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Three neighborhood associations on Tuesday asked a zoning examiner to reject the city’s request to use a former Southeast Albuquerque hospital as an overnight shelter, claiming the city has provided insufficient outreach and details about the project and its impact.
But city officials and other community members stressed the need to move forward with emergency overnight accommodations for the growing homeless population.
The two-hour debate before Zoning Hearing Examiner Robert Lucero marked the latest step in the city’s yearslong effort to launch a no-barrier, 24/7 homeless shelter and services center. The city needs “conditional use” approval to operate the shelter at the old Lovelace hospital on Gibson, a property it bought in April for $15 million.
Lucero, a local attorney working under a city contract, said he would make a decision in 15 days.
“I’m going to do my best to decide this on the merits,” Lucero said. “There are a lot of considerations to be made.”
The 572,000-square-foot Gibson facility sits on nearly 21 acres. Jackie Fishman, a consultant representing the city, said the plan is to use about 10% to 15% of the space for a shelter, providing emergency bed space for up to 100 individuals and 25 families. The site works for a shelter, she said, because it is served by multiple city bus routes and is not “abutting, adjacent to or within close proximity” to single-family residential developments.
“The task at hand is to answer whether this use is appropriate for this property. We believe it is by being relatively physically separated from the neighborhoods,” Fishman said.
But some who live nearby used Tuesday’s hearing to reiterate arguments that their area – City Council District 6 – is already home to a disproportionate number of service providers.
“Adding to it again … seems unreasonable,” Robert Pierson said, calling the city’s plan “injurious” to the area.
While Fishman said services could be better distributed, she contended that is not germane to the conditional use application and disputed the claim that District 6 has more service providers than anywhere else in Albuquerque, saying a city analysis found the highest number in Downtown-based District 2.
Critics also argued Tuesday that the city had not adequately studied the potential negative ripples of a shelter. Melinda Frame with the Parkland Hills Neighborhood Association and Rachel Conger Baca of the Siesta Hills Neighborhood Association referenced a related University of New Mexico study that will not be done until early 2022. They, along with the president of the Elder Homestead Neighborhood Association, urged Lucero to deny the city’s application.
“The city has not been able to adequately address to the community surrounding Gateway how they will prevent significant adverse impacts, or the studies and data guiding their operational plan,” Frame said.
Lisa Huval, the city’s deputy director for housing and homelessness, said the UNM study is not specific to the Gibson site.
She said the city has plans to head off potential encampments around the shelter by stationing two employees at Gibson to monitor for – and clear – any that emerge within a quarter-mile, and by limiting meal service only to those staying inside.
“The Gateway Center at Gibson Health Hub is not a drop-in center and it’s not a community meal site,” she said.
Neighborhood leaders and city officials disagreed about whether the city had conducted proper neighborhood meetings before filing the conditional use application, with some critics saying that specific outreach to businesses occurred only recently. Fishman said the city met all requirements regarding neighborhood notification and that nobody, including business owners, was excluded from the related public meetings.
Khadijah Bottom of the South San Pedro Neighborhood Association spoke in support of the city’s application, saying there was ample opportunity for people to contact the city. She said she even understands some of the concerns.
“But, at the same time, we’re talking about human beings, and I just don’t understand how you could be so technical as to try to deny the opening of a building that can help these individuals,” she said.
Several others who testified Tuesday – including Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa and Venice Ceballos with the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center – agreed with the city that the project should advance.
“We currently support this effort and initiative 100%,” Ceballos said, noting that UNM is working to lease space at the Gibson property and provide case management services to the people using it.