Sawmill Community Land Trust

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Did you know that our little city boasts the largest community land trust west of the Mississippi River? It's right near Old Town in the Sawmill neighborhood and reflects a brilliant, uplifting example of neighborhood folks joining together to combine community values, government subsidies, private capital and new urbanism architecture to create jobs and long-term affordable housing for hundreds of area residents.

It all started decades ago when Debbie O'Malley (now one of our hardest-working city councilors), Max Ramirez and other Sawmill community members created the Sawmill Advisory Council to make Ponderosa Products accountable for the toxic waste the chipboard maker left behind when they shut down. From there, neighborhood leaders fought to clean up the area, then raised money from private and government sources to form the Sawmill Community Land Trust, and set to redevelop the surrounding area.

This year the land trust purchased the old Ponderosa Products site and then joined with Houston-based Griffin Partners to redevelop it into a $27 million film production studio and virtual reality entertainment center. Once complete, the studio aims to provide employment opportunities for an estimated 200 area residents.

For their part, Griffin Partners has been an admirable investor, agreeing to offer job training and accept input from local residents on the architectural design. Plainly stated, “the company was great about working with the community right down to the traffic impact study,” said Pam Riley, the land trust's operations director.

And that's only half of the good news from 2004. After seven years or tireless determination, and with the help of local government officials, namely Rep. Heather Wilson (yes, we'll give her credit when it's due), SCLT finally managed to realign the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks in order to progress with phase two of its overall Sawmill redevelopment plan.

What was once 27 acres of fallow industrial land in the heart of the city, the Arbolera de Vida master planned community will soon become a reality. The development will include 67 affordable homes for qualifying residents, 35 senior apartments and another 60 work-live lofts designed for artisans, telecommuters and entrepreneurs. Additionally, the plan includes a community center, park and child care center to go along with 30 affordable housing units that were completed several years ago as phase one.

With groundbreaking for Arbolera de Vida set for early 2005, Sawmill's history has reached far beyond a basic economic development story. It now stands as a national model for how community values can create a healthy local economy and attract out of state private capital investment while, at the same time, revive a blighted, urban landscape and preserve the area's cultural heritage.

For a small organization, you might think, after expending 20 years of sweat and energy to become what seems like an overnight success, that community leaders would be content. (Imagine the phone calls it took to move those railroad tracks!) Instead, SCLT closed out 2004 by starting an expanded redevelopment plan for adjacent neighborhoods, extending into the Wells Park area.

For anyone in Albuquerque still perplexed by the definition of smart growth … this is it. (TM)

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