“Not Just a Maintenance Issue”
Revitalization efforts spread to East Central
By Aja Oishi
It seems like anything's negotiable these days. Say, for example, you're so far behind on your water utilities that, in lieu of paying off the debt, you cut a deal with the city to demolish the property instead.
That's the short explanation for Albuquerque's Safe City Strike Force arranging for the demolition of yet another hotel on Central. A few weeks ago, Royal Hotel was demolished after several years of legal wrangling between the city and the owners over nuisance issues. The owner, Pat Yadov, agreed to destroy the hotel entirely and cover all costs of demolition and clean up after the city offered to forgive his more than $14,000 in water and sewer bills.
The area east of Nob Hill is one of the highest crime zones in the city. According to Deputy City Attorney Pete Dinelli, between July 1, 2001, and Oct. 1, 2002, the police were called to the Royal Hotel alone no fewer than 319 times. The subject of the complaints ranged from drug trafficking to prostitution to domestic violence and "violent crimes of all sorts," he says. "It was becoming a magnet for criminal activity."
Pat Yadov is relieved to put the trouble with the hotel behind him. He owned the Royal since 1990, and says he had no complaints for 10 years. He and his wife cooperated with the city and the police department as much as possible to ensure the safety of the facility and that the tenants were not engaging in criminal activity. But in 2000, Yadov purchased another hotel and decided to lease the Royal to someone else, who has since skipped town and left a wake of unpaid debts behind him, including the $14,000 sewer bill. The new leasee let conditions at the hotel deteriorate and did not pay the bills. In addition, Yadov says, he was a "very stubborn guy" who would argue with city inspectors and police. Under the leasee's watch, the Royal became a symbol of urban decay in Albuquerque.
According to Yadov, the Royal Hotel of the '70s played host to some of the country's best known personalities, from Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon. But by the time it was shut down this spring, the rooms were in such deteriorated condition that City Councilor Martin Heinrich says he "wouldn't wish it on anyone to have to stay there." There was garbage everywhere, Heinrich says, a foul odor from many areas of the hotel and rodent and cockroach infestations. The Royal had become one of the businesses along Central that cannot really be said to be a hotel in the traditional sense, but that instead serves as an apartment complex for the destitute.
After it was closed for business, the hotel remained a favorite haunt for its former clients. People would break into the building to sleep in the rooms and participate in the illicit business and recreational activities that had become standard fare for the place. Crime became even harder to control. "I put up metal (over the windows), and they broke in anyway," Yadov says.
Yadov recounts waking up every morning afraid of discovering another break in, or receiving another citation from the city. He tells of finding a group of people sitting on the sidewalk just outside the property, whom he assumes were responsible for some of the break-ins. When he approached them to ask them to leave, the group refused, saying the sidewalk was their property and not his.
"What can you do?" Yadov says. "Fight with them? Kill them?" He claims that he called the police, only to be told that in that situation their hands were tied. "I said, ’Your hands are tied, being in uniform? My hands are tied, my hands and feet both are tied!'"
Dinelli says that after a structural engineer determined it to be costlier to remodel the hotel than to destroy it, the city and the property owner entered into negotiations to remove the blighted building once and for all.
East Central's Future
The demolition of the Royal Hotel is one of the first steps the city is taking to clean up the East Nob Hill and Highlands neighborhoods that run along Central between Carlisle and San Mateo. The cleanup will pave the way for a sweeping revitalization project that aims to turn the area into a pedestrian-friendly "Main Street" that Councilor Heinrich believes all of Albuquerque will enjoy.
Like the East Downtown revitalization project, the plans for East Nob Hill redevelopment were drawn up in a charrette process that took place over four days in February at the Highland Theater. Neighbors, business owners, city planners, developers and architects all participated in creating their ideal vision of the area. The final result was the Metropolitan Redevelopment Plan, which is up for approval by City Council before the end of the year.
It will probably require rezoning the district to allow for more residential and two or three story mixed-use buildings, with residences above storefronts and offices. A major goal of the redevelopment plan is to discourage strip malls and large parking lots that put businesses far away from the street. Storefronts should ideally be right up against the sidewalk, according to this model, in order to encourage pedestrian traffic and vibrant street life. With current zoning laws, Heinrich says, it is "easier to build a fast-food restaurant or a payday loan place than it is to come up with something visionary that is an asset to the community."
Jim Strozier of the Nob Hill Neighborhood Association welcomes most of the proposed changes, and is glad to see the city taking the lead in identifying and condemning problem properties like the Royal Hotel. He also supports measures to hold hotel owners accountable for poor living conditions on their properties. Councilor Heinrich recently worked to pass legislation that makes hotel owners subject to the same regulatory standards as apartment owners, which means, among other things, that their staff will receive health and safety training, and they will be subject to yearly housing inspections. Hotel owners will be given the opportunity to bring their properties up to city standards or face condemnation.
"If we're putting people up in squalor and unhealthy conditions, and the city is basically paying the operator to house these folks, we ought to have the right to demand that it's clean and habitable," says Strozier.
Councilor Heinrich and the neighborhood associations are looking at ways of providing safe alternatives for the transient population who have lived along Central for years.
The problem, says Strozier, is "nobody wants (homeless shelters) in their neighborhood. It's a challenge Downtown, it's a challenge in Nob Hill, it's a challenge everywhere."
According to Heinrich, providing effective services for the homeless has been a daunting task for the city. "We should be approaching the issue of homelessness not just as a maintenance issue," he says, but instead address "how to get people back on their feet even if they're extremely challenged."
The City Council has approved more money for rehabilitation programs for the homeless through a quarter-cent gross receipts tax increase recently approved by voters as part of a larger public safety funding increase. The increased funding, estimated at $6 million, aims to expand treatment, prevention and intervention programs, with a large chunk focused on combating homelessness. Included in the funding plan is $500,000, which will receive a matching $500,000 federal grant, for permanent housing facilities for the homeless.
"Most of these people are working poor and we want the housing to be permanently affordable to that population," says City Councilor Eric Griego, who spearheaded the quarter-cent public safety tax increase with a support from a community coalition including both police and fire unions and Albuquerque Interfaith.
With the current level of interest and involvement in the east Central area of Albuquerque, it should only be a matter of time before development projects begin in earnest that transform the area for the better, says Heinrich.
"I’m already talking with developers on a regular basis about the kind of projects residents would like to see replace the Royal Motel," says Heinrich. "It's got enormous potential, because there are wonderful neighborhoods all around that Central corridor. There's been a lot of interest from the neighbors and the people who remember what a great place it was 30 years ago. People are looking forward to having Central Avenue being a Main Street that we can be proud of again."
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