Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Thoughts on Albuquerque Redevelopment

Over the past few weeks, I've become increasingly concerned with the ways that Albuquerque is going through its downtown renewal and overall redevelopment. First, I should say that Albuquerque is a way cooler city to live in than when I first moved here in 2000. There are more good restaurants. Going downtown at night is actually a good idea. The city has put in a quality bus system along Central Avenue. It just feels like a good city to be in, which was very much not the case 6 years ago. So I voice these concerns out of a general sense of optimism about the ways things are going here. It's just that with a little more thought, they might go all that much better.

First, it seems to me that the city is choosing to follow its original suburban pattern through its redevelopment plans. What do I mean by this? Albuquerque is one of the original car cities. It's primary historical claim to fame is Route 66, which I wish I could never hear about again. It's not as important to American car culture as Los Angeles nor does it typlify post-1970 car-driven superfast suburban growth like Phoenix, but nonetheless, it is an important example of the ways the automobile has shaped American cities. With redevelopment, the city has a chance to remake the spatial structure of the city, or at least the ways people drink, eat, and shop. But so far, it is failing in that task. As it stands, the redevelopment has taken place in 3 main areas, all of which are about a mile or so apart from the other (there's also a 4th, Old Town, which is a different issue and is west of downtown). On the west is downtown. Then going east along Central Ave. is the university district. Then just east of that is Nob Hill, a kind of up-scale shopping district. That's fine--these are all significant areas where redevelopment should take place. As of now, this redevelopment has been haphazard--while there are new and interesting shops, apartment buildings, and restaurants appearing all the time, there are also storefronts that have been empty for 3 years. Sometimes, as in the case of the western end of Nob Hill, there are 3 or 4 stores in a row that are empty. So it seems to me that the city should be putting its energy into finding businesses to go into these areas and then connecting the three places up. Secondarily, it would be nice if the city could work to redevelop the areas off of Central as well--it would be nice if you could park and walk the whole day without having to go from place to place in your car--working to build interesting things on the side streets would help that happen. But instead, the city seems to be wanting to focus its redevelopment plans further east on Central--past Washington and toward San Mateo. What this means is that the city still wants to be beholden to car culture. It means a series of cool stores and lofts and such separated by a half-mile of nothing. And to me, until the area between downtown and Nob Hill is fully developed and filled in, I don't even think there should be much thought to the area east of Carlisle, not to mention east of Washington.

Second, and closely related to this, is the idea to put in a streetcar system along Central. I suppose streetcars would be cute. It might give the city a certain kind of character. But they just spent a ton of money putting in a good bus system along Central. The stops are nice, the buses are nice, and they don't stop every block. So why would you kill that program with this alternative form of transportation. This seems like a very shaky idea. Promote the buses. Build more buses. Expand the Rapid Ride along other major streets in town so that people can realistically ride the buses all across the city.

Third, the building of lofts and new apartments doesn't seem to be making very much sense to me. From looking at where these places are being built, it is clearly all about making money and not about any sense of urban planning. A lot of these lofts are in great places. Retooling the old abandoned Albuquerque High School on Broadway and Central has gone a long ways to remaking the area. But for instance, I ran into one new set of lofts being built on 5th way up by I-40. There is approximately nothing up there but old industrial factories. There are no stores, no bars, no restaurants. Why would you live up there? The same goes for another sign I saw for lofts being built east of Washington and south of Central. Not only does that area barely have more to do than 5th & I-40 but it's kind of dangerous as well. What is the motive here? Shouldn't there actually be something to do in these areas before these apartments are built? Perhaps the logic is that the businesses will follow the people. Maybe that's true, but I have to think that Albuquerque is going to grow (at least in cool ways) slowly and that it should focus on the three areas listed above before crazy new buildings are put up.

And related to the property and apartments, we have this post from the excellent Albuquerque blog Duke City Fix. This post is from a new property owner who is protesting that a townhouse is being built next to his place. This is ultimate NIMBYism. He doesn't want it there because it's right by him. It's a ridiculous argument that, in its ultimate form, could only lead to more suburbanization. We need more centralized housing in these areas. While I am concerned that all of these lofts and apartments could drive low-income people out of their homes, we can strike a balance on that issue. The more people living in downtown/Old Town, the better off the whole neighborhood will be. The poster does bring up one legitimate point however. Evidentally, there are many empty lots in the neighborhood. Why is the developer tearing down an old house when he could develop one of these lots? This goes to a lack of centralized urban planning in Albuquerque. I fear the whole redevelopment is really being run by developers who don't have the best interests of the city in mind. Shouldn't the city work with both developers and local people to best plan the ways that Albuquerque can become a more desirable city?

I know there are several planners who read this, and I may be wrong about some of my details. Please correct any mistakes I am making in the comments.