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City trying to buy old Lovelace for homeless shelter

The Gibson Medical Center (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Nine months after losing out on their preferred Gateway Center location, Albuquerque city officials say they are ready to purchase a different site for the long-discussed homeless shelter and services hub.

Mayor Tim Keller said Tuesday that the city is working to purchase the former Lovelace hospital on Gibson SE near San Mateo, a 572,000-square-foot property currently called the Gibson Medical Center. He did not disclose details about the purchase price or say how many beds the facility might have.

Should the deal go through, Keller said, the property would provide not only emergency shelter beds, but also “the beginning of a 24/7 drop-off site for first responders” and an “easy home for on-site medical and behavioral health services.”

The state is now leasing 360,000 square feet of the facility as a COVID-19 emergency hospital, and the city said its purchase would not disrupt that. The building has some other existing tenants, bringing ongoing lease revenue, Keller said.

The former hospital makes sense for the project, according to the mayor. He said it offers individual rooms for clients, proximity to the Veterans Affairs hospital, and office space for homeless service providers and open areas for intake purposes. The city would also avoid building from scratch.

“I think everyone on this committee has been very cognizant of the fact an existing facility just means we can move faster,” Keller said Tuesday during a meeting of the Homeless Coordinating Council, a multi-agency body that includes city, Bernalillo County and University of New Mexico representatives.

He noted the increasingly urgent need for action. The city, working with the county and other partners, is currently providing emergency shelter for about 630 people. Sites include the city’s existing homeless shelter on the far West Side and at a series of Albuquerque hotels used during COVID-19 to house homeless families, as well as those who are sick or otherwise vulnerable.

Keller has for a few years pushed the Gateway Center idea, saying the city needed a centralized, 24/7 facility without barriers to entry where individuals could stay temporarily, but also access resources while waiting for permanent housing.

The city had previously targeted a vacant University of New Mexico-owned parcel north of Lomas and east of Interstate 25, but some in the campus community and surrounding neighborhoods criticized the plan. UNM leaders in March denied the use.

The city’s interest in the old Lovelace is not a shock; it had been announced as a site finalist after a location analysis earlier this year.

Officials had at one time pitched the Gateway Center as a 300-bed facility. Keller has since said the city will shift toward a multi-site approach with a series of smaller facilities.

“We have to have a Gateway Center – hopefully many – but you get to many by starting with one,” Keller told the HCC.

Lawrence Rael, Albuquerque’s chief operating officer, said the city would like to eventually have a system that includes multiple locations, such as a North Downtown site and possibly a youth-specific facility.

He said the city has not determined how many shelter beds it would like to put at the Lovelace location.

City Council President Pat Davis, the area’s representative, said that the property is zoned as a hospital and that overnight shelter capacity would be capped at 30 for those not receiving medical care.

“I think this is the right use for that facility because it will consolidate a lot of our nonprofit services in one place, and I’m confident that the current zoning prohibits it from being a burden on the neighborhood,” Davis said.

But Rael said the city could pursue a conditional use permit for its vision of a “service center” that would include overnight stays. That process would include a public hearing.

He said the service providers who eventually set up shop inside would not necessarily cater specifically to the homeless population and could be a draw for anyone in the community.

Tamaya L. Toulouse, a resident of the nearby Siesta Hills neighborhood and past president of its neighborhood association, said she likely would be comfortable with a “small amount of shelter beds” at the facility, but is concerned about how many services are being concentrated in Southeast Albuquerque. She said she would like more detailed information about existing shelter capacity and need and would prefer the city spread shelter beds at locations throughout the city.

“That way, there are always nearby services for the homeless to utilize and no one neighborhood bears too much of the burden,” she said in written comments to the Journal. “If I knew what our need was, and how those beds are currently distributed throughout the city, then we could determine what number was appropriate for us.”

The city’s funding for the project includes $14 million that Albuquerque voters approved in a 2019 bond question.

Keller would not disclose the specific purchase price Tuesday, saying it remains a real estate negotiation.

Rael said the city has made an offer based on the appraised value and is wrapping up its required due diligence. But he said the purchase has been complicated by a disagreement among the Gibson Medical Center’s owners about who has the authority to execute such agreements and will likely wind up in court, although the city believes the deal is sound.

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