ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The historic buildings of Denver’s Larimer Square were slated for demolition in the 1960s, to be replaced by high-rises and skyscrapers. Then an investor group bought several of the old warehouses, hotels and other architectural gems and began renovating.
Today, Larimer Square features lofts, restaurants, chic local shops, office buildings, and breweries. It is a destination for tourists and locals. It is an exciting, livable, walkable neighborhood in the shadow of towering office buildings.
Other nearby Denver neighborhoods caught the restoration bug so that irreplaceable housing and beautiful buildings today help define the city’s core.
Albuquerque went a different direction around the same time. We had interesting warehouses, banks, hotels and storefronts, too. Most of them were demolished and replaced with new buildings that range from boring to ghastly.
Urban planners tried to create a heart for this new version of Albuquerque and largely failed. The original Convention Center was poorly designed and inadequate to meet the demands of large conventions. Civic Plaza was not only hideous; it was impossible to survive a hot summer afternoon out there. It was designed for throngs of people, not for the friendly encounters that are still possible at Old Town Plaza or on a stroll in Nob Hill.
Former Mayor David Rusk, who recently told my colleague Ollie Reed that Albuquerque has long been a collection of suburbs in search of a city, made a good effort to use Civic Plaza with his Saturday night summer parties. The city still stages Shakespeare performances, shows movies, and presents concerts on the plaza.
The city has tried and, to some extent, has succeeded in bringing shade to the space, and it commissioned a study to find ways to improve the use of the plaza. But its ugliness, vastness and sun-baked concrete mean it will never be Albuquerque’s heart.
Some gems were rescued. The old Albuquerque High School was converted into lofts and helped revive the Huning Highland neighborhood east of Downtown. The First National Bank building was saved, though efforts to convert it to condos have been troubled. You can get an idea of what we lost if you look at the Verge building on Commercial NE and the Wool Warehouse on First Street, two rare survivors of urban renewal.
Albuquerque simply doesn’t have a heart, not in the way Santa Fe has its plaza or New York has Central Park. It does, however, have an artery – a string of intriguing neighborhoods along what John Steinbeck called the Mother Road: Route 66.
None of those neighborhoods by itself has the buzz, scale or diversity to be Albuquerque’s heart, but each is fun and fascinating in its own way, and most could benefit from some investment in infrastructure. Atrisco on the west side of the Rio Grande is a cluster of undiscovered eateries and stores that might make you think you’re in Mexico.
The International District hosts people from Central America, Asia and Cuba, among other places. Nob Hill has the cool shops and great pubs. The university area is always alive.
The challenge is helping people, both locals and tourists, find and experience these great places while, at the same time, increasing their appeal. Atrisco is dominated by huge, underused parking lots and strip malls. Long stretches of Route 66 are ugly and treeless. Some of them are dangerous.
The proposed Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus line is supposed to help meet that challenge. If it can be a mechanism to link these great, unique neighborhoods, collectively they could become Albuquerque’s heart.
Let us stipulate right here that there is no guarantee ART will succeed and that merchants who fear it will cost them their businesses may well be right.
At the same time, it is important to grasp that ART is not simply a replacement bus line. People whose sole objection to ART is that they can’t imagine anyone would want to ride a city bus are missing the point.
ART is an infrastructure improvement project that is supposed to make these Mother Road neighborhoods more attractive, more walkable, more welcoming. The hope is that public investment, much of it federal money, will encourage private investment of the type that found its way to Larimer Square.
We are seeing some of this investment right now. Jay Rembe is reviving what was a mostly dead zone between Downtown and Old Town. The Silverman family has built new retail space and housing on Silver Avenue and Fifth Street. The Bricklight project turned Harvard Drive near the university into a destination.
It’s hard to know whether ART will spur a revival, but since we passed on our chance to create our own Larimer Square, we have no choice but to find Albuquerque’s heart elsewhere, maybe even a heart that stretches for miles along the Mother Road.