• Whimsy and fun are key to success of downtown areas, author tells KiMo audience
  • Keller: Despite problems, 'the good news is we still have a Downtown to work on'
  • What is the value of Downtown? A city-commissioned study has some thoughts.
Whimsy and fun are key to success of downtown areas, author tells KiMo audience
Unexpected things like tiny bronze mice can make cities safer and more vibrant, he argues. @stephen_dysert via Visit Greenville
For Greenville, South Carolina high school student Jim Ryan, it all began with the classic children's book "Good Night Moon."

The book features no less than nine cameos by tiny mice (example), so Ryan thought it would be fun to install nine small mice sculptures in unusual locations along the main street there. So he found money for it and with the mayor's encouragement soon started working with a sculptor to make it happen.

But the mice are not always in obvious places, so the process of finding them has become a self-guided scavenger hunt that seems to delight the younger set and tourism promoters alike. It even inspired another children's book.

This is a great example, author Peter Kageyama told a crowd of several hundred at the KiMo Theatre last week, of how fun and whimsy can cause people to truly fall in love with cities, something that can be critical to promoting both civic engagement, tourism, and ultimately healthier communities. He also pointed to a giant statue of a blue bear in Denver, a comically tiny park in Portland, and giant inflatable tentacles arranged in Iowa buildings to give the impression that a monster is inside as examples of "love notes" residents write to their cities. 

"These small things absolutely do matter," Kageyama said. "We all kind of have to give a damn for this thing to work."

It's not enough for cities to be basically functional and meet every problem with a "merely technically sufficient solution," he continued, offering the example of pothole repair as something that is important but unlikely to tug at civic heart strings. 

"There is no love for fixing potholes," he said.
Author Peter Kageyama, speaking last week.
Having spent a couple of days in Greater Downtown last week, Kageyama complimented some of our own touches of love and whimsy, including the mural of Maclovia Zamora at the former B. Ruppe Drugs (Fourth and Hazeldine), and the Ironman statue that is posted at Fourth and Lomas, something he said has also likely increased security in the area in much the same way that the installation of a large troll sculpture under a bridge in Seattle has helped safety there.

Though he faulted a relative lack of greenspace Downtown, he is a fan of our old buildings, particularly the Rail Yards and the Occidental Life Building, arguing that they too represent "love notes" that have the effect of developing emotional connections between residents and the city.

While some fun and whimsical projects may originate with the "top-down leadership" of local government - Kageyama cited the Rail Trail in particular as a worthy endeavor - many others come from active locals who don't fit onto any formal org chart, a group of people he dubbed "co-creators."

"They come up with some wildly different stuff," he said. "The co-creators do not look at the problems in the same way."

Kageyama concluded with a call to action: Particularly as the pandemic recedes, he said, "people are going to need a way to connect with other people." For anyone with a crazy notion of how to make that happen, "now is the time to maybe revisit that."
Keller: Despite problems, 'the good news is we still have a Downtown to work on'
Mayor Tim Keller was one of several speakers preceding Peter Kageyama at last Wednesday's KiMo event, and he took the opportunity to lay out where he thinks things stand in the area. He also tipped a forthcoming Downtown-focused city initiative that other officials have been hinting at (DAN, 5/27/22) and that last week's event, as well as a recent report on the value of Downtown discussed in an article below, seems to be a part of.

Keller covered a lot of ground, so here's a partial transcript, edited for brevity and clarity:

Great to see everyone here. And wonderful to sort of reinvigorate our discussions about Albuquerque's Downtown.

We do love our city. Sometimes it's that sort of family-type love where you get in arguments, or maybe sometimes you're like "actually, I really wish we weren't at the same dinner table tonight." We know we've got challenges. Sometimes they're very deeply rooted, and sometimes they're modern incarnations. We have both of those - layers upon layers of history and of people and of culture in Albuquerque. That's who we are. And we love who we are, even if there are parts of us that we want to change, parts of us that we need to work on and help out a little bit. That's how I view Downtown.

I remember in my own lifetime not really appreciating the fact that Downtown was New Town. There was Old Town, and that was Downtown until the railroad came and then all of a sudden this new area of the city grew up and became what now we call Downtown.

Why were those tracks there? Just as a quick homage: Part of that was because the Camino Real ran right through here, because it was a clear passage and following so close to the river.

Then we had Route 66 - the mother road comes through at the turn of the century. And of course, that creates our main street that creates sort of the modern incarnation of Downtown beyond just the railroad station. Now in that era, of course, there was all sorts of vibrancy, and some folks who've been here might remember this, but you know, I always heard stories of department stores Downtown. We never had that in my lifetime. But I want to let you know, this was a strong vibrant Downtown as it was in many places in America, really up until the 80s. (I actually do remember the 80s.)

And I will tell you, I remember being afraid to go Downtown. I remember also loving Downtown in high school when I could go to the bars, even though I wasn't 21 - Downtown has also been a lot of fun for a long time.

And I also remember the 90s. I went away to college, so I came back for Christmas, and I went to meet my high school friends and college friends in Downtown Albuquerque at Anodyne, which is still there. And I felt like, "Wow, this town is incredible. The streets are filled with partiers at 1 a.m."

We had that era, going sort of 1999ish to the year 2010. And we were very fortunate. We had, frankly, some visionaries at the city as employees. We had mayors who believed in Downtown - emphasis on plural mayors. We had city councilors who believed in Downtown and made a general city consensus that we had to invest in Downtown.

That era is what created the Downtown that you see now, which is the redone Alvarado Transportation Center - which none of us think of as redone because this was 30 years ago. But I remember when that was redone. I remember when the movie theater came, of course it's now closed. But I remember also when we invested in all of the built environment around there. And reinvested in buying things like this theater, the KiMo.

So I just wanted to acknowledge that that era, I think, saved Downtown in Albuquerque. So for those of you who were a part of it, or those of you who weren't, if we had not made those investments, back in that era, we would have nothing almost to build from. Downtown truly would have died.

But we did that. And of course somewhere in that era too was the last two new skyscrapers. We got the two pyramid buildings. That era saved Downtown and we actually traded on that for a good 20 years. Even though Downtown needed help, it was safer. It had at least minimum levels of activity, whether it's hotel rooms, the convention center, and all of these things. And we've been able to keep Downtown alive. That is a good thing.

And so I want to acknowledge kind of where we're at now. Again, we'll talk about some of the problems. But the good news is we still have a Downtown to work on. And a lot of cities lost theirs. Ours is still alive. And if it's Art Walk on Fridays, I encourage you to see that, or if it's joining me for a heavy metal concert - our Downtown is vibrant. It's got its challenges, but I will tell you, it comes alive, just like other downtowns. And it comes alive in a way that I think in many ways - not in every way - but in many ways, does compete with Austin and with Denver and with other cities.

The question is, how do we make that accessible regularly? And how do we make it the centerpiece of the city, the state's largest city, the largest city in 1,000 square miles. And of course, that heartbeat in that radius is our Downtown.

Now, of course, we're coming on the heels of the pandemic. Look, downtowns are once again being crushed all over the country, because of work-from-home or because of wider workspaces - all of these issues that are facing Downtown. So now we actually have a sort of a new challenge that is paired with a new opportunity. Because as troubled as downtowns are with office spaces and high-rise condominiums and high-rise workplaces, we do know that we're in a much better place than all our neighbors, for the first time in a long time.

Compared to Phoenix, Denver, and Austin, all of a sudden, we do have spaces available. Yes, prices are on the rise, but they're nothing like those cities. We also know we don't have the traffic issues that they have. And we also know that because of our city and the way it's built, you can also leave Downtown and recreate in the bosque within 10 minutes. And that's something that those other downtowns desperately struggle with.

So we're actually sitting in a really good place. We have enough to build on. All of a sudden, we have a competitive advantage we didn't have pre-pandemic compared to these other cities.

That's why we're convening together. This is part of a broader initiative over the spring and summer for a community opportunity to think about what we can do to lift up our Downtown. The city is working on this. We want everyone who cares - not just lives - everyone cares about Downtown to participate in that process.

What we're going to be doing over the next few weeks is we're going to roll out a series of ideas. They're just starting places, and they're things like, "Okay, what do we actually do about public safety Downtown?" And how do we actually make sure that we're not just enforcing the most minimum things - like how we can't have shootings and military-grade weapons Downtown. How do we actually make sure that we're not having stolen cars, that we're not having drive-bys? But also, how do we make sure that we celebrate cruising culture, because that is part of who we are. And it's part of what we love.

So we're going to be rolling out ideas around this, and we want your feedback. We want your input on how to balance these issues out.

Similarly, around homelessness, and even vacant buildings, we're going to say, well, how can we make sure to maintain our historic culture and our historic buildings and make sure that we're not tearing them down and we're not gentrifying. We don't want to do that. But we do want to make sure that the Gizmo Building isn't empty for another 20 years, right? And we want to make sure that we have somewhere to take homeless folks or a place where homeless folks can get help that is 24/7, which is what the Gateway Center is all about. We have to have that. It's related to Downtown because a lot of the services are nearby. So until we have services in a way that works for everyone - the right kind of service at the right time - there's nowhere else for people to go.

We're going to try and do our part as the city. We're going to keep pushing forward. And so stay tuned for more about how to move Albuquerque Downtown forward.
What is the value of Downtown? A city-commissioned study has some thoughts.
The Downtown core may be less than 1 percent of Albuquerque's land area, but it punches above its weight in terms of economic and psychic importance. It has six percent of the city's jobs, 22 percent of the "creative" jobs, and features property that is far more valuable than the rest of the city and far more likely to generate retail sales. Its population, meanwhile, has increased 60 percent in the last decade to 1,316, a dramatic jump even if it is from a low baseline. (The boundary used there is a rather small census tract.) The residents are also far more likely to use transit than in other parts of town. 

Those are just some of the conclusions in a sprawling study and report called "Calculating the Value of Downtown Albuquerque" that the city released recently. The full report can be read here, and a YouTube recording of a webinar presentation on the study is here.
Downtown Albuquerque News covers Downtown, Old Town, and surrounding neighborhoods. 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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