Gone is the corrugated, slate-grey concrete parking lot. Gone are the roaches, rats, bedbugs and other afflictions.Gone are the seventy-seven veterans of all branches who once endured bad food and listless management. They all moved on with their lives and out of a dreary, blue and white chipped-paint mess when they lived at the New Mexico Veteran’s Integration Center. The newly restored Sundowner Residence at 6101 Central Avenue is much like Albuquerque itself—in the 21st Century as it emerges from the Old Life to start a new life.The property is a now a brightly-colored, two-story, white-painted one with seventy-one studio, one and two bedroom apartments serving veterans, persons with disabilities and the formerly homeless. The slate-grey concrete parking lot is now a community garden with a sand volleyball court, playground and barbecue area.In its glory days in the 1950s and 1960s—in its previous incantation as the old Desert Oasis Hotel—it was one of many hotels along the fabled Route 66. Locals and tourists alike would wind their way to Central Avenue for a night of dancing, drinking, and who knows-what-else in The Duke City, especially in the Fifties. Those halcyon days ended when Route 66 from Chicago to LA was replaced with a newer highway that bypassed the downtown areas of cities like Albuquerque.The integration center, VIC as the veterans named it, opened in 1999 and closed for good in 2010.From VIC to ChicAccording to John Bloomfield, Director of New Life Homes, the total cost of the total redevelopment total architectural renovation for the derelict VIC into the new Sundowner Residence was $9 million and took three years to assemble the financing. When Bloomfield looked at dilapidated property at 6101 Central Ave, he saw much more than old derelict buildings. “The Sundowner was a community treasure that cried out to be restored. I saw a wonderful opportunity to address a neighborhood blight, and provided critical housing for the most vulnerable. The sellers took it off the market for a few years so we could get the structural engineering and financial components together,” Bloomfield said. The challenges in converting the near-rotten VIC into livable housing were many. “First, we had structural unforeseen conditions, even though the contractor went through here with a fine-toothed comb. There was asbestos and lead to be abated. Then there were challenges with making the property energy efficient, which you often find in existing buildings. Then we had the financing phase, and these things never come together at the same time,” Bloomfield said. Bloomfield said he had rehabilitated properties in other countries, and enjoyed the challenges that these projects present.New Life Homes is run as a non-profit and has nine homes, according to Manager Janice Weise, who runs four properties out of her office at the Sundowner. Staff members include Lisa Nichols, who gives direct help to the residents with appointments and transportation and other needs and Tomasita You Can Go HomeOne such tenant is Earl, who has resided at the Sundowner for nine months. “The front office staff is friendly and they help us a lot here,” he said. He relayed a story about his old grey van failing to start one day. “I had no jumper cables and John (Broomfield) drove his Porsche next to my car and helped me get it started. I mean, most guys with those fancy cars won’t do that,” said the West Virginia native. Leandra K. is a relative newcomer to the residence. “I got off the streets and into a normal place. I’m glad I came and soon I’ll find a bigger apartment. But I really like it here.” The complex has a playground for kids, a college campus feel and best of all, relative safety from the Central Avenue gritty streets. “We have a State Trooper who lives here and parks his vehicle in a visible spot, Manager Weise said. “It tends to make people think twice before coming in here and causing problems.”
Note: The writer of this feature is a former US Army Captain who lived at the Veteran’s Integration Center from 2007-2009.