cassyle Carr
In the late 1800s, railroad executives chose to locate their regional hub here in Albuquerque, transforming what was then a small, rural town into the territory's commercial center. The railyards remained in operation until after World War II when the automobile dramatically diminished the role of trains in transport. For decades, the scene of what was once the city's financial engine has been more or less vacant. Over the past several years, as redevelopment has become more and more likely, the huge, valuable piece of land, which lies in the heart of the city between First Street and Broadway bordering Downtown and the South Valley, has been a cause of local curiosity and concern.
Salvaging the railyard buildings, some of the most historically significant in the country, has been a top priority for many in Albuquerque. Leba Freed, president of the Wheels Museum, wants to eventually see the museum located at the railyard. "We've worked very hard for eight years to try to save these buildings for our community, and there have been a lot of legal and financial problems, but we've come to a point now where we think we're going to be able to settle it in a successful way for everyone. But we're not quite there yet."
Eric Griego is the outgoing City Councilor for the district in which the railyard is located. He's also the former vice president of the Barelas Neighborhood Association. For the last several years, he's been heavily involved in efforts to encourage the railyard's redevelopment. Griego believes the project could be a model for the country in mixed-use, mixed-income redevelopment, but "[the owners] are not viewing it as an opportunity to truly redevelop a site, make it something that has some public uses, some private uses, coexists with the neighborhood. They're seeing it strictly as a real estate deal. I'm not going to judge them for that, but they're responding to pension numbers so they've got to make money on the deal."
In November 2000, the Urban Council of Albuquerque, a nonprofit community redevelopment project, bought 27 of the railyard's 40 acres, including the historic railyard buildings. Prior to the purchase, according to Alan Vincioni, a commercial broker of Berger Briggs and President of the Urban Council, the buildings were in danger of being torn down because they were not (and are still not) on the historic registry. "We bought [the buildings] with the idea of redeveloping and converting them into a use that's financially viable so that they're saved and preserved and that's what we think this does."
The current redevelopment plan involves Culver City Studios and Digital Media Group partnered in a joint venture to build a movie studio at the railyard. Under the tentative plan, according to the city's planning department the studio would use most, if not all, of the railyard buildings and the Wheels Museum would possibly be housed in the front of the property along First Street and Second Street.
After five years of redevelopment stagnation, the Urban Council, in conjunction with Build New Mexico—the nonprofit real estate arm of the building, construction and contractor trade unions—are hoping to break ground on the project before next summer. Jim Trump, executive director of Build New Mexico and president of Union Development Corporation, says the buildings will stay true to their original use and new buildings will stay with the architectural style of the original buildings. Trump encourages public involvement and estimates that public hearings on the site plan will begin in the next 60 days. As a third generation Albuquerquean, he says he takes the project and its effect on the community very seriously. He adds that, aside from the movie studio, there is plenty of space left over to build lofts, retail and offices, and to serve other mixed uses. He says the studio will create jobs and "facilitate something that looks at the creativity of the artist."
Barelas Neighborhood Association president Kathy Garcia is concerned that her neighborhood, which borders the railyard on its east side, will be negatively impacted if the redevelopment is poorly planned. "We want a sense of aesthetic, we don't want to be walled off. Barelas was built around the railyards."
Garcia says she wants to protect the quality of life in the already fragile neighborhood, saying she worries that the project might create more traffic and higher taxes without corresponding economic opportunity. She believes it also might bar public access and not maintain the history of the railyard buildings.
Ideally there would be a few plans to choose from, she says, and a good master plan would complement Barelas' identity, include a concourse that would merge with Downtown, and bring continuity between the areas. There has been communication with developers working on the project—Jim Trump and representatives from DMG and Culver City have attended neighborhood meetings—but Garcia says the communication must be ongoing.
On the other hand, she says the city has not been engaged. "It was unfortunate that the city has been indifferent to the importance of the property, and there wasn't a more logical plan for options and possibilities in terms of the future of those buildings. What we can do for a healthier community is to have more interaction with them and that's what we're trying for."
Ed Adams, chief operating officer for the mayor's office, insists that plans for redevelopment are completely up to the owners. But he said the property's use will be a tremendous asset to the community. "The city is very supportive of the project that is being contemplated for the railyards ... we hope that the project would move forward in a timely manner."
According to the city's planning department, site plans must go through an initial public approval process through the Environmental Planning Commission. This involves a public hearing, although the commission would ultimately make the decision. Right now, it looks like this process could finally happen early next year.
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