A 5,700-square-foot building destined for the Bosque has some neighbors riled up.
John Hart's lived in the same house for 27 years, about as long as the Rio Grande Nature Center’s been around. A new education building will be constructed next to the center and a couple of doors down from his home. But Hart feels the structure will intrude on a treasured natural area. "They're overdoing it," he says. "It's poorly planned and larger than it needs to be."
When the project was initially proposed about three years ago, it was supposed to be 10,000 or 11,000 square feet, says Dave Simon, director of New Mexico State Parks. "We have refined down the building to meet what we think are basic needs for this facility. There's not a lot of excess in it."
Simon says the department worked with the public and gathered input throughout the process. But Hart says the first time he heard of it was when one of his neighbors, who was active at the Rio Grande Nature Center, found out the Legislature had already authorized $1.5 million to the project. "That upset some of us. We weren't consulted. We didn't know about this until the building was a done deal."
Simon says State Parks analyzed nine different options for the facility, and one of those was a "no-action" alternative, which meant no building. "The option of doing nothing was the least-favored option of the public,” he says. “A clear, overwhelming majority of the public felt no action was not a good action."
Hart knows some of his neighbors in the area near Candelaria and Rio Grande support the new educational building. "A lot of the people have different opinions and think we're obstructionist and we don't want to have it in our backyard, that we're cranky old men," he says. "But I know a lot of people involved in creating this [nature center], and they cared about it."
The problem, according to Simon, is that the center’s existing building is overrun. "It was never really designed functionally to handle the level of public demand that we have," he says. There's no educational space for school groups. A busload of fourth-graders can overwhelm the facilities. Staff is continually breaking down exhibits to accommodate groups, only to put them back up after the event is over. But the entire preserve is supposed to be the classroom, Hart says, not just a few rooms built on it.
He charges that the building will simply be a nice place to hold cocktail parties and fundraisers, and that’s not consistent with the purpose of a nature preserve. Simon counters that the building should be mutli-use and accessible to the community, since “the nature center is one of the top five destinations in the city." The Friends of the Rio Grande Nature Center provides nongovernmental financial support to the center, as well as many volunteer hours, he says. "I don't see anything wrong with the Friends having a fundraiser in this facility. I think it's entirely appropriate." A long slate of guidelines for use of the facility has been proposed.
Hart is concerned the project will further disrupt a beautiful area and its inhabitants. But Simon assures it won't because the proposed site is just a vacant dirt lot. “It has no large cottonwood trees on it. It's not utilized by animals that frequent the Bosque. It's next to a parking lot. It has low biological value. There's no vegetation on it."
There's been talk of the governor postponing capital projects that have not yet broken ground in order to save money as the state faces a budget shortfall. Simon says he doesn't know whether this building could be one of those projects.
State Parks may start construction on the building this year.