When We Talk About Infill, Part II
Win the battle councilors, and you'll win the war
It's one of life's more poignant ironies: Everyone wants into heaven—it's the part about dying that's a drag. On similar lines, many of our elected officials say they want greater infill and redevelopment of the existing city and less of the current Westside growth pattern. But whenever the political heat from area neighborhood associations gets a little too hot, all those lofty ideals go straight to hell.
On a 4-4 vote at its last meeting (Griego, Mayer, Loy and Winter —“No;" Cadigan, Heinrich, O'Malley, and Gomez—“Yes;" Cummins—MIA ... again), the City Council came very close to killing a small infill project in the Huning's-Highland neighborhood located in the southeast quadrant of Central and 1-25, quickly becoming known as the East Downtown area. The council vote was demonstrative of the hypocrisy that exists between infill and revitalization lip service and the political roadblocks thrown up anytime an infill project might move forward.
In this case, a vacant lot on Walter SE could soon be replaced by a Victorian-style home containing three owner-occupied town home units. The project would appear an ideal fit for the neighborhood and the new growth paradigm city policy makers claim they're committed to: investment in an older neighborhood, a fifty-step walk to a Central Avenue bus stop might promote transit ridership, higher density, a location where city infrastructure and utilities already exist, etc.
But, as many would-be infill developers often complain, a couple of neighborhood activists are objecting to the "detrimental" impact that would occur if the vacant lot were replaced by three or four new residents and their home. And four members of the Council are siding with them.
Of those four "nay" votes, three are difficult to explain. Brad Winter consistently supports the requests of neighborhood associations—even when they are slightly irrational. So it was no surprise to see Winter agonize over their concerns in this case.
But no one will accuse Sally Mayer or her understudy Craig Loy of being neighborhood association devotees after their recent affair with Citizens for Greater Albuquerque. At this particular council meeting, however, the two positioned themselves as committed community activists that were determined to stop the evil infill developer in his tracks.
Following Loy's stumbling justification for voting with his political puppet master (it is amazing how Mayer's lips don't even move when Loy is talking), Mayer chimed in with all her sorority spirit to explain that the Huning Highland neighborhood was fragile and needed protection—an argument Mayer doesn't apply to other areas of town like, oh ... the Petroglyphs. Given some of the unsavory special interests behind Mayer and Loy, perhaps they'd rather not see infill redevelopment work on a successful enough scale to make Westside land speculation less lucrative.
More perplexing, though, was Eric Griego, who represents the area. Griego fancies himself the city's leading progressive politician, willing to battle the purveyors of Westside sprawl—a high priest in the "Let's direct growth to where infrastructure already exists" movement. Yet in this non-rhetorical exercise, he jettisoned fellow PGS advocates Gomez, Heinrich, O'Malley and Cadigan (all of whom should be applauded for sticking to their guns—and their principles) in order to team up with CGA poster children Mayer and Loy. Why?
Some argue that, given his interest in running for the mayor's office, Griego doesn't want to upset the neighborhood associations in his political base. While a calculated move, it gives the impression that, despite all of Griego's sermonizing on the healing powers of infill, his revitalization potion only works if he doesn't have to pay a political price for it. Which may be the reason he spends so much time playing "master infill developer" to the surface parking lots of Downtown. No one lives or votes there.
If one of the four votes against doesn't have a change of heart, the project will ultimately die on a tie vote. Should Tina Cummins manage to tear herself away from socializing at the state Legislature it's a lost cause. Although, while Cummins was able to make it up La Bajada hill during the snowiest day of the year to attend "The Party" in Santa Fe, she's failed to attend two of the last three council meetings, including this last one—so keep your fingers crossed.
While small, this project is highly indicative of the political atmosphere for infill. It is literally a canary in a coal mine. Should a majority of the City Council buy into the argument that city neighborhoods are static—that any change to their character must be microscopic—then the concepts of infill and revitalization are dead. Most of Albuquerque's older neighborhoods will continue to stagnate, the city will never develop the density necessary to support a decent transit system and no sane infill developer will waste time jumping through the capricious hoops and hurdles of City Hall.
If what we saw last Monday night is a glimpse of the future, the Council should do us all a favor and repeal the Planned Growth Strategy, throw the Westside wide open to single-family residential development and quit wasting everyone's time.
Or they could take a clue from Councilors Cadigan, Gomez, Heinrich and O'Malley and get serious about the infill and revitalization of Albuquerque.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.