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Revitalizing ABQ’s ‘spine’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The decision to tear down the Alvarado Hotel, an architectural gem in the California Mission Revival style in Downtown Albuquerque, was made in the normal course of business by owner Santa Fe Railway.

The historic hotel, built in 1902 and expanded in 1926, was still in operation on a lease basis by the fading Fred Harvey Inc. when the decision was made in September 1969. Four months later, demolition began.

“The teardown of the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque has truly haunted New Mexico,” said architect Barbara Felix, who was involved in recent historic preservation work at Santa Fe’s La Fonda on the Plaza. “We lost something that was very important.”

Tearing down the old through government condemnation and building new was the mantra of the “urban renewal” movement of the time, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said.

Nob Hill, seen here on a typical Saturday, is an old-fashioned commercial district near the UNM campus that has found new life as a popular dining and shopping destination. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Nob Hill, seen here on a typical Saturday, is an old-fashioned commercial district near the UNM campus that has found new life as a popular dining and shopping destination. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Although torn down by its private owner, not through public condemnation, the Alvarado Hotel was still a casualty of the urban renewal mentality, he said. Four years later, in 1974, the original Albuquerque High School at Central and Broadway NE was closed, with its fate uncertain.

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“I’m glad it was spared the wrecking crane,” Berry said.

The revitalization of Old Albuquerque High is one of the defining projects in the gradual transformation of Central Avenue from Old Town to Nob Hill. Built in phases beginning in 1914, the school has been described as a classic example of collegiate Gothic architecture.

The Old Albuquerque High revitalization process began in 1995, when the city initiated an eventually successful effort to buy the blighted 7.2-acre site, and ended in 2009, when the renovation of the former Manual Arts Building into mostly apartments was completed.

The Central Avenue transformation is an ongoing, incremental process.

Two large-scale and potentially game-changing urban infill projects – the 7.1-acre Innovate ABQ in east Downtown and the 12.5-acre Presbyterian project at Central and Interstate 25 – are slated for development.

Innovate ABQ – intended to be a center of innovation and entrepreneurship – is planned at the former First Baptist Church site at the northwest corner of Central and Broadway, across from Old Albuquerque High. UNM purchased the property in 2014.

The Presbyterian project is planned on a mostly vacant five-block area on the north side of Central, across from Presbyterian Hospital. Albuquerque-based Titan Development has entered into an agreement with Presbyterian Healthcare Services, owner of the property, to develop the site.

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In the past 15 years or so, an estimated 60 properties or more have undergone radical improvements in the corridor, either through new construction or major renovation.

Veteran local developer Paul Silverman, who is involved in the four-story Imperial Building that will house a grocery store under construction in Downtown, predicts another $2 billion will be invested in the corridor’s redevelopment over the next 20 years.

“You’re basically going to see a new city built,” he said.

The redevelopment focus on the corridor stems in part from Central’s doubling as Route 66, nicknamed “The Mother Road” and steeped in a lore that appeals to the public imagination. Berry described it as “the spine of our community.”

As such, Central served as the traditional connection between the city’s original destination points of Old Town to the west, Downtown in the middle and the University of New Mexico to the east. Nob Hill is next to the UNM campus.

“It has that base level of urbanity in a good way,” Silverman said about the corridor. “You have a foundation to build on – that’s captivated the development community.”

A key element of that urbanity is the easy availability of public transit in the corridor. The city says plans for an enhanced Albuquerque Rapid Transit, based largely on securing federal funding, would make public transit along the corridor even more user-friendly.

“Rapid Transit, if it materializes, would be a significant improvement,” said local businessman Jerry Landgraf, who owns significant developable land in East Nob Hill. “I know it’s controversial with some business owners along Central.”

Controversy is not new when it comes to revitalizing the city’s core.

One of the earliest contemporary attempts at urban infill, Huning Castle Apartments at 1500 Central SW between Downtown and Old Town, first emerged in 1994. It was contested all the way to the state Supreme Court by the local neighborhood association before development could begin.

From start to finish, the 63-unit project took 10 years to complete on a three-acre parcel that had been vacant for decades. The local Keleher family, which had owned the parcel since the 1930s, was determined to develop apartments there as the site’s best use.

“We were glad when they were finally built,” family member and local attorney Tom Keleher said. “We feel good about it.”

The oddest controversy was in 1999 over the fate of what was originally Jones Motor Co. at 3222 Central SE in Nob Hill, a 14,000-square-foot historic structure built in the “Streamline Moderne” style of architecture. At the time, it was boarded up and regularly tagged with graffiti.

Bernalillo County wanted to buy the property at a low-ball price for a community center, an odd use considering its location in the middle of what was then an up-and-coming retail hub. When it was sold for a higher price to local private investors, the controversy escalated.

The county threatened to seize the property through condemnation and the city initially denied the new owner’s request to operate a brew pub at the site. A settlement was reached and the building was renovated into Kelly’s Brew Pub in what is now the trendy part of Nob Hill.

Government involvement in the Central corridor’s redevelopment has generally been more low key, at least from a public perspective, than what happened with the Jones Motor Co. property.

The city is the main public player by virtue of its authority to condemn properties in the corridor, typically rundown Route 66-era motels, and to regulate land use.

The city is in the process of “reinventing” its land-use regulations and development processes to promote urban infill, Berry said. City staff has been encouraged to adopt a more customer-service attitude to help make good projects happen, while always maintaining public safety, he said.

The city’s occasional property purchases have resulted in some major infill projects through agreements with private development companies.

The 95,157-square-foot downtown theater block, which opened in 2001 and filled out the block around the historic Sunshine Building at 2nd and Central SW, and five nearby housing and mixed-use projects were all built by private developers on city-owned land.

Next up is the long-anticipated renovation of the De Anza Motor Lodge, a historic but now boarded-up Route 66-era motel at 4301 Central NE in East Nob Hill. The city and a local investment group are in the final stages of negotiating the development agreement for the site.

The renovation will result in about 30 furnished apartments of various sizes that function like extended-stay motel rooms. The $8.2 million redevelopment project would involve tearing down and rebuilding the more dilapidated buildings at the north end of the site.

“You should start to see activity there late in the first quarter of next year,” said Bill Smith of Construct Southwest, a partner in the investment group.

East Nob Hill appears to be the busiest section for redevelopment in the Central corridor, with the recent completion of the 75-unit Platinum Apartments and the current construction of The Carlisle, which will have 36 for-sale condos.

“Nob Hill stands out as one of the most authentic urban neighborhoods in Albuquerque,” said Carlisle developer Kenny Hinkes, noting it’s close to the Sunport and major employers, such as Sandia National Laboratories, UNM, and the Lovelace, Presbyterian and University hospitals.

A sale is pending on one of Landgraf’s holdings, the mostly vacant city block at 4119 Central NE. The buyer has general plans for a classic mixed-use project, with retail space on the ground floor along Central, and housing on the upper floors and elsewhere on the site, Landgraf said.

“More housing – rooftops if you will – will bring a big change in character (to East Nob Hill),” he said.

Both Hinkes and Landgraf said it’s a matter of just a few years before the style and spirit of Nob Hill proper, which extends from Girard to Carlisle, makes its way farther east to Washington.

Closer to Old Town, local developer Jay Rembe has continued his redevelopment activities with the phased build-out of Country Club Plaza, an 80,000-square-foot mixed-use project on the 1700 block of Central SW.

“The idea is to have the most pedestrian-friendly project by activating these old buildings and placing the new buildings so that you to create a space with outdoor dining opportunities, courtyard lights and fountains,” he said. “It will feel like a little village with internal streets.”

Rembe was active in the 2000s in the west end of Downtown with projects such as the Silver Lofts and Flying Star Cafe at 8th and Silver SW.


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