Right now, a luxury hotel is rising in an Albuquerque neighborhood once known for its lumber operations.
Hotel Chaco, inspired by ancient pueblo culture, but designed with modern amenities, such as a spa and rooftop lounge, will bring 118 new hotel rooms to the area when it opens next spring.
Its five-story stature makes it the highest profile project happening in the Sawmill District. But it’s not the only one.
Jim Long, whose Heritage Hotels & Resorts is building Hotel Chaco and already runs neighboring Hotel Albuquerque, has much more planned for the area east of Rio Grande Boulevard, between Mountain and Interstate 40.
Long has gradually accumulated a series of nearby industrial properties that he eventually intends to redevelop – likely with multistory, mixed-use buildings featuring residential units above ground-level commercial space. But that could still be a decade away.
In the near term, which he defines as the next two to seven years, he intends to turn the existing warehouses into hubs for local art, entertainment, food and shopping. His vision – which involves providing some capital support for individuals and organizations with creative talent and ideas – is to continue transforming the neighborhood to better reflect its surrounding. Sawmill is nestled next to Old Town and a host of museums, and it has seen a spurt of residential development spearheaded by the Sawmill Community Land Trust.
Long described his idea as “new urbanism at its best.”
“You already have an incredible setting to create this remarkable place,” he said. “What the disconnect has been is … in the heart of the historic center and an urban location, you have a warehouse environment, which is an inappropriate use of that land.”
Long and his investor group have amassed about a half-dozen warehouses located around Hotel Albuquerque. The industrial users who occupied them are gradually being phased out as their leases expire.
One of the properties, the old Paxton Lumber building that sits across Bellamah from Hotel Chaco, already has a defined future as the Sawmill Market, something described as a “25,000-square-foot food and market hall.” Expected to open in 2018, it will have a mix of businesses that could include artisanal food vendors, small-scale producers, restaurants and possibly even a cooking school. Steve Carlin, who worked on similar projects in San Francisco and Napa, will serve as an adviser.
Long said the other warehouses will serve to further celebrate what makes Albuquerque and New Mexico special through what he’s calling “curated experiences” developed by the community’s most creative individuals, groups and nonprofit organizations. The spaces could become anything from music venues to boutiques or galleries. He has hired Chris O’Donnell, who previously worked as an environmental designer for Yahoo, to help bring the project to life as the Sawmill District brand manager.
O’Donnell said he’s helping to identify partners who can offer intriguing experiences in areas such as art, entertainment, food, design and retail. He’s in the early stages of that process, but said he has already had conversations with a number of people.
“We are looking for incredibly interesting and original ideas, passion, work ethic, commitment and some capital,” O’Donnell said via email. “Our investor group will provide capital, marketing support, accounting support, technology support, mentors and other leadership support to ensure success of the venture.”
O’Donnell can be contacted at email@example.com.
Long said the investors likely won’t charge a fixed rent to the buildings’ users, but instead share in the profits they generate, something he sees as economically beneficial for all parties. Long has already started renovations at the old BlueLinx warehouse at 18th and Bellamah NW. A portion of the building will house laundry and other back-of-house operations for the nearby hotels, but the rest will likely be used to fulfill Long’s vision for a vibrant arts and cultural district.
Long said he will apply with Bernalillo County for a $17 million industrial revenue bond for the laundry facility. The county already has approved IRBs for Hotel Chaco ($40 million) and Sawmill Market ($10 million). IRBs are privately financed, but usually mean certain tax breaks for developers.
“The opportunity here (in Sawmill) is for organizations and even individuals that have unique and creative ideas, and want to collaborate with a strong capital partner that can help execute those ideas,” Long said. “That’s the unique opportunity that exists. We’re not really seeking tenants that can pay the highest rent; we’re seeking people that have the most creative ideas.”
It’s a model he has used already, recently forging a 10-year partnership with the National Institute of Flamenco. Long recently built a tablao – an intimate flamenco performance space – inside Hotel Albuquerque. The hotel covered most of the construction costs, creating a world-class venue that the Albuquerque institute’s leaders say was greatly needed, but would likely have always been cost-prohibitive for the institute itself.
The institute is now hosting shows at the tablao four nights a week. The associated ticket, food and beverage sales have meant a new income stream for the organization, which shares the proceeds with the hotel. The venue also provides Albuquerque patrons with year-round access to flamenco and has more than doubled the number of performances the institute offers annually. It has also been a boon to the flamenco artists who perform there. Marisa Magallanez, director of development for the institute, said the organization is now spending about 40 percent more contracting with artists since the tablao debuted in June.
“I think for sure the institute would never have been able to create something of this scope without somebody like Jim as a partner,” she said.
Long said, when fully developed, the Sawmill District could mean 700 new jobs.
“I’m not sure there is quite a model for this. I think we’re going to create the model,” he said. “But it starts from the premise that we have enormous creative talent and artistic talent and musical talent and other unique talents here in Albuquerque and New Mexico we need to celebrate.”