Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
LOS RANCHOS DE ALBUQUERQUE – Construction is slated to begin any day on a project, at the southeast corner of Fourth and Osuna in Los Ranchos, that will include a three-story hotel with 30 to 50 units; an apartment complex with 204 units split between three, three-story buildings; a 14,000 square-foot specialty grocery store; and up to 60 houses.
The Palindrome development, named for the Portland, Oregon, company building it, is part of the Los Ranchos Village Center Plan. It was approved by the village board of trustees in 2020, but now finds itself embroiled in a furor touched off because three other high-density projects – one on track for final action and two in early discussion stages – have been proposed for the Fourth and Osuna area.
That’s proved to be difficult to accept for some residents of Los Ranchos, which was incorporated in December 1958 to fend off annexation by a rapidly growing Albuquerque and to retain the rural and agricultural lifestyle villagers treasure.
“This Village Center, along with three other developments on Fourth Street, will destroy our village,” Joe Craig, president of the Friends of Los Ranchos, said at a recent trustees meeting.
A place to live
Los Ranchos’ boundaries are irregular, but basically they go from north of Ortega to south of Montaño and from the Rio Grande on the west to beyond Fourth on the east.
More than 600 people recently signed a petition requesting that the mayor and trustees initiate a moratorium on high-density projects until a survey determines how the majority of Los Ranchos’ 6,000 residents feel about them. Twenty people voiced opposition to such developments at the July 13 village board of trustees meeting.
“If you proceed with approving and supporting this concentrated development, you are destroying the decades of efforts that have kept this village the jewel that it is and its rural nature tied to agriculture,” Randy McKee, a Los Ranchos resident for about 20 years, told the mayor and trustees during that meeting’s public comment period. “You are building a legacy that the villagers are telling you loud and clear they do not want.”
Los Ranchos Mayor Donald T. Lopez told the Journal that development plans approved by trustees are in accord with the village master plan, the most recent version of which was approved in November 2019 following an extensive series of public meetings.
“We didn’t just do this the other day,” Lopez said. “Where were they (petitioners) when the master plan was being developed and where were they during the meeting when it was approved.”
The mayor said allowing more dense housing than has been the norm for the village is intended to attract newer residents, including younger families, who cannot afford to pay $300,000 to $350,000 for an acre or $600,000-plus for a house, the asking prices in Los Ranchos. He said new residents will result in an economic boost to the village.
“But they have to have a place to live.”
Besides the Palindrome project, developments proposed for the Fourth and Osuna area are:
⋄ Nijmegen Plaza Development, a 12-unit residential project at Fourth and Willow, just south of the Palindrome site.
⋄ Sandia View Development, apartment units on Sandia View just west of Fourth Street and the Palindrome project.
⋄ Chavez-Guadalupe Trail Cluster Development, 21 homes on 9.26 acres at the southwest corner of Chavez and Guadalupe Trail.
Village Trustee Gilbert Benavides believes it is these three projects, all in the pipeline at the same time and all proposed for sites in close proximity to each other, that set off alarms for residents opposed to high-density development.
“I call it the Perfect Storm, three things hit us at once and they all had to do with density,” he said. “Sometimes there is an overreaction. Just because these things come up doesn’t mean we are going to approve them.”
The Nijmegen Plaza Development was actually up for approval during the July 13 trustees meeting. But after listening to more than an hour of public comment in opposition to high-density developments, trustees voted to defer action on it for 60 days.
Lopez firmly believes it was the Chavez-Guadalupe Trail plan that touched off the petition drive and vocal opposition. The other projects are on or just off a very busy Fourth Street south of Osuna.
“Fourth Street is not rural,” Benavides said. “Some old-timers hold on to what Fourth Street looked like in the ’50s. But that’s not reality.”
The Chavez-Guadalupe Trail site is another matter. Although not far from Fourth and Osuna, it is a grassy 9 acres at the intersection of two comparatively quiet residential streets.
Need for open space
Michelle Smiley lives about 50 feet from the Chavez-Guadalupe Trail site.
“They just irrigated it today,” she said during public comments at the July 13 trustees meeting. “So on my drive over here there were two egrets playing in the water. I wanted to stop and take a picture to show you the wildlife enjoying this space. And it’s not just all these species of birds. There’s all kinds of creatures in this little (9) acres. We need this open space.
“We talk about the infrastructure, that we don’t have the infrastructure to handle (more) people in this little space. But I personally don’t want the infrastructure. I don’t want street lights causing all this air pollution to migratory bird habitat.”
The Chavez-Guadalupe Trail site is privately owned. In keeping with Los Ranchos’ long-standing ordinance restricting development to one house per acre, the owner has the right to build nine houses there. But this past March, trustees approved an ordinance to allow Conservation Development/Pilot Projects that make denser developments, such as the 21 homes proposed for Chavez-Guadalupe Trail, possible.
“It’s intended to allow for a form of cluster housing,” Lopez said. “The village gets back a percentage of open space (about 2 acres in this case) on that property. If you build just one house per acre, there is no open space. One of the most pressing issues in the village is how to keep the village open, green and semi-rural while attracting newer residents and allowing older residents to downsize and age in place.”
But for Smiley, it’s about the environment and the wildlife.
“You can’t just put the word conservation in the title of a project,” she said. “You’re not conserving anything if you are paving over a very important watershed and a habitat for different species.”
The village trustees will hold its second public hearing on the Chavez-Guadalupe Trail proposal on Aug. 10.
Village Trustee George Radnovich, a landscape architect, thinks a community dialogue is needed to help Los Ranchos decide what it wants to be.
“I think Los Ranchos doesn’t know what it is,” he said. “I hear people talking about Fourth Street and calling it rural. I think the whole commercial strip on Fourth is more Albuquerque like.”
Three years ago, before he was a trustee, Radnovich’s landscape architecture company had a contract to work on the Fourth Street project, which changed the character of the street from Schulte Road north to Pueblo Solano in ways that better serve pedestrians.
“We talked to every business owner on Fourth Street,” he said. “People were asking for more restaurants, more commercial and for Fourth Street to become more like a main street than any other part of Los Ranchos. The people who came out to public meetings then did not have a no-growth attitude. How do we please Los Ranchos residents who want more commercial development and people saying no commercial and nothing that will increase traffic. Seems like we have two different camps.”
Radnovich favors a series of public meetings and a way of allowing more discussion during board of trustee and Planning and Zoning Commission meetings.
“There is value in having more conversation than just an exchange of statements,” he said.
Trustee Allen L. Lewis, who has lived in Los Ranchos since 1960, feels the village has done a good job of retaining rural elements and links to its agricultural history.
“I think it is absolutely what the village is about,” he said. “We have parks and open spaces and we have the (Larry P. Abraham) Agri-Nature Center that promotes agriculture. I feel like that is first and foremost our goal. The lavender festival (held July 23-24) is a big part of promoting who we are. A part of it is trying to develop younger farmers and finding crops we can grow, and lavender is one of those.”
He said the Village Center and other projects on Fourth Street are intended to be a mechanism for generating gross receipts tax money.
“That’s what is behind the commercial development of Fourth Street, because we really don’t get much in property tax,” Lewis said.
Sandra Pacheco, mayor pro tempore and village trustee, said the village administration’s responsibility is to garner the resources to run the village.
“That money doesn’t fall off trees,” she said. “Nearly everything in the village is done with gross receipts taxes. They want streets repaired, they want public safety, they want their parks mowed. How is all that being paid for?”
Trustee Pacheco said she gets angry when she hears talk suggesting the village administration is changing ordinances and making development deals behind closed doors.
“Everything is public information,” she said. “We have an obligation to do oversight, to have transparency. People may not have sought it out, but the information is there.”
Notices of upcoming trustee and Planning and Zoning Commission meetings are posted on the village’s website and videos of those meetings are available for viewing on the website as soon as the following day.
Even so, during the July 13 meeting, some villagers expressed concern that trustees often have to recuse themselves from discussion or action on issues due to conflict of interest. The four trustees vote on matters being considered by the board. The mayor votes only in the case of a tie.
On occasion, two trustees have recused themselves from considering or acting on a matter. That leaves two people to vote on business that affects the entire village.
At the July 13 meeting, for example, Radnovich recused himself from discussing the Palindrome project because his company has the contract, dating back to before he was elected a trustee, to do the landscape design for the development.
When the Nijmegen project came up for action that evening, Benavides recused himself because he had been a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission when the project was presented to that panel and Pacheco recused herself because she is married to the project’s developer. That left only Radnovich and Lewis, and they voted to defer action for two months.
Villager Smiley requested that there be a public record noting what trustees have relations – business or personal – with which developers.
“Tell all of us, but not two minutes before you vote,” Smiley said.
So very fragile
There are several options possible as Los Ranchos plots it future. One is a moratorium on high-density projects, although Mayor Lopez said that would not apply to the Palindrome development, which is already approved, and likely not to the Nijmegen project, which meets ordinance requirements and is well along in the process. A series of public meetings and consultation with traffic experts have also been suggested.
One thing certain is that Fourth and Osuna is ground zero.
During the July 13 trustees meeting, village resident Lauren Marble spoke about her experience when she moved to Portland 10 years ago.
She said she was enchanted at the time with Portland’s green and rain, but that things took a turn for the worse when high-density developments started springing up in the old neighborhood she lived in there.
“Things changed in just a short period of time,” she said. “Traffic was so bad, it could take you hours to get home, businesses were closing. It was just a very strange time.” She said she moved back to Los Ranchos and rediscovered the joy of being able to walk along the irrigation ditch every day and having birds and even skunks in her yard.
“The pleasure of living in the village has been just a gift,” Marble said. “When I see things happening that remind me of Portland, I get very nervous. Because it is so very fragile. You think you are going to have it forever, this quality of life. But it is not guaranteed. I live almost at the corner of Fourth and Osuna. I feel like we are being sacrificed for this higher vision of higher density. We are going to have the traffic and the noise and the whole change of lifestyle.”
“But the people who think it’s not going to affect them because they live farther away, I just want to tell you that it will affect everybody. You still have to get home. You still have to drive on the streets. You still have to deal with the changes (that go with) bringing all these people into the community.”