People hate bad city planning. Which is why, nearly 25 years ago, Albuquerque's City Council decided to put an end to it, at least in one part of our city. The Uptown district, which is well-known for its sea of asphalt, undeveloped space and semi-empty strip malls, also has the worst air pollution in the city and is, for the most part, pedestrian unfriendly. And so, in an effort to curb these characteristics and transform Uptown into a thriving urban area, in 1981, the Council created the Uptown Sector Plan.
The plan is fairly basic: New developments have to fit within the bounds of modern urban planning. More specifically, they have to utilize mixed-use design that combines commercial, residential and retail all together in one area. The plan encourages more pedestrian-friendly living and discourages traffic and air pollution. The goal of the plan is that, over time, as older buildings run through their lifecycles and new developments spring up in their place, the sea of asphalt that surrounds big box retailers and strip malls will be replaced with a lively metropolis that will complement Downtown's ongoing revitalization.
It seems as though the Council's efforts are starting to pay off. In fact, by April 2006 the large open space lot in Uptown on the corner of Louisiana and Indian School is due for a transformation. Hunt Building Corporation, the group who owns the land, is working on an extensive multi-use project that fits within the sector plan's requirements. The complex multi-use project, which should take between five to eight years to finish, is expected to include 13 buildings that will combine offices, housing, retail, and possibly a hotel or two, as well as a parking garage to help counteract all that asphalt.
And Hunt isn't the only one planning on developing in the area. Early last year General Growth Properties, owners of Coronado Mall, formulated a plan that would tear down just over 100,000 square feet of their 1.3 million square foot property and reconstruct the same square footage closer to Louisiana, where the mall parking lot exists today. The end result was a plan that would take down a chunk of the east side of the mall (leaving Barnes & Noble) and rebuild it with more outdoor entrances, walkways, plazas and restaurants along the street, complemented by landscaping. The new design would add a cosmopolitan flair to the Uptown district, attracting some of the higher-end retail stores that are drawn to such "lifestyle centers," according to Mae Jeanne Rescineto, Coronado marketing manager.
However, there are some complications with Coronado's plan. Although the plan was approved by the Environmental Planning Commission (EPC), Hunt wasn't thrilled about the project, claiming it violated the Uptown Sector Plan guidelines, because Coronado was tearing down old structures and building new ones outside of their "original footprint." Hunt argued that the plan should be classified as new development and therefore subject to the guidelines of the sector plan.
Here's a little clarification. The sector plan requires new developments to be multi-use, with no more than 10 percent of the project going toward retail space outside the Uptown "core," and no more than 20 percent within the "core." The rest could be anything else—office, residential, hotels or a mix, just not retail. Meanwhile, Coronado Mall is actually designated as outside the Uptown "core," meaning that it would have to succumb to the 10 percent rule. However, "remodeling" is not subject to these guidelines, as it usually doesn't involve the creation of new space, just the reordering of the same amount of square footage. So the question hinges on what really constitutes "new space."
Coronado's owners argued that because they were still rebuilding on their property with the same amount of square footage being torn down, it was remodeling and not creating a new development. But Hunt said that because Coronado was going to overstep their old footprint, it didn't matter how much square footage they were using, it was still "new."
According to Lawrence Kline, a planning consultant from Denish & Kline Associates, Hunt had spent a good amount of time and money working on trying to build a complex urban center that met all of the city's guidelines and didn't want to be surrounded by "big box development" when they were finished. And so, Hunt appealed the EPC's decision to approve Coronado's redevelopment, bringing the matter last week to the City Council (see this week's "Council Watch").
The Council ruled to uphold the appeal, agreeing with Hunt that Coronado did not appropriately meet the requirements of the sector plan. But councilors still seemed to have mixed feelings about Coronado's plan.
Councilors Michael Cadigan and Martin Heinrich, for instance, concluded that mall redevelopment would be a positive thing, yet remained firm that it needed to happen in a way consistent with Uptown's planning goals.
"I think that we should have high standards for development in Uptown, and we should try to move it towards mixed-use to reduce traffic and pollution," said Cadigan.
Yet Councilor Eric Griego, one of only two councilors who voted against the appeal, said while he agrees that mixed-use is certainly needed in the area, Coronado's plan was infinitely better than what currently exists. Griego said forcing the owners to start from scratch potentially will greatly delay or kill the project.
"It's not my first pick in terms of how I would choose to redevelop the site and make it a truly mixed-use project," said Griego, "but I think it's the next best thing, and it's certainly better than the status quo."
There was another issue that was raised in the appeal that impacted the Council's decision—air quality. One of the points that Hunt made was that Coronado's owners hadn't done any air quality studies, which are required by the city when any new development is done.
As straightforward as it sounds, air quality regulations get absolutely muddied by bureaucracy even though poor air quality in Albuquerque is nothing new. In fact, for many years Albuquerque's carbon monoxide (CO) rates lingered at a level above the federal standard. But, according to Dan Warren, a supervisor at the Air Quality Division of the Environmental Health Department, the last time Albuquerque violated the standard was in December 1991. Since then, CO levels have steadily reduced, and today, all monitored parts of Bernalillo County lie below 50 percent of the standard, he said.
In 1990, when Albuquerque's air quality was a genuine health hazard, the City Council put a provision into place that required all large land use developments to do a preliminary air quality analysis to determine if a more comprehensive study needed to be done. But, and here's where things get muddied, the Environmental Health Department recently decided that it would no longer be necessary to adhere to this requirement.
Alfredo Santistevan, the director of Environmental Health, sent a memo to the planning department in August 2003 that conveyed this belief, stating that the Air Quality Division "has determined that it is no longer of any value to require the preparation of Air Quality Impact Assessments (AQIAs) to evaluate carbon monoxide (CO) levels for land use cases" and recommended that the planning department stop requiring these studies. However, the Environmental Health Department doesn't have the authority to tell the planning department to stop requiring tests. That authority rests with the City Council. But, again, things are muddy in that Environmental Health didn't tell the planning department to stop doing tests, they just recommended they stop doing tests.
So, when Coronado was working out the details in getting their plan approved, they were under the impression that air quality tests weren't required, and were instructed not to do one, although Rescineto can't recall which department made this claim. Nonetheless, the fact that General Growth Properties hadn't done an air quality test worsened their situation and helped in the Council's decision to delay redeveloping a portion of the mall.
The bigger issue in all of this, however, comes down to how the city is going to ensure that the Uptown district, as well as other parts of the city, grows in a way that is in accordance to their goals. Heinrich argued, for instance, that he felt that the "integrity of the planning process" was at stake, because building regulations weren't being met for developments and air quality studies weren't being done. Cadigan agreed, citing that Uptown is of particular concern because, even though CO levels are below the standard, the area still has the worst air quality in the city. Additionally, Heinrich said that there are other airborne pollutants like ozone that still need to be closely monitored. Instead of simply getting rid of air quality studies, he said, the focus should be aimed away from CO and towards other pollutants.
Air Quality's Warren also thinks such action would be wise. But, as of yet, there are no real plans underway to transition from one type of test to another. In the meantime, procedures still remain hazy (no pun intended), although Warren said the administration is in the process of clarifying the intent of the memo.
For now, Coronado Mall will remain intact, which hardly solves the desire to promote infill around Uptown's core.
"Right now it's just a sea of surface parking lots; it's hideous," said Griego.
City Councilor Sally Mayer, who represents the Uptown area, voted with Griego to allow Coronado's plan to move forward. She declined to comment for this article.