Proposals would smooth path for formal homeless encampments, sometimes avoiding public hearing

The city's annual land-use rules update goes down to the wire

Other amendments would streamline process for turning motels into affordable housing, reduce parking requirements at apartment complexes, and ban townhome construction near ART stations
Albuquerque’s annual process of updating its land use rules is fast coming to a head and some of the changes could have a notable impact on Greater Downtown. Homelessness in particular is the focus of two very recent proposals from city councilors detailed below, but other changes - like a ban on cannabis businesses in Old Town - are still headed toward the finish line as part of the larger package. A City Council committee will take up these and many other changes for a second time later this week (details). From there, it heads to the full council and then to the mayor.

Here’s an eleventh-hour synopsis of the state-of-play:

Proposal would smooth path for formal homeless encampments
Campgrounds would become easier to set up in Albuquerque under two proposals either sponsored or cosponsored by City Councilor Issac Benton.

Under his "temporary campground" proposal, short-term encampments would be permitted outright in an array of mixed-use and non-residential zones, including broad swaths of Wells Park and Martineztown, as well as parts of Barelas and South Broadway, and areas along Central. (A city zoning map is here.) The city could renew that one-year permit once, after which the camp would have to close for at least six months. Either a caretaker living on-site or a security company contracted to respond around the clock would be required for each campground, but the provision of social services would not be required. 

The facilities could be established at locations that are only temporarily available, such as vacant land awaiting future development, or by churches not wanting to make a permanent commitment, Benton told DAN.

"They might want to put up a handful of tents and operate it on a temporary basis, depending on their congregational needs and their parking lot, for instance," he said.

Benton's other proposal, cosponsored with councilors Trudy Jones and Brook Bassan, would allow for a new type of permanent campground, taking inspiration from an operation in Las Cruces called Hope Village (DAN, 3/20/20). In some zones generally but not exclusively near residential areas, the campgrounds would require a conditional use permit, which involves a public hearing and gives neighbors some measure of influence over whether the project goes forward. But in other zones, including much of Wells Park and Martineztown, they would be permitted outright. (Here's the link to that city zoning map again.)

The permanent sites would be limited to 40 individual spots rather than the temporary campgrounds' limit of 25 per acre. A manager and an assistant manager would have to live on-site and social services would have to be provided. Toilet and handwashing facilities would be required in both types of encampment, as would opaque walls or fencing.

The temporary campgrounds would have to be located at least 25 feet from neighboring low-density residential development, and the permanent operations would have to be located at least 330 feet away.

Neither of the proposals specifies who could establish either type of campground. Benton said he is aware of someone in Greater Downtown interested in setting up an encampment of about a dozen individual sites, but he declined to say who.

A third and older encampment idea involving religious institutions will join Benton's proposals on the March 30 agenda, having emerged last year (DAN, 1/13/22) in the early stages of the annual update process. The encampments under that proposal would have to be operated by the religious institutions hosting them and would be considered permanent, and the number of individual campsites would not be limited.

By allowing more primitive kitchens, converting old motels to affordable housing could get easier
Between expensive appliances, extra plumbing connections, and special electrical requirements, a kitchen can be a very expensive component of a new or remodeled apartment - and a particularly tricky fit if you're trying to renovate a motel room or other non-residential building into an apartment.

Under a proposal from Councilor Tammy Fiebelkorn, however, that process could get easier and cheaper. In a nutshell, her idea is to allow a microwave or hotplate and mini-fridge to stand in for the full kitchen that is normally required in apartments.

The rule would apply to housing developments of up to 100 units, but only if the city's Family and Community Services Department - a major provider of homeless services - was doing the financing. Projects also would have to employ staffers for organizing community events and helping residents access support services and transportation.

Councilor Isaac Benton said he is "very much in support" of the conversion proposal, adding that "we can simplify our zoning codes to the greatest extent possible to facilitate building."

County Commissioner Debbie O'Malley, who represents much of greater Downtown north of Central and was a driving force behind the tiny homes project near Zuni and Wyoming, attended last week's hearing and lent her support to the measure as well: "You hope that it doesn't become years and years, that this isn't a final place for people to live, but it's one of the more efficient ways to address homelessness and get families in safe, secure housing."

Though the motivation behind the proposal is clearly related to government-sponsored anti-homelessness measures, the private sector seems interested as well.

Josh Rogers, a senior vice president at Titan Development, supported expanding the proposal to also cover privately-financed projects, saying "it's really the only way that developers can provide low-income housing without having to go through government tax credits."

"I think there's a place for that," Benton told DAN. "We need all hands on deck. We need the private sector developing housing as well to keep our city affordable for young people and working people."

Benton said he's not aware of any buildings in Greater Downtown being considered by the city for residential conversion but "that's not to say there aren't opportunities."

Townhome ban would apply near ART stations
In a bid to bolster existing city policies that promote dense development at major transit hubs, another Issac Benton proposal would prohibit the construction of townhomes near ART stations, including the eight located in Greater Downtown.

The proposal would ban structures within 660 feet of the stations, known as "premium transit areas" because they offer bus service on at least a 15-minute frequency.

While much of the land around Greater Downtown ART stations is already developed, there are some vacant parcels or surface parking lots around the EDo, Downtown, Main Library, Barelas, West Downtown, and Old Town stations.

The proposal drew a critique from Titan's Josh Rogers: "While this is well-intended in order to increase density along major transit corridors, which I applaud, I don't think the city really needs to go this far," he said.

What are the odds any of the above will become law?
Benton rates the odds of passage as "pretty good ... I think there's a lot of support on this council."

From a Westside councilor, the possibility of reduced parking requirements
Under a measure advanced by Councilor Dan Lewis, parking space requirements would be slightly reduced for multi-family housing and retail stores. The requirement for housing would go from 1.5 spaces per dwelling unit to 1 space for a studio, 1.2 spaces for a one-bedroom, 1.5 spaces for a two-bedroom, and 1.8 spaces for three or more bedrooms.

City staff research findings accompanying Lewis' proposal said that an investigation of three local apartment complexes found that each has more parking than it needs, even when guest parking is considered, and that this unnecessarily increases the heat island effect. During the public comment period, several members of the development community agreed.

Old Town cannabis ban again draws no opposition
The idea of permanently banning cannabis businesses from Old Town certainly has its critics (DAN, 10/18/21), but they have yet to show up at a meeting to make their views heard. Two Old Town residents, however, spoke in favor of the idea at last week's meeting. The measure is on track to to head to the full council.

—By David Lee
Downtown Albuquerque News covers Greater Downtown, which we generally define as the area surrounded by I-40, the Rio Grande, Av. César Chávez, and I-25. We publish weekdays except for federal holidays. If someone forwarded DAN to you, please consider subscribing. To subscribe, contact us, submit a letter to the editor, or learn more about what we do, click here. If you ever run into technical trouble receiving DAN, click here.
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