The University of New Mexico’s South Campus area might be difficult to recognize five years from now.
Albuquerque’s sports hub at the intersection of University Avenue and Avenida Cesar Chavez is currently dominated by athletic facilities, sun-baked parking lots and acres of vacant mesa to the south and west.
If development plans come to fruition, all of South Campus’ current elements will evolve.
- Athletic facilities will be significantly greener in terms of energy usage and production.
- Parking lots may shrink to accommodate a restaurant or two.
- Vacant lots may be replaced by retail enterprises, including a potential shopping center.
While extensive construction in the South Campus area is still in the planning stages, big changes can be expected.
“I feel very comfortable saying the area will look drastically different in five years,” said Thomas Neale, UNM’s real estate director and director of financial transactions for Lobo Development Corporation.
The board of Lobo Development – a private, nonprofit corporation owned by UNM’s Regents and created to diversify the school’s revenue stream – is composed of a four-person staff headed by Neale. The board of directors is chaired by James Koch and includes UNM president Robert Frank and athletic director Paul Krebs among its eight members.
“We’re hoping to create a sports and entertainment district that brings a sense of vibrancy to the area,” Neale said, “one that’s not limited to athletic venues and game days.”
Changes at those athletic venues may start first, however, as UNM endeavors to cash in on the sun while creating shade.
An intriguing plan to install solar panels atop shade-producing structures at athletic venues will soon enter the construction phase. The first such project is set for UNM’s McKinnon Family Tennis Center and could get underway as early as this summer.
Shade-producing structures will be constructed over fan seating areas and walkways at the six-court complex, which opened during the 2014-15 school year. Atop the shade structures will be solar panels capable of producing 100 kilowatts of electricity, said Jeff Zumwalt, the director of UNM’s Physical Plant Department. Zumwalt estimated the system could save the university roughly $15,000 a year in electricity costs.
“It seems like a great opportunity,” Zumwalt said. “Fans obviously want shade at sporting events, so why not put solar panels on top and create energy? We’re excited about this project.”
Athletic department officials feel the same way.
“It’s a pilot project that we could end up using at the baseball, soccer and track facilities and possibly others,” said Tim Cass, UNM’s chief operations officer for athletics. “Not only will it provide shade for the fans, but it could go a long way toward making us a greener university. It feels like the right thing to do.”
UNM’s physical plant has completed five other solar-energy projects on university buildings in recent years, all installed on rooftops, Zumwalt said. The tennis center panels will be UNM’s first at an athletic venue, and Zumwalt hopes they will provide visibility and encourage donations to fund other green projects at university facilities.
The tennis center project will cost between $450,000 and $500,000, Zumwalt said. It is being financed through a combination of funds the university saved through a renewable energy initiative and a matching donation from a wealthy donor.
“It’s an interesting concept,” UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said. “If it comes to fruition, and we think it will, it creates some opportunities for our other athletic facilities down the road.”
Zumwalt conceded there is at least one potential bug in placing solar panels atop some sporting venues.
“We will have to figure out a way to deal with foul balls,” he said with a laugh. “That really hasn’t come into play with our other projects.”
While working to reduce energy expenses, UNM hopes to generate additional revenue through a series of retail projects on and around the South Campus area.
It could start with a restaurant project in the current parking area west of University Stadium. A previously announced plan to construct a Marble Brewing eatery/pub on the site fell through in June, but negotiations to put another business on the site are ongoing, Neale said.
“In the next couple of weeks, I think we could be in position to make an exciting announcement,” he said.
UNM also owns vacant property west of the Lobo Village student housing area, a large tract south of the Lobo baseball and softball complex, and is looking to develop both. The projects are being coordinated by Lobo Development Corporation, which offers design plans on its website, lobodevelopment.org.
One project detailed on the site is for a 4.3-acre plot located immediately west of Lobo Village, which houses roughly 900 UNM students. A potential convenience store and restaurants are being sought for the area.
Even more ambitious are plans for an undeveloped 39.4-acre area located south of Lobo Field and the Pit. The area extends to Gibson Avenue and is bordered by University on the east and I-25 on the west.
Referred to as the South Campus Commercial District, the area is ticketed to be anchored by a “big box retailer,” other retail businesses and a fire station. It is described as a pedestrian- and auto-oriented retail center that would allow patrons to capitalize on the ample parking areas around UNM’s athletic venues through a shuttle service.
“All the bones are there to make it an exciting commercial area,” Neale said.
Krebs, who is also a member of LDC, believes the corporation’s planned retail projects could have a significant positive impact on UNM athletics.
“As we give up parking and infrastructure pieces,” he said, “I think the hope is for athletics to realize a large chunk of that revenue to offset lost parking or potential revenue.”
UNM’s athletic facilities will also account for some of the visual changes to the South Campus area during the next few years. Lobo Baseball Field’s major overhaul will likely be the most eye-catching, but there are more construction projects and facility renovations in the works.
Separate from structural improvements, however, Krebs wants to see the look of UNM’s South Campus upgraded. The UNM athletic director believes curb appeal is a major consideration when it comes to maintaining or renovating athletic facilities.
With that in mind, Krebs often takes appraising looks at the area surrounding his South Campus office. He’s proud of the recently added grass- and tree-lined “mall” area between UNM’s baseball, softball and tennis facilities and wants to see similar additions around South Campus.
“Landscaping, signage and imagery are important,” Krebs said, “and there’s a concerted effort to pay attention to aesthetics around our structures.
“As commercial development begins down here, we have to pay attention to sidewalks and the way things look. Curb appeal is important to recruits. We’ve worked to get it around baseball/softball, around the Pit and our soccer stadium. We need to improve it at the football stadium. That’s an important part of everything we’re doing.”