The Real Side
The El Vado Mess
No way to do historic preservation
By Jim Scarantino
Richard Gonzales bought the old El Vado Motel on west Central in 2005. The motor court was losing thousands of dollars each month. “I can’t make it anymore,” the previous owner told the Albuquerque Journal.
Gonzales bought the place for $680,000. He wanted to build 10 townhouses on its 1.29-acre lot. He believed his project would spur new growth in the heart of the city while eliminating a decaying motel that needed a lot of work to restore its faded glory.
But other people—people who weren’t willing to buy El Vado themselves—had their own plans for Gonzales’ property and how Gonzales should be spending his money and life for years to come.
Route 66 enthusiasts consider El Vado a treasure. It is listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places. El Vado is hailed as the city’s last remaining example of a “pure” Pueblo Revival-style motor court. The building’s six-colored neon sign recalls the days of cross-continent travel on two-lane blacktop in cars with bumper bullets and tail fins.
Mayor Martin Chavez immediately opposed Gonzales’ plans. Though he could have moved forward with demolition, Gonzales agreed to consider preserving the key nostalgic elements of El Vado visible from the street.
What happened next set a deplorable precedent for historic preservation. The City Council, under then-president Martin Heinrich, “landmarked” El Vado without the owner’s consent. Since 1978, Albuquerque’s Landmarks and Urban Conservation ordinance has helped owners of historic properties with tax credits and technical expertise. This was the first time the city attempted to force a person to preserve a property, at the owner’s expense, to suit the city’s wishes.
As the result of being landmarked, Gonzales could not replace the El Vado Motel. Controls issued by the city effectively seized Gonzales’ property: He could not remove the hotel sign; he could not alter the Pueblo Revival styling on the buildings; he could not change the interior courtyard and must keep it open to the street; he could not change the pattern and proportion of the windows and had to preserve all remaining wooden windows; he had to preserve at least one carport, though others could be enclosed, provided the shapes of the openings remained apparent from the exterior; and inside the buildings he could not change the reception area and fireplace, the viga ceilings or the wooden door and hardware. Nor could he replace the old plaster walls.
If Gonzales violated any of these detailed controls on his private property, he could be imprisoned.
Because of its location, configuration, small rooms and antiquated features, Gonzales’ team of consultants see little use for El Vado except as a niche motel for Route 66 buffs. They peg the cost of resurrecting El Vado at an additional $3.4 million. Neither the city nor Route 66 afficionados have offered to pay those costs or the amounts of their own restoration estimates. Nor have they offered to indemnify Gonzales against future operating losses. They would rather play historic preservation with someone else’s money.
The city’s landmark law requires Gonzales to apply for freedom from these controls. If the city concludes the controls prevent him from earning a “reasonable economic return,” he can make changes to his property. Because El Vado has struck the fancy of a small segment of our community with enough political stroke to get their way, neither Gonzales nor the marketplace will make that decision. Instead, the call will be made by political appointees. But they won’t be accountable for making a wrong call. Gonzales alone will pay the penalty for their poor judgment.
About a year ago, the Landmarks and Urban Conservation Committee denied Gonzales’ request to demolish El Vado. They instructed him to keep searching for other ideas on what to do with his motel while he continues to pay attorney and consultant fees, financing costs and taxes.
Since then, a judge overturned the Council’s landmark designation because it had not considered the impact on Gonzales. The Planning Department then denied him a routine demolition permit, claiming it wasn’t aware of the judge’s decision. Gonzales is back in court. And even though the underlying dismal economic picture hasn’t changed, on Jan. 7, 2008, the City Council again designated El Vado a landmark over Gonzales’ objections.
Gonzales must once more go before the Landmarks and Urban Conservation Committee to escape the controls placed on his property. If they turn him down, a 12-month moratorium follows. El Vado will continue to blight west Central. And Gonzales will be assured of another year of costly, frustrating involuntary servitude caring for a dilapidated motel on which no one wants to spend their own money.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail email@example.com.
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