Redevelopment in Nob Hill takes off, and ticks off some area residents
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, December 22, 2005
Nob Hill is waiting for something spectacular. Already one of Albuquerque's favorite shopping destination points (and many people's favorite living destination points), the corridor seems destined for bigger things. Like playing host to a light rail system that the city aims to plop down in coming years, or moving forward with more infill development, higher walkability and, therefore, more pedestrian traffic. In fact, running neck-and-neck only against East Downtown (EDo), Nob Hill has a chance to be the premiere location for new urbanism in the state. And it may all begin with The Place.
The Place in Nob Hill, that is, otherwise known as the old Baca site, where Baca's Mexican Kitchen resided for three decades before turning into a pizzeria, the nightclub D'Nile and then a big dirt lot. Positioned between Wellesley and Tulane on Central, that lot has been a bothersome site for years, an uncharacteristic eyesore in one of Albuquerque's prettier corridors. But now, the ol' dirt lot is moving up in the world—into a brand-new mixed-use development.
Despite the fairly unanimous sentiment among area residents that something should be done with the land, there are some in the neighborhood who are concerned about the way the project is designed, fearing it will do more harm to the neighborhood than good. Still, there are others who enthusiastically support the project, believing it will help boost the area both economically and socially. When it comes down to it, it's all a matter of context.
The Old Plan
Nob Hill stands out from much of the city mostly due to the way it's designed. Built in the typical Mainstreet fashion, it's defined by tall, skinny shops that come right up to the sidewalk, window glazing and on-street parking, which lend to its walkability. Nob Hill also happens to be one of the few areas in the city that has a sector plan—meaning that instead of using “straight zoning,” which lends itself to strip-malls and sprawl, there are certain building and design requirements that exist for Nob Hill. Most of these were set forth in the last sector plan for the area, finished in 1987.
Since then, a few things have changed. Interest in the neighborhood has recently piqued as talk of a light rail system has begun, and both the city and developers know that if Albuquerque is going to be able to get federal funding for such a project, and then make such a project successful, density needs to increase along Central. According to City Council President Martin Heinrich, who represents Nob Hill, the way to do that includes bringing more mixed-use development to the area, thereby raising the number of living spaces along Central as well as the number of people who would be motivated to use light rail on a regular basis.
But while going through the process of increasing density, Heinrich said he wanted to make sure that development was done tastefully, and in a way that respects the character of Nob Hill. After he discovered that current zoning requirements along the corridor would allow for buildings taller than he and other residents find appropriate (up to six stories in a layer-cake fashion), he decided, with support from many neighbors in the area, to revise Nob Hill's sector plan.
The New Plan
The work on the new Nob Hill Sector Development Plan began about a year ago, but it's still nowhere near completion. Heinrich estimated that the plan would take another year to finish. Until then, Heinrich worried that inappropriate building would begin in Nob Hill, and by the time the sector plan was finished it would be too late to prevent. So, with the support of many area residents, he introduced a bill to the Council that would put a moratorium on building permits in Nob Hill that didn't fall within certain height and design guidelines. The bill passed a year ago, and has now been extended twice, with the latest extension ending in June 2006. After that point, the moratorium will have lasted 18 months, and, according to Heinrich, can no longer be extended without risking lawsuits.
However, some neighbors who once supported the moratorium are now against it, claiming that the recent extension, passed by the Council on Dec. 5, has been modified to support the development for the old Baca site, a project they don't completely support. Ken Robey, David Kammer and Beth Silbergleit are the three most vocal opponents of the development as it is currently planned. They said with the passage of the moratorium, which would allow for the project, the character of their neighborhood is now at risk. They are also upset because there was minimal time for public comment on the bill. It was passed the same night it was introduced.
Indeed, a number of guidelines have changed in the extension. Where it used to state that a structure couldn't be built that was greater than 28 feet, or two stories, between Carlisle and Girard, and couldn't be higher than 42 feet, or three stories, between Carlisle and the east end of Nob Hill, it now states a maximum three-story requirement for all of Nob Hill. Many other design requirements are added as well, such as a maximum of 28 feet for structures that are adjacent to residential areas; requirements for door openings in buildings every 30 feet; and a number of requirements for storefronts.
Heinrich said the reason he passed the bill so quickly was because he was afraid a lapse in the moratorium would only lead to the issuance of inappropriate building permits. He said if the extension wasn't passed when it was, there would have been time for bad projects to sneak through. In terms of the changes to the recent extension, Heinrich said, “I'm trying to strike a balance between what the developers need to revitalize and what [needs to be in place to] make it compatible with neighborhood values. Some people don't want things to move forward at all—but I'm not okay with that.”
Heinrich said one of his biggest concerns through this process is the old Baca site, because redevelopment of this large piece of land could have a drastic impact on the neighborhood. By not allowing for good development now, he said, if the sector plan isn't completed in six months when the moratorium expires, bad development could go on the location instead. He said the previous moratorium was very limiting and would have prevented anything from being built on the site. “[On that amount of land], you can't finance two stories; it can't pay for itself. The cost of land, construction, steel, concrete—you need the square footage to make the money back.”
The Place in Nob Hill will take up one full city block, over an acre of land, and will boast 80,000 square feet. A mixed-use development featuring 30,000 square feet of shops on the ground floor and 26 two-story townhouses above, the building will be stepped to accommodate a better sight line, said Kino James of Maestas and Ward Commerical Real Estate, who is involved in the project. It is still unknown how many and which shops will go in, but James said they are looking to bring in eclectic specialty shops, such as jewelry and clothing stores. They are not looking to bring in any restaurants, he said. The stores will feature 14-foot ceilings and will have floor-to-ceiling windows.
The homes above will vary in size between 1,000 and 1,800 square feet, and will sell at approximately $250 a square foot, with balconies, wood floors stone countertops and 2 1/2 baths. The development will also have 93 underground parking spaces that will be accessed from the back, as well as a detached one-story parking garage that will border the adjacent neighborhood. Currently, construction is expected to begin in February or March and should take around a year to complete.
But Robey, Kammer and Silbergleit are less than pleased with the project. Also worried about increased side-street traffic in the neighborhood and noncommunity businesses coming in, the three said their biggest concern is that the new development isn't walkable or seamless with the surrounding neighborhood. They said they support development in the location, but would like to see it structured more like the Nob Hill Shopping Center, which can be accessed from all sides. “We're not anti-development,” said Kammer, “we want the right kind of development. Nob Hill is an area that's already well-defined. This project is inconsistent with its character.”
Still, other residents support the project. Garrett Sholer, who owns four houses on Wellesley, behind where the development will be, said he can't wait for it to be built. Sholer, who works in investment and infill development and who's been remodeling homes for 14 years, said he thinks the project will greatly benefit the area by increasing property values and bringing more foot traffic to local businesses.
Heinrich is also optimistic. “This is a pretty catalytic revitalization,” he said, adding that he thinks the new residents it will bring to the Central corridor will lower crimes rates. Heinrich also said the project has had a good relationship with the community and has taken public comment into consideration, and will continue to do so. “I still consider this project to be in flux—I've asked them for changes [that they made], and I've asked them to have a long-term dialogue with the neighborhood.”