Infill Development Requires A Balanced Approach ...

Not A Blank Check

Eric Griego
5 min read
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As one of the strong supporters of the Planned Growth Strategy (PGS) on the City Council, I worked hard alongside City Councilor Michael Cadigan to make sure the public understood how the PGS would affect development patterns in the city. During the planned growth debate we attended numerous community and neighborhood association meetings and amended the PGS ordinance to take into account neighborhood concerns.

A fundamental compromise and commitment we made to neighborhoods in return for their support of the PGS was that we would not force higher density on them against their will and that a citywide planned growth ordinance would not disregard their neighborhood sector plans—the planning documents that neighborhoods put together to protect and guide their neighborhood development. Instead, PGS would create a process that encourages an open dialogue between neighborhoods, developers and city government to promote more infill, where appropriate.

Greg Payne's column in the Feb. 19 Alibi raises some important questions about our commitment to implement the PGS and more infill development. I believe the issue of promoting infill will not be whether we encourage it, but how and where. Infill at any cost is as bad as sprawl at any cost. The proposed infill project in the Huning Highland neighborhood near Downtown is one of the first real tests of our resolve to balance increased infill near transportation and urban corridors with respect for traditional neighborhoods.

Although Payne's article captures the evenly divided opinions of the Council on this particular appeal, he is mistaken in reporting the vote of the Council as 4-4. There were a couple of 4-4 votes over the course of the public hearing on this matter, but the vote to send the case back (remand) to the Environmental Planning Commission for more review eventually passed on a 6-2 vote (O'Malley and Gomez voting no).

The decision to remand was based on the outstanding issues that needed to be resolved with the project, and the perceived likelihood that these issues could be worked out with additional communication between the developer, the neighborhood, the Landmarks and Urban Conservation Commission (which has denied the project a Certificate of Appropriateness) and the Planning Commission. I am hopeful an acceptable compromise will be reached between these parties.

Far from being unwilling to “pay a political price” for bucking the neighborhood, my vote and that of five other councilors sent the developer and the neighborhood back to the EPC with instructions to address the three issues that stood in the way of a shared gain for both sides. These issues included ensuring the new zoning would not allow unforeseen uses such as whether and how the project could work at a density level of two units (acceptable to the neighborhood) versus three units (proposed by the developer) and addressing the city's concerns that the project maintain the overall relationship of its building's height, mass and scale to those of other buildings on the block.

That said, however, I want to acknowledge that the discussion among the councilors at this hearing brought out a wide variety of viewpoints regarding infill development in an historic neighborhood that is bordered by a redeveloping corridor. In these circumstances there are important considerations regarding the good of the neighborhood, the good of the community and the feasibility of the project. Each of the councilors put forth a different facet of this picture and our discussion was thoughtful and productive.

As policy makers we need to think hard about whether the intensive development of centers and corridors creates additional pressure on adjoining neighborhoods. Do we need to be somewhat more protective of these neighborhoods when we are implementing a “public good” on their borders? It is an express conviction of the PGS that the mixed use, higher-density development of transit-served corridors will create an entirely new and eagerly awaited lifestyle opportunity and will invigorate the neighborhoods adjoining them as well. But we must be sensitive to the relationship between the existing neighborhoods and the corridors.

In general, uncritical acceptance of every infill project that comes along is not going to create the kind of city we want. When the Council adopted the Infrastructure and Growth Plan, we agreed that a combination of infill development and centers and corridors redevelopment would be how we would achieve the PGS goal of “directing growth to where infrastructure already exists.” Choosing the overall plan that is most appropriate will often require a public process just like what we've done throughout the East Downtown project. It is healthy and reasonable. In time, we will have more experience and information, and perhaps move more quickly. Now, we are responsibly cautious. But we are committed to a future where more people live and work where infrastructure already exists, in walkable communities where work, play, and daily need destinations are nearby.

Griego, vice president of the Albuquerque City Council, represents District 3.

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