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 V.13 No.23 | June 3 - 9, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

Urban Evolution

Downtown neighborhoods struggle with gentrification

Walking through the precincts that surround downtown Albuquerque is an educational experience. These historic residential areas are on the brink of enormous change. The direction in which that change takes them will mark their character for the next 50 years.

And it is now clear that there is a serious difference of viewpoint brewing in these neighborhoods over which pathway to choose.

The term that draws the metaphoric line in the sand is gentrification. It means that complex shifts can occur when a previously run-down neighborhood begins to draw interest from outside investors, home buyers and developers. It means change. And change frequently inspires fear, conflict and anger.

On the one hand are the proponents for "renewal," the Downtown Action Team and its supporters who are eagerly seeking ways to attract young, professional, urban lifestyle-loving folks with enough money to buy newly-restored lofts and flats or to undertake the expensive task of renovating the 70-and 80-year-old homes which dot the area.

These shock troops of the next generation economy, the creative class that has made Albuquerque's central city hot again, are our gentry: their bank accounts make them potential home owners, not renters. Their education and taste make them likely to create a lively, stimulating community attractive to others with similar interests. It is because of them that the many loft, apartment and town house projects, which have been or will soon be built in Downtown, are financially possible.

They will soon have accomplished, indeed are already well underway with, the literal transformation of the Downtown core.

But every single neighborhood of the half dozen which ring that core is engaged in its own soul-searching examination of this phenomenon and of how it might impact its own existence. How will this luring of newcomers into the central city change Barelas, Martineztown, Huning-Highland, Wells Park, Raynolds, South Broadway and the Downtown Neighborhood?

More to the point, which of those neighborhoods will embrace gentrification, adapt to the changes it brings and find ways to preserve the best of the old order while softening the edges of the new, and which will wage last-ditch opposition to gentrification, taking pot-shots from behind the barricades while digging-in deeply in resistance?

This is not an academic question. The battle lines are already being formed. Up for grabs is the ultimate success or failure of the Downtown renewal. Four years ago, the opposition to building the new baseball stadium Downtown, which could have been the cornerstone for much new development there, was led by activists from within the Historic Neighborhoods Alliance.

Now those same neighborhood leaders are grumbling about the planned EDO ("east Downtown") redevelopment along the corridors radiating out on either side of Central and Broadway from the very successful Old Albuquerque High Lofts.

A few weeks back the Downtown Neighborhood Association's (DNA) annual meeting heard a lengthy analysis of EDO by one of those activists. His negative critique highlighted what he said were "major problems" with EDO: its density; its lack of adequate parking; and its sale of liquor.

But the plan had an equally ardent defender at the meeting that night who pointed out that every aspect of EDO's prospectus was completely consistent with the DNA's own planning documents.

The debate underscored the dilemma each of these neighborhoods will have to resolve on its own: Unless we change we will not become more attractive places to live; but if we change, we will certainly attract outsiders who may well accelerate the change uncontrollably, well beyond our initial plans.

These neighborhoods differ significantly in their degree of gentrification. Wells Park is rapidly losing its residential character altogether. Squeezed between the industrial and commercial zone east of Fourth Street and the courthouse-lawyers-bail bondsmen who now populate the region west of that thoroughfare, there are fewer and fewer actual residents there every week.

Martineztown, a few years ago, fought off a federal courthouse that was proposed for the hill west of it. Now a high rise hotel is rising on that spot. The earth bulldozed to level the construction site looms like a slag heap over the single story adobe homes and pinched lanes of that former rural village.

No evidence of gentrification shows in those two neighborhoods. Elsewhere, however, the gentrification process is well underway.

In Huning-Highland, the DNA and Raynolds, old homes are being fixed-up by home owners eager to combine the convenience of urban living with the bargain prices that can still be found there. Property values are edging steadily upward. But if the worst aspects of EDO that can be used to rally the troops amount to no more than increased density, lack of street level parking and the availability of liquor in restaurants, it seems unlikely that very many of the property owners in these neighborhoods will join their leaders in opposition.

Those after all are some of what help make cities truly urban. Growing up can be a tough process, even for a sleepy town. Yet other than a handful of the self-proclaimed "historic neighborhood leaders," I don't believe many people here are willing to forego the advantages it also brings. Gentrification doesn't have to be a curse.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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