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‘Dreary, depressed and ugly’

Jim Benvie, General Manager of Filling Philly’s, stands next to the boarded-up front door and windows at the restaurant in Downtown Albuquerque. The area suffered significant damage during riots three weeks ago. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Cyclists and a pedestrian go past the boarded-up windows of Third Central Plaza in Downtown Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It is not a pretty picture, and that’s from someone who has seen his share of urban blight.

“It kind of reminds me of some of the areas around Detroit where I used to live,” said Robert Monat. “Stores with boarded-up windows, some locked, maybe abandoned, others open for business but you can’t really tell from the outside. Not like a ghost town, but not many people walking around, either.”

Monat, 46, who is homeless and walks the streets Downtown daily, said that since the COVID-19 restrictions and the recent riot and property damage, ever more Downtown businesses have been shuttered, leaving the once-bustling area even more “dreary, depressed and ugly.”

Dozens of storefronts along Central Avenue, from about First Street to around Seventh Street, as well as some along side streets, have boarded-up windows and doors where large panes of glass used to be.

Late on May 31 and early June 1, after a peaceful march that attracted thousands protesting police killings and racial injustice, about 100 rioters began shattering Downtown windows and setting more than 30 fires, many of them in dumpsters.

There were also reports of gunshots being fired at police, and police feared the historic KiMo Theatre was about to be torched.

Police responded wearing riot gear and forming skirmish lines to push the protesters out of the area, said Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos.

It’s unclear how many of the storefronts were boarded up because of damage caused by the rioters and how many are boarded up as a precautionary measure.

A number of properties were provided wooden boards after the riot by the city’s Solid Waste Department when owners expressed concern about further violence, department spokeswoman Diane Wikler said.

Expensive cleanups

Jim Benvie, general manager of Filling Philly’s, was reopening after weeks of COVID-19 closure when rioters hit his restaurant, which specializes in Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and craft beers.

Large windows on both sides of the building, on the northwest corner of Third and Central, were broken.

“They came in and stole all our beer, damaged our beer towers (where beer is poured from the taps) and they took our tables and used them for a bonfire in the middle of the intersection,” Benvie said.

Two cooling units on the roof ran overtime as the temperature inside the windowless restaurant rose, which caused water to leak through the ceiling.

“That shorted out some of the electricity back in the kitchen, and two outlets caught on fire,” he said.

The restaurant is now open, though nagging questions remain about who will pay for the damage.

“We had bids of $8,000 to $12,000 just to replace the glass,” with the total amount for repairs pushing the tab to more than $16,000, Benvie said.

“None of it is covered by insurance, because our policy doesn’t cover civil unrest or rioting. Many of my neighbors around here who got hit told me the same thing about their insurance.”

Someone from the city’s Economic Development Department, he said, subsequently came to talk with him, suggesting that the city might help with the cost involved in replacing glass, “but we’re still waiting to find out if that’s going to happen.”

Jennifer Esquivel, spokeswoman for that department, said, “The city is working with Downtown business owners in regards to replacing glass on a case-by-case basis.”

Protests OK, not riots

Benvie said he has no problem with people protesting.

“We need to protect freedom of speech in this country, but when protesters destroy neighborhoods and businesses and then justify it by saying, ‘Well, you wouldn’t listen to us until we did this,’ to me, that’s crossing the line.”

That line was crossed a number of times the night of the riot.

Among businesses and buildings that were vandalized but remain open are the One Central building, the Banque Lofts, Harvest Foundation dispensary, the Silver Street Market, Jimmy John’s restaurant and Third Central Plaza.

Businesses that remain closed and boarded-up, either because of COVID restrictions, riot damage, vandalism prevention or all of the above, include Effex nightclub, Brixens bar and restaurant, Bourbon and Boots Western bar, Lindy’s restaurant and New Mexico Bank and Trust.

The Sunshine Theater, Kimo Theater and The Box performance space were also vandalized but are expected to open for business when restrictions are eased.

Shelle Sanchez, director of the city’s Cultural Services Department, said eight windows and three glass doors were broken at the Kimo. The estimated replacement cost is $10,000 to $12,000, and that’s in addition to the $2,200 cleanup cost, she said.

The Box performance space, at Second and Gold streets, spent about $2,600 to replace three windows and two glass doors broken during the riot, co-owner Doug Montoya said.

Jerry Mosher, who owns the Banque Lofts building at 219 Central NW, and the One Central Apartments at 1 Central NW, multistory buildings with residential and commercial space, had first-floor windows broken during the rioting.

Estimates for glass replacement were $7,825 for the Banque Lofts building, and $13,460 for One Central, and that doesn’t include the cost of cleanup and boarding, Mosher said.

“Insurance hasn’t committed to paying it, and if they did, my deductible is so high it won’t cover it anyway,” he said.

Staying boarded-up

“If you drive down Central Avenue now, it’s all boarded-up. It looks really bad. The glass companies are so far behind it’s probably going to be boarded-up for another 60 days or more. It took them two or three weeks just to give me an estimate,” Mosher said.

The violence and property damage have only made it more difficult to attract business to the Downtown area, he said.

“I’ve got a lot of investment in Downtown, so I pretty much have to stay with my investment here, but I’m as frustrated as everyone else. … It’s a shame that the people behind all this, the ones who caused this damage, aren’t the ones who have to pay for it,” Mosher said.

“I’ve had tenants who want to move out and businesses who backed out of their leases and they’re not coming. It’s so hard to get somebody to come to Albuquerque, anyway, the national tenants especially. They just look at you when you say Albuquerque and they say, ‘Albuquerque is not even on our radar.’ They’re just not interested.”

Local attorney Clay Crowley has an office in Third Central Plaza, 300 Central SW. The 100-year-old building is known for its lush and shady courtyard, separated from the street by large windows and glass doors.

Much of that glass was broken by rioters, though Crowley said it could have been worse: “If they had gotten into this courtyard and damaged our unique flora, it would have been heartbreaking.”

The rioters did not enter any of the businesses in the building, which include the offices of a number of attorneys, accountants, a private investigator and the Democratic Party of New Mexico.

‘Enough problems’

“When COVID first started, Downtown was like something out of a movie,” Crowley said of the area, which was deserted due to the original emergency orders that closed almost all businesses. “You come down here on Friday or Saturday night, and there would be tumbleweeds and pieces of paper blowing down the street. Not a car or a soul in sight. So, Downtown had enough problems already, and it’s a real shame people would come down here and damage it even more. It’s very sad when people are ruled by fear and hate.”

Crowley has seen his share of fear and hate. He grew up in central Missouri and observed riots caused by “terrible race relations, which still exist there,” he said. “It was terrifying.”

In contrast, people in Albuquerque “don’t realize how good they have it when it comes to race relations,” he said. “This is the most harmonious place I’ve ever been. People should embrace the diversity here and do beautiful things with it instead of destroying property.”

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