Yes, Ma'am!
 Alibi V.15 No.50 • Dec 14-20, 2006 

Council Watch

Yes, Ma'am!

New Council President Debbie O’Malley sponsored two bills regulating the design, location and permits for big-box stores.
New Council President Debbie O’Malley sponsored two bills regulating the design, location and permits for big-box stores.
Evan Moore

At the Dec. 4 meeting, councilors elected leaders for the coming year. District 2 Councilor Debbie O'Malley is the new president and District 7 Councilor Sally Mayer is the new vice-president, both elected unanimously. Councilors thanked each other for their service during the previous year and praised outgoing President Martin Heinrich, calling him considerate, compassionate and honorable, and noting that the Council had seen less acrimony during his term than in recent years.

An upcoming hot button bill limiting the use of cell phones while driving went to the Finance and Government Operations Committee for initial debate. A previous hot button issue--a streetcar line--has now been sent to various committees for more study in the context of a complete transit plan. D.W. Madison, self-described "founder and public mouth of Rails Incorporated," praised streetcar transit and said the proposed line should have extended farther along Central to Eubank. Madison also mentioned several deserted big-box stores suitable for park-and-ride locations. More public discussion of such possibilities might have reassured the public the streetcar would eventually expand beyond tourist and shopping routes.

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Boxes Made of Ticky Tacky, Concrete Blocks and Tilt-Up Panels

O'Malley sponsored one bill regulating the location and design of big-box stores and another bill setting a six-month moratorium on new building permits for stores inconsistent with the regulations until the Environmental Planning Commission can review them. The bills require traffic studies, certain design elements and neighborhood input. Bigger stores must be located on bigger streets.

Eighteen people opposed the bills and 16 people supported them. Several speakers from the Southwest Mesa area said they had worked for years to set up a Metropolitan Redevelopment Area and line up a grocery to come in, and they didn't want their efforts to "get caught in a cross-fire."

More than 25 Vista del Norte Alliance members showed up to protest the 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for their neighborhood north of Osuna. Rod Crawley said, "We were promised a neighborhood-scale development." Another speaker noted that San Diego had completely banned stores of more than 90,000 square feet. Chris Weller of the North Valley Coalition said drastic growth was coming to Albuquerque, no matter what. Another speaker said the 38 square feet of retail space per capita in Albuquerque was almost double that of comparable cities. Lori Able asked why the Wal-Mart insisted on locating near Vista del Norte where it was not wanted instead of on the Southwest Mesa where they are desperate for a grocery store.
John Lewinger of the Albuquerque Metropolitan Board of Realtors said the guidelines sounded like a "taking." Councilor Michael Cadigan said the regulations did "not even approach a taking."

Attorney David Campbell, representing the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, said the Council shouldn't pass laws affecting the entire city in response to a specific problem. O'Malley said the bills were prompted by the proposed Osuna Wal-Mart but similar problems came up repeatedly. Most neighborhoods lack the resources to fight major chains, she said, and it was an enormous waste of time for the Council to repeatedly debate the issue.

Cadigan said, "We don't ask much of our developers and we get the lowest common denominator." He mentioned several other cities where chains built better-looking stores. O'Malley's short PowerPoint presentation showed the difference, including an El Paso Costco that Cadigan termed a "Taj Mahal" compared to the Albuquerque stores. Referring to comments that the proposed guidelines were so restrictive they would stop development in Albuquerque, O'Malley said, "That's ridiculous."

Councilor Isaac Benton said he had a long list of questions and a few detailed amendments. As 10:30 p.m. approached, O'Malley called for a continuance on both bills, allowing councilors on Dec. 18 to pick up where they left off.
A couple of speakers labeled the bills as "New Urbanism," pronouncing the term with such distaste they sounded like ’50s John Birchers condemning fluoride in the water.

It's another public debate we need to have before one faction manages to turn the term "New Urbanism" into "midnight basketball," a program that worked splendidly but was characterized by the right as expensive liberal fluff. Like wearing motorcycle helmets, New Urbanism can limit one's freedom to be stupid, but it improves your chances of ending up in functional condition. It's not so much about prettifying painfully ugly buildings as about preserving and renovating what's already built--instead of pushing construction out to areas that will become unlivable as gas prices rise. As seen during the mayor's recent, puzzlingly clumsy streetcar campaign, the biggest pitfall to New Urbanism seems to be convincing large numbers of people who see no immediate personal benefit.

Another hurdle is conflicting layers of regulation. For instance, one speaker said the bills' restrictions on materials and its required minimum of 30 percent glazing on three sides conflicted with standards being developed by the Green Building Council. Because a big box has so much interior volume compared to the building skin, energy efficient glazing and shading don't affect heating and cooling loads as critically as they do in smaller buildings, but it still sounds like the regulations could be tweaked for greater flexibility.