Gene Grant: How Do We Make Downtown Go?

How Do We Make It Go?

Gene Grant
5 min read
Downtown Action
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We woke up one glorious day and discovered that some book named The Rise of the Creative Class had something extraordinary to say about Albuquerque.

In this book, in case you missed it, there was a chart. It said Albuquerque was the top-ranked, mid-size city on its complicated "creativity index." No. 1. We were not used to hearing that.

The book, and the ascendent cultural phenomenon of the creative class, is a decade old. The 10 th anniversary edition hit shelves and electronic reading devices on June 26.

In a May 2003 feature for the
Alibi ("If You’re Creative and You Know It, Clap Your Hands"), I asked author Richard Florida in a Q and A: “After you crunched the numbers, did you do a double take on Albuquerque being No. 1?”

“Yes,” he replied. “A huge one. It blew me away. You are the only metro in the country to be ranked in the top 10 with less than a million people, which is very impressive.”

We know how to do a lot with a little.

We were off and running. Later that year, Florida came out for a conference that included much discussion on what to do about Downtown, given his premise that urban density organically mingling lots of creatives was the in vitro stage of a creative economy. The notion has been regrettably abbreviated to brochure-speak by an overheated real estate community as "live, work and play.”

There was some juice Downtown. The
Downtown Action Team was making changes. It was cleaner overnight. There was leadership and vision. There was a retail strategy. A housing strategy. An entertainment strategy.

The marketplace, meanwhile, had its own method for leveraging the opportunity. Up went condominiums. Nice ones. Some of them really, really nice. Some people started to worry about all the really, really nice ones. The dreaded G-word, gentrification, was posited.

A decade later, a new Downtown Action Team executive director is taking over. Debbie Stover from the city Planning and Zoning Department starts this month. So where are we, Downtown?

Many back then believed viable living space was the chicken that would deliver the retail egg. How well has that worked out? Here’s the wording from the
DAT "retail" link on its website: "Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here." No kidding.

Stover has her work cut out for her on the retail side, but she’s walking into a decent situation on housing.

The emphatic success of the
Silver Gardens project on the two and a half acres where the old bus station sat is a hint for those making future plans. Serving "the widest tenant income mix possible, ranging from market-rate to very low-income and previously homeless tenants," the prospect for more projects like this Downtown makes sense from a lot of angles.

Single people and families are moving from tenuous home ownership or single-family home renting due to foreclosure, job loss, etc. We need to not only meet that demand but embrace what has proven to be author Florida’s most unassailable predictors of an area’s revitalization: walkability. Working poor and recently housed homeless people need services in close proximity for a fighting chance. Plus, cars have got to go. Period.

Residents also need bedrock retail nearby, the kind that sustains day-to-day living. It’s pharmacies, affordable clothing and shoes, and yes, a grocery.

Like what was just announced for a lot on Silver between Second and Third Streets. This is the holy grail of density and walkability that advocates yearn for.

Let me ask you this: Do you really think that a grocery would be coming without 121 refrigerators in those units at Silver Gardens next door?

It’s been a wild decade for our Downtown, but there’s good reason for optimism. One being DAT Director Stover, if just for her background. I like the idea of a planner in this position. It makes sense. I hope Stover is keen on a trend that may serve a lot of needs Downtown—the hybrid storefront business run by a nonprofit. There are many examples of this nationwide that fit snugly into our needs list for a diverse population.

How about
Pizza Fusion in Denver, run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless? It’s part of a green affordable housing unit, the residents of which learn job skills downstairs in the pizza joint. It’s not unlike The Coffee Shop run by St. Martin’s Hospitality Center on the ground floor of the Downtown @ 700-2nd apartments. That housing-to-training-to-work triple play is the trend where all serious efforts to end homelessness are headed.

And so it is with nonprofit restaurants with their own gardens and affiliated food banks, nonprofit basic dental service for children, and walk-in wellness care. We can fill a void with smart, nonprofit-structured efforts that fit well with a diverse Downtown population.

The people in those really nice lofts won’t mind.

Gene Grant is host of "New Mexico in Focus" on KNME. He is waiting for the sure-to-be-epic Council meeting where someone, anyone, proposes the pop-up store idea for empty Downtown storefronts.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Downtown Action

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