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Council Votes to Buy Osuna Site

By Rory McClannahan
Journal Staff Writer
    Balloons carried the day Wednesday with the Albuquerque City Council.
    Councilors voted unanimously to move forward to buy a 22-acre tract on Osuna NE where Wal-Mart has plans to build a 126,000-square-foot Supercenter.
    Councilor Debbie O'Malley introduced the resolution for immediate action Wednesday evening to dedicate $6.1 million in Balloon Fiesta Park and Open Space acquisition bond money to buy the site. The resolution gives the mayor the authority to negotiate with the property owner or to condemn the land.
    "It feels pretty good right now," said Rod Crawley, president of the Vista del Norte Alliance neighborhood group. "But I know it's not over yet."
    About 20 residents from the neighborhood commented during the meeting. Many were concerned about a large retail store moving into their neighborhood and its impact on traffic, safety and other problems.
    Councilors, however, said they were swayed by arguments that the parcel needs to be preserved as a landing space for hot-air balloons, especially during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta held here each fall.
    Councilor Ken Sanchez said he is concerned about taking money from Open Space bond funds to buy the parcel when the city has not been able to buy other tracts on the West Side. In the end, though, he said the balloon fiesta is much too important to the city and state.
    "It's too bad the city didn't go after this land sooner," Sanchez said. "The longer we wait, the more expensive it will become."
    According to Bernalillo County Assessor records, the tract is valued at $3.6 million. Wal-Mart officials have pointed out that condemnation laws do not limit the value of a property to the assessor's value, but to the best use value. That could increase the cost of the property, Wal-Mart officials have said.
    O'Malley said she put $6.1 million into the resolution in order to give the city some flexibility in negotiating for the property, which is owned by Vista del Norte Development LLC., a subsidiary of Sundt Corp., an Arizona-based development company. Sundt officials have said they have a contract with Wal-Mart which Sundt intends to honor.
    Wal-Mart officials said late Wednesday the company would be moving forward with its plans.
    Delia Garcia, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the company is following all regulations laid out by the city for a commercial development. She pointed out zoning on the tract allows for a large store.
    The city's Environmental Planning Commission will consider the site plan on May 17.
    "We will continue to engage the community," Garcia said. "We know there are people who oppose this. But we believe it is a balanced development."
    Mayor Martin Chávez said last week he would support buying the land, but was opposed to taking $4.45 million from balloon park bond funds. He had said the balloon park bonds, which were approved by voters in 2005, should be used on balloon park improvements.
    Chávez could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
    O'Malley said during the meeting that the scope of the bonds allows for land acquisition. She said money could be found elsewhere in city budgets to replace what would come from the fiesta funds.
    Last May, Wal-Mart had proposed to build a 184,000-square-foot Supercenter on the property and a second retail pad site of about 4,000 square feet. At Wal-Mart's request the plan has been deferred several times to try to work out a compromise with neighbors who oppose the development.
    Wal-Mart recently reduced the planned size of the store to 126,000 square feet and added three retail pad sites totaling more than 34,000 square feet. The company said it also would set aside 3.8 acres for three years to give the city or a neighborhood group the opportunity to buy it for a park.
    Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta officials and balloon pilots have come out in support of the city buying the tract. Gary Bennett, president of the fiesta's board of directors, said Wednesday that more than 70 percent of the balloons at the fiesta fly over the Vista del Norte site, and more than half land there.
    "It's an important parcel to pilots and to the balloon fiesta," Bennett said.
    Garcia said the Vista del Norte site is one of many landing sites the city is looking at and that it isn't as important as balloon people make it out to be.
    "If this site is developed, it would not mark the end of the balloon fiesta. There are many other sites available for balloon landings," she said.
    Bennett acknowledged that there are other locations that need to be acquired for landing sites, but the Vista del Norte site is special because it lies in the flight path of many balloons taking off.
    Although the council voted unanimously for the resolution, several expressed concern with the message it sends.
    Councilor Craig Loy said taking over the land could set a bad precedent and wondered what would happen the next time a neighborhood has a problem with a retail development.
    "I don't believe this location is ideal for a Wal-Mart, but I do have concerns about preserving private property rights," Loy said.