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The Albuquerque City Council is not yet done debating safe outdoor spaces.
The topic that dominated much of 2022 is back on the agenda for the council’s first meeting of 2023. Mayor Tim Keller ensured that by vetoing the council’s latest effort to thwart organized camp sites for people who are homeless.
The council in December had voted 5-4 to remove all “safe outdoor space” references in the city zoning code. It was the legislative body’s third attempt to torpedo safe outdoor spaces and essentially undo the council’s own decision in June to allow them.
Keller has greeted each council attempt to backtrack on safe outdoor spaces with his veto pen, and the divided council has so far lacked the six votes needed to override him. The next override vote is scheduled for Wednesday’s council meeting.
Safe outdoor spaces – managed outdoor sites where people can sleep in tents or vehicles while accessing toilets, showers and more – remain legal and active.
The city has partnered with the nonprofit Heading Home to launch the first two: both are limited to clients who have vehicles to sleep in and are located outside existing homeless shelters, and neither has seen much use yet.
And neither has generated as much buzz as the proposed tent-based safe outdoor space planned for Menaul Boulevard near Interstate 25. Operated by Dawn Legacy Pointe on land owned by the city, the site would have 40 tent spots with room for up to 50 people.
The city Planning Department first approved the project application in August, but a hearing officer subsequently determined neighbors had not received proper notice. Dawn Legacy Pointe mailed a new round of notifications and reapplied. Last month, the Planning Department once again granted approval for the safe outdoor space at the site.
That kicked off a new wave of appeals; at least seven entities are fighting Dawn Legacy Pointe’s new approval. They argue that the project will harm an area already grappling with problems, that Dawn Legacy Pointe’s plans – including for security – are insufficient and that the city is not protecting the community.
The city “has no plan whatsoever to address and mitigate the impacts on the surrounding property owners and community at large,” the nearby nonprofit LifeROOTS wrote in its appeal.
Some also contend that the organization’s application has inappropriately benefitted from the city’s involvement in the project.
“It is clear that the issuing of the permit to Dawn Legacy Pointe has been tainted from the start by the weighing of the (city’s) Department of Family & Community Services’ thumb upon the scales,” Menaul School wrote in its appeal.
Other appellants include Santa Barbara Martineztown Neighborhood Association, Crowne Plaza hotel, Sunset Memorial Park cemetery, the Greater Albuquerque Hotel & Lodging Association and the company that runs the Ramada Plaza hotel.
Brad Day, a volunteer consultant for Dawn Legacy Pointe’s project, agrees that crime and homelessness have greatly cost many Albuquerque area businesses. He, however, believes that a safe outdoor space will help, not hurt. He cited recent reporting from The Colorado Sun that showed Denver neighborhoods with safe outdoor spaces saw a year-over-year decline in total reported crime during their first year of operation even while crime was rising across Denver as a whole. While the safe outdoor space neighborhoods did see violent crime rise, the news site reported that the increase was less than seen citywide.
Day disputes that Dawn Legacy Pointe is ill-prepared to run such an operation or that it is getting special treatment from the city, saying he’s had at least 15 meetings with city personnel to ensure the project is safe and meets all city regulations.
He said opponents unfairly liken a safe outdoor space to the large unsanctioned encampment at Coronado Park that the city shut down in August due to criminal activity and property damage.
“They think it’s going to be just like (Coronado Park), and that is 180 million miles away from the way this thing operates,” Day said.
A spokeswoman for the city’s Family and Community Services Department said Dawn Legacy Pointe’s operations plan – including its security – underwent a review as part of its approval process, and all such projects must have fences with lockable gates, background checks for operators and residents and 24/7 staffing.
“Data from other cities demonstrate that Safe Outdoor Spaces do not contribute to an increase of crime,” spokeswoman Katie Simon said. “Safe outdoor spaces are a useful resource for people living on the street and to mitigate unsanctioned encampments.”
The appeals will proceed to a land use hearing officer, but it’s not clear when the hearing will occur.