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Councilors push $1.5M Central Ave. investment

City Councilor Isaac Benton is among four councilors proposing up to $1.5 million in new investments along Central Avenue to help with safety and marketing. (Jessica Dyer/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Jean Bernstein recently stood before the Albuquerque City Council and pleaded for help addressing what she called “endless incidents” of criminal activity along Central Avenue.

The proprietor of Flying Star Cafe – which opened in Nob Hill 32 years ago – Bernstein described the current situation as untenable.

“We’ve weathered many economic cycles,” she said in a council committee meeting last week, “but never have I seen the district and the corridor in sadder shape than it is now.”

Emails to city officials from other Central-area business owners tell a similar tale of costly criminal behavior, mounting frustration and fear in a corridor already struggling to recover from 1½ years of Albuquerque Rapid Transit construction.

On Thursday, Bernstein and other businesspeople gathered in west Downtown as four councilors – Isaac Benton, Pat Davis, Klarissa Peña and Ken Sanchez – announced a proposal to invest up to $1.5 million in specific Central corridor public safety and marketing measures for fiscal year 2020.

“Our business owners got together and asked the city to come up with a plan to prioritize safety and a way to invite customers back to Central,” Davis told the news conference.

He said $1 million could pay for 10 additional bicycle officers to patrol Central. Up to $500,000 more in one-time funding would cover grants to nonprofit business associations and merchant groups along the corridor.

The councilors say they could pay for the new officers with some of the estimated $6 million in internet sales tax revenue the city will get during the fiscal year that starts July 1.

“I think with this plan we’re going to have faces that we know,” Benton said of the proposed new bicycle officers. “The businesspeople and the community folks in the area are going to see an officer they get to know, and that’s the epitome of community policing.”

Central Avenue business owners and other constituents recently sent a letter to city councilors, requesting more security measures. The letter, written by Len Romano of Ripe Inc. and developer Jay Rembe and backed by dozens of other supporters, specifically sought 12 bike officers and six dedicated motorized police units every night.

The letter cited rampant vandalism and break-ins and a weary business community burdened with security and repair expenses. It also noted Route 66’s national importance as a reason to take action.

“I’m sure you’ll agree the time has come to shift things on Central Ave in the right direction and jump-start momentum,” they wrote.

In a separate message to Mayor Tim Keller in January, one Central Avenue restaurateur said she had suffered five break-ins over the preceding six months at Vinaigrette. Erin Wade – who also owns Modern General and The Feel Good eateries along Central – warned then of possible “irreversible decay” if the city did not take action.

She said in an interview Thursday that the email prompted a response and additional patrols, though she has since had break-ins at her other two restaurants. Wade said she is encouraged the councilors have a proposal to help, but she said the issue is complicated.

“The traffic patterns have been so drastically altered on Central; there is an entire lane devoted to buses that don’t run, that don’t exist,” she said of the ART infrastructure, which remains unused due to problems with the buses originally built for the route. “It has changed the rhythm of the street such that people can hide more.

“Busy roads are self-policing,” she said. “Because the road’s not as busy, we now need more police.”

Romano said in an interview that what he and Rembe proposed in their letter would have cost the city about $4 million a year. Although the current proposal falls short of the request, he said, he was pleased the councilors had worked on a plan.

Bernstein agreed. She called the current proposal a “great start.”

“This is requiring a lot of rethinking of policing and allocation of resources on the part of the city and all of its departments, so it can’t be done overnight,” she said.

Davis said the city did not track how many businesses closed during ART construction but has issued about 240 business licenses along the corridor since the work ended last spring. He said the proposed $1.5 million investment would help lure customers back to the area to patronize them.

“If you haven’t found your new hamburger spot or your favorite new coffee spot or your favorite new salon, come back,” he said.

Earmarking these funds for Central Avenue would require some amendments to the 2020 budget proposal Keller presented to the council last month. The council is reviewing and editing Keller’s budget and is scheduled to vote on a final version May 20.

Sanchez noted that another member of the nine-member council would be needed to make Thursday’s proposal a reality but “we should be able to get that – this is a great thing for Albuquerque.”

Keller said in a written statement that the Albuquerque Police Department is focused on community policing measures.

“As we hire 100 new officers per year, we’re making the critical commercial and residential corridor along Central Avenue safer and more vibrant. Route 66 is open for business,” he wrote.

In September, Keller announced a new Downtown Public Safety District that would mean assigning up to 12 police officers specifically to the area and applying other city resources, such as a Family and Community Services Department social worker.

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