Rebuilding Sawmill

A New Affordable Housing Project In Albuquerque Aims At Retaining Local Artists

Christie Chisholm
7 min read
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The land is ripe for movement. And, if all goes according to the Sawmill Community Land Trust's (SCLT) plans, before long it will be bustling. With a combined 200 units of affordable housing, both to rent and own, offices, a child care center, a plaza, a community garden, a dog park, a playground, a market, a pub and retail spaces coming in over the next few years, all on the same 34 acres, there's sure to be some vibrant commotion moving into the neighborhood.

The SCLT land, once a warehouse district dotted with a failed lumberyard and abandoned railroad tracks, tucked between the museum district, Old Town and I-40, full of vacant land and vacant buildings, is ready for a redesign. And most neighbors seem to think an urban village may be just what the planner ordered.

“Designed with the artist in mind” is the slogan, appropriate in a district teeming with weavers, printmakers, potters, painters and metal workers; unusual for an affordable housing project. Arbolera de Vida is a long time in the making—with the first stage of development breaking ground over nine years ago, and a completion date not yet in sight. Yet according to Connie Chavez, executive director of SCLT, the land trust is hoping the project will be finished in about three more years.

But currently, one stage of the project is close to fruition. The Sawmills Lofts, a development of 60 diversely sized apartments, is the first of its kind in Albuquerque, aimed at retaining some of the creatively minded residents that are so often pushed out of redeveloped neighborhoods. It will be open for business in May of this year.

Laying the Foundation

“For a lot of artists, it's pretty hard to make a living from their work; many artists are living in lower income brackets or they're working outside their passion,” says Lezle Williams, president of the Sawmill Area Neighborhood Association (SANA). “Also, artists in general are kept at the forefront of trendy neighborhoods, but then when the neighborhoods become trendy they're driven out, and there's gentrification.”

Williams, and seemingly the rest of the neighborhood association adjacent to SCLT, is in full support of the project. Many of them artists themselves, they're familiar with the struggles artists can face not only in redeveloping neighborhoods, but in their industry in general. And, although the Sawmill Lofts are open to anyone who qualifies for affordable housing, they were specifically designed to tailor to artists' needs.

Each apartment in the project is intended to be used as both a live and work space, with high ceilings, bright natural light, balconies and sizes ranging between 600 and 1,200 square feet. The pet-friendly, three-story development also offers numerous community-minded benefits, such as a 630-square-foot workshop with a glass garage door to make it easy to get large equipment in and out. There will also be a grand entrance with a community space that's designed to hold 60 people and a mezzanine, intended to serve as a place for tenants to hang paintings and/or perform. A library room, computer terminal and outdoor barbecue area are some of the other community-oriented features.

“We did focus groups with artists to find out what difficulties there were for them in finding housing, and they told us it was tough for them to make a living,” says Debbra Colman, real estate development director for SCLT. “On top of that, landlords are oftentimes concerned about renting to artists [because of their use of paint and other materials], making it hard to be a working artist in a typical apartment—and if they're pure for-profit landlords, you can't blame them.”

Colman says the goal of the Sawmill Lofts is to create a place where artists and other lower-income families or individuals can afford to live in a safe and community-minded environment. The rent for each apartment will vary between $350 and $775 a month, depending on income and the size of the apartment. In order to keep things fair and still allow residents to stay in their homes, every year residents have to reapply to qualify. If their income grows, their rent goes up accordingly. But if they eventually no longer qualify for affordable housing, they aren't pushed out of their homes. Instead, they're given the option of paying the market value rent for the apartment. Also, if residents decide to buy a home but want to stay in the community, they have the option of buying a home across the street from the lofts, in the same Arbolera de Vida development, which will share a park, garden and other community spaces with the lofts.

The $7 million Sawmill Lofts project is funded mainly through $5 million worth of housing tax credits that were granted to the project by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority. The credits were received as a result of the Sawmill Lofts architect, Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, winning the MFA Design Award in 2003 for the project. According to SCLT's Chavez, the remainder of the funding is coming from a loan that the finished project will pay back.

Dory Wegrzyn, project architect for the lofts, says money in the project was used conservatively, while still trying to maintain a high-quality design and use of materials. “There were budget constraints, but we did a design that we feel will anchor that area to the community and surrounding properties,” says Wegrzyn, who was previously the project director for SCLT, and worked there for nine years before joining Dekker/Perich/Sabatini. “The land trust wanted to do green building, but with the cost of construction and the pricing of materials it was hard to do.” Wegrzyn says, however, that the final design does include the use of environmentally friendly and energy-saving materials such as low-VOC paints, reflective roof material, fly ash in concrete and xericaping with native plants.

The Big Picture

According to Williams, the Sawmill project is just one step toward a larger neighborhood transformation. “We're involved with other neighborhood associations—like Wells Park and the North Valley Neighborhood Association—and we would like for this area to be a corridor between [Old Town] and the North Valley.”

Williams says the associations have been working for two years on getting the district designated as a Metropolitan Redevelopment Area (MRA) to implement infill, mixed-use zoning and add amenities such as new sidewalks, bike trails, landscaping and roundabouts. “There are a lot of tourists that come to the area for Old Town,” she says. “We'd like to take advantage of that. There's also a proposal for a trolley to go along the corridor.”

But for Williams, the lofts are a great place to start. “[As a neighborhood association], we haven't encountered any opposition [to the project]. Everyone within the neighborhood wants something beneficial, wants more artisan housing, retail and so on. Some people are concerned about taxes going up—but that's a general concern and isn't specific to the project.”

Larry Schultz, vice president of SANA, agrees. “We're looking for artists to turn their eyes this way; to invest in the area, and keep taxes and rent low. We have to honor the elderly here, but more of their property is becoming available; instead of someone else coming in and gentrifying the neighborhood, we'd prefer having a project like this.”

Schultz witnessed artist gentrification firsthand when he lived in New York City for a number of years before he and his partner moved to Albuquerque. Both artists themselves, he and his partner are excited about the project because they believe it will bring more attention to the area while maintaining affordability. “The way [SCLT is] financing will make affordable housing available to more people, and that's a great thing,” he says. “When you offer it, they will come.”

According to the City of Albuquerque's Housing Services website (, an estimated 60,000 city residents with low to moderate income are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, before taxes. The Sawmill Lofts are now taking applications. To find out more, visit their website at

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