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Sawmill district enjoying renaissance

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The Artisan, inset, consists of two mixed-use buildings developed by a partnership between the Sawmill Community Land Trust and PacifiCap Properties Group. (Courtesy of Renati West)

The Artisan, inset, consists of two mixed-use buildings developed by a partnership between the Sawmill Community Land Trust and PacifiCap Properties Group. (Courtesy of Renati West)

Albuquerque’s Sawmill district, bordering the north side of Old Town, is gradually gaining a new vibe as it evolves away from industrial roots to an eclectic mix of housing, businesses and the inevitable warehouses.

An official groundbreaking is scheduled Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. for Sawmill Crossing, a 78-unit townhouse development on seven acres along Aspen NW, west of 12th Street, that’s the biggest private-sector residential subdivision in the district so far.

More apartments are being planned and built in association with the nonprofit Sawmill Community Land Trust, which has been the catalyst for the Sawmill district’s revival. The trust has been involved in the construction of more than 250 housing units in the area over the past 15 years.

A brewpub soon will be opening in one of the trust’s mixed-use buildings, a sign that the area is “reaching a critical mass of residents,” said Wade Patterson, the trust’s executive director.

Perhaps most telling is the breakup of the 10-acre Blue Linx distribution site on the west site of 18th Street, between the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and the intersection with Bellamah.

The nearby Explora museum bought the entire site in 2009, then sold about 2½ acres in 2010 to Sawmill Community Land Trust. In 2012, it sold another roughly 2½ acres to an investment group that includes Albuquerque businessman Jim Long, said Erick Johnson of Johnson Commercial Real Estate.

Explora is just starting its strategic planning on what to do with its five acres closest to the natural history museum, while the trust plans in three years or so to build income-restricted apartments on its parcel at the southwest corner of 18th and Bellamah.

A trendy vision

Madera Crossing, a planned 56-apartment community in Sawmill Village, has a pedestrian bridge that's evocative of a crane that once moved material around the former Ponderosa Products site. (Courtesy of Dekker/Perich/Sabatini)

Madera Crossing, a planned 56-apartment community in Sawmill Village, has a pedestrian bridge that’s evocative of a crane that once moved material around the former Ponderosa Products site. (Courtesy of Dekker/Perich/Sabatini)

Long’s investment group plans to explore Sawmill’s potential to be a trendy area like Denver’s River North Art District, just north of downtown, where industrial and creative businesses mix. The plan is to convert the vacant, 54,318-square-foot warehouse at 1820 Bellamah NW into multiple spaces.

“The building will no longer be used exclusively for warehousing, but will be suitable for uses ranging from artist studios, showroom space, exercise facilities, breweries, art galleries, furniture makers, and other similar uses,” Long said in an email to the Journal .

Long’s flagship company, Heritage Hotels & Resorts Inc., owns the Sawmill district’s visual landmark and one of its biggest businesses, the 11-story Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town at 800 Rio Grande NW.

ACE High School, which currently leases space on 20th Street in the Sawmill district, is purchasing land further east to build its own 23,000-square-foot school, said Margo A. Maher of the ACE Foundation Board.

“All parties are currently in the due-diligence process for this exciting project,” she said in an email.

ACE – which stands for architecture, construction and engineering – is a charter school that’s a public/private partnership with the New Mexico branch of the Associated General Contractors. It opened in 2010.

The natural history and science museum is also planning to look at ways to maximize use of its 11 acres in the district.

Urban building blocks

All this activity is building blocks in the urban renewal of what was once the 110-acre American Lumber Co. site opened in 1903. What remains of the site commonly has been called Duke City Lumber after one of its later users.

The Sawmill district or neighborhood is bounded by Interstate 40 to the north and Mountain Road to the south, 12th Street to the east and Rio Grande Boulevard to the west. The Sawmill area comprises a total of about 269 acres, according to the city Planning Department.

The traditional Sawmill neighborhood is near 12th and Mountain, while the redevelopment area is to the northwest closer to another neighborhood between Zearing NW and I-40, said Debbie O’Malley, chairwoman of the Bernalillo County Commission.

A 1978 city-funded report titled “Historic Albuquerque Today” said most residents originally worked at the nearby lumber milling operations and described Sawmill as “a neighborhood of small houses, mainly adobe, and often owner built, placed close together on lots that are frequently irregular in shape.”

A Sawmill activist in the 1990s, O’Malley served in lead roles of community organizations that evolved into the Sawmill Community Land Trust. The activism initially was directed at pollution on the industrial sites, then at revitalizing those sites with affordable housing, she said.

Sawmill, which is believed to be served by the city’s first rail spur off the main north-south track, remains a warehousing and distribution hub.

Industrial sites as well

Sawmill-areaJim Smith, an industrial real-estate specialist at CBRE, estimates the district has 900,000 to 1 million square feet of industrial space.

“The issue with most of it is the size of the truck courts, ceiling heights and column spacing,” he said. “The buildings were built to what people wanted 50-60 years ago. They’re getting rather obsolete from the standpoint of user expectations today.”

The area still has appeal due to its location and convenient interstate access.

When Tualatin, Ore.-based Lumber Products filed for bankruptcy in 2012, Rugby Architectural Building Products of Concord, N.H., quickly filled Lumber Products’ 51,355-square-foot distribution building at 1050 18th NW, said Jim Hakeem of NAI Maestas & Ward, who was involved in the deal.

The large-scale milling operations are gone, with Ponderosa Products the last to go. The particle-board maker shut down in early 2002 and its by-then derelict 250,000-square-foot multibuilding facility was demolished five years later.

The Sawmill Community Land Trust is currently in the midst of redeveloping seven acres of the former Ponderosa site as Sawmill Village, a high-density, mixed-use project.

The next building planned at Sawmill Village is the $12.6 million Madera Crossing, which will consist of 56 mostly income-restricted, two- and three-bedroom apartments, Patterson said. It is designed to be platinum certified through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

The trust and its partner on the project, Capitol Housing Partners of Santa Fe, have applied for low-income housing tax credits, a federal incentive for developers to provide affordable housing that’s administered in this state by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority.

Tax-credit competition

Competition is fierce for the tax credits. Madera is one of 21 projects for which tax-credit applications were filed for 2014. In 2013, only four projects were awarded the credits. Failure to be awarded the tax credits this year could delay the Madera project.

Low-income housing tax credits are awarded to primarily rental projects on condition that most or all of the units are set aside for households making less than the local median income as determined by HUD. Median means half of all households in the metro make more, while half make less.

Most of the trust’s rental housing is set aside for households making 50 percent or less than the HUD median income, Patterson said. For a two-member household, that means an annual income of $25,156 or less. For a four-member household, the annual income limit is $31,450.

The first two buildings in Sawmill Village are collectively called The Artisan, completed in 2011, which has commercial space on the ground floors and 60 apartments, all income restricted, on the upper two floors.

The third building completed in 2012 is The Mix, which also has commercial space on the ground floor and 20 market-rate apartments on the upper floors. A Portland brewery has signed a lease to open a brewpub in a 4,500-square-foot space in The Mix but didn’t return messages from the Journal requesting comment.

The Artisan and The Mix were built through a partnership between the Sawmill trust and Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCap Properties Group. The trust only has a small minority stake in an as-yet-unnamed, market-rate apartment building that PacifiCap is currently constructing next to The Artisan.

The trust’s signature development is Arbolera de Vida, a 27-acre, primarily residential development on land originally purchased by the city of Albuquerque. The development has 93 homeownership units and 106 rental units, all income restricted, on what amounts to a stylishly designed campus.

Accion New Mexico, a regional nonprofit that provides loans and training to small businesses, moved in 2010 to its newly built 7,500-square-foot headquarters at 2000 Zearing NW, across from Arbolera de Vida. The Keshet Dance Co. had planned to move to Sawmill Village, but that deal fell through.

One family venture

Sawmill Crossing Partners is a family venture formed by four brothers and a son in the blended Cheshire and Wickens family, who have been involved in the construction of both residential and commercial projects in the metro. Two of the brothers were among the partners of Lumber Inc., now ProBuild.

The opening phase of Sawmill Crossing, which will be silver certified through Build Green New Mexico, will consist of six units with the first expected to be available in May. Floors plans vary from about 1,200 to more than 1,600 square feet, while prices start in the mid-$100,000 range.

Keith Cheshire said the 78 planned townhouses will differ in two major ways from the overwhelming majority of the owner-occupied housing built in the last 20 years on the former sawmill site:

  • They will be market rate, which means they are not subsidized by government tax credits that impose income restrictions on potential buyers. In other words, anyone who can afford the prices can buy there.
  • The houses will be sold in a traditional “fee-simple” manner, while owner-occupied homes on trust land involve buying just the house and leasing the land it sits on.

Land leases lower the upfront costs of buying a house, thus contributing to the Sawmill Community Land Trust’s goal of providing affordable housing. When a homeowner sells his or her house on trust land, the price is determined by formula in order to pass on affordable or restricted value.

Sawmill Crossing will differ from much of the nearby housing on trust land in a third way, in that its architecture does not follow the New Urbanist vision. Instead of front porches to encourage neighborhood interaction, garage doors are the dominant feature of the building fronts.

Two-car garages are rare in the area, Cheshire said. Sawmill Crossing has the potential for 44 of its 78 units to have two-car garages. The design was subject to some criticism as too suburbia.

“A garage is a must with new homes,” said Lynette Manzanares of Mercury Properties, who is marketing the townhouses with associate Joe Corso. “When I’m searching (properties) with homebuyers, a house that doesn’t have a garage is a deal breaker.”