Is New Urbanism Right for Albuquerque?
The Sierra Club names the new urbanist East Downtown (EDo) redevelopment project one of the 12 best in the U.S.
By Jessica Cassyle Carr
Some things really do come back to life. Take the old Albuquerque High School, located at Broadway and Central, which, after a 30-year stint as a deteriorating building, has emerged as the focal point of the up-and-coming EDo corridor (located roughly between I-25 and the train tracks on Central, and Coal and Lomas on Broadway). Recently remodeled into stylish loft apartments, the project is now receiving national attention.
At a press conference last week, Albuquerque High developer Rob Dickson was honored by Ken Hughes of the Sierra Club, one of the nation's premier environmental organizations, for taking some major steps to accomplish urban infill development and retrofits in an area where crime and a string of seedy motels—remnants of the pre-interstate Route 66 days—once thrived. But, according to Dickson, this is just the beginning. "We believe we are in the fifth year of a 25-year effort to become a truly memorable urban village."
Waiting for the Bus
Sharing the honor with cities like Portland, Tacoma, Salt Lake City, Atlanta and Milwaukee, projects recognized were typically built on new urbanist principles opposed to suburban development and sprawl. One of the main criteria for the honor is that the project must have taken place in an area already developed; not on untouched natural land. The projects also had to offer various transportation options; combine living, working and shopping; preserve community assets; minimize pollution; and be the product of input from citizens.
While EDo is a short walk or bike ride from Downtown, the area does not yet offer a truly viable mass transit system other than buses that stop running at 8 p.m. A commuter rail line is expected to be open early next year at the Alvarado Transportation Center, tentatively followed by a thus-far unfunded modern streetcar system. There is also talk of making the area more pedestrian-friendly by adding crosswalks and flashing lights. After the press conference, there was even chatter about a desire to see Central made into a two-lane street with widened sidewalks and more parking from Downtown all the way up to Nob Hill.
Groceries and Continued Growth
New projects continue to pop up in EDo, including the unbuilt Belvedere Urban Courtyard Living condos (31 of 54 are already sold), also a project of Dickson's, located next to Albuquerque High at Broadway and Martin Luther King. This most recent undertaking is intended to incorporate a higher-end courtyard design, but plans for affordable housing in place of the recently demolished Gaslight Motel at Walter and Central and in some vacant buildings along Broadway may be in the works soon.
Perhaps the most exciting news for residents and fans of new urbanism is another Dickson project--a full-service grocery store at Arno and Central that is slated to open this spring. The Market @ Edo, a 6,000-square-foot store, roughly the size of La Montañita Co-op in Nob Hill, will sell gourmet, specialty and local foods along with wine and beer. The store will be managed by the former owner of the Grocery Emporium on Girard near Indian School.
Despite the air of excitement at the press conference, some Albuquerque residents are hesitant of future development in the district. While some fear gentrification in the area, others are afraid of rampant new urbanism and say such communities are a “poor fit” for Albuquerque. Silvio Dell'Angela, president of the Eisenhower Area Neighborhood Association in the Northeast Heights, says unlike 19th-century cities, Albuquerque and most western cities are spread out, and are without centralized employment hubs. He said forcing high-density neighborhoods and commuter rail here could be logistically flawed.
"I'm not opposed to new urbanism in certain applications," says Dell'Angela. "It might even apply in certain limited locations of Albuquerque." But he says spread-out cities lend themselves to a well-designed vehicular transportation network, which includes buses. Dell'Angela said commuter rail is expensive, would be underused and that most citizens aren't interested in walkable communities. He also worries that new-urbanizing Albuquerque would substantially drive up the cost of living. Dell'Angela represents one person in a local constituency who may eventually vote on whether or not to allocate funds for commuter rail and city rezoning. "It's our taxes that are going into some of these poorly thought-out projects."
At last week's press conference there were calls for new state and city legislation that would promote future infill development in other parts of the city and state. Namely, both Dickson and former City Councilor Eric Griego called for tax increment financing and neighborhood improvement district legislation to be passed during next month's state legislative session in Santa Fe. Locally, they want rezoning—a change made for EDo—throughout the city. They also want funding for a modern streetcar system, which will, according to Dickson, stimulate the development of other places like EDo. Dickson called for strong leadership from the mayor to actualize new projects.
Isaac Benton, Downtown's new city councilor, said there are opportunities for developing corridors throughout the city. He said there is a need to get people in the neighborhoods to understand that value. "The urbanists and the folks that enjoy a place like this fully understand the value. As you know, there are people who are really afraid of change and we've got to help them visualize."
New City Councilors Inaugurated
Last Thursday night, leadership of Albuquerque's District 3, which includes Downtown, Old Town, the UNM area and parts of the South Valley, shifted from Eric Griego to Isaac Benton. Griego will now hold the position of Assistant Secretary for the New Mexico Economic Development Department.
"I think he's going to do an excellent job over the next four to 20 years as your councilman," Griego said, adding that he believed the district is in able hands with the new councilor. Benton, an architect and designer, said it would be hard to live up to Griego's high standards, but he would do his best to do so.
The first City Council meeting with the set of newly elected councilors took place on Monday, and also included Don Harris in place of Tina Cummins in District 9, which covers the far southeastern part of town including Four Hills, and Ken Sanchez taking the seat of Miguel Gomez in District 1, which covers the southern part of the Westside.
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