• Heritage is pursuing a new hotel and two new apartment complexes in Sawmill
  • Main Library faces a tough recovery from the pandemic, but also from the internet age
  • Last chance for the $10 billion brainstorm
Heritage is pursuing a new hotel and two new apartment complexes in Sawmill
The company hopes to begin construction on all three next year.
Heritage Hotels and Resorts, the company behind Hotel Albuquerque, Hotel Chaco, and the Sawmill Market, plans to build two new apartment complexes and a new hotel in what would be a major new set of developments in an already-booming Sawmill neighborhood.

The apartment complexes, which combined would add an estimated 220 market-rate units to the area, are to be located on the southeast corner of Bellamah and Twentieth. Some 100 of them would come fully furnished and targeted at short-to-medium-term renters, with the rest designed for traditional long-term leases, possibly up to ten years in length, Heritage CEO Jim Long told a gathering last week at which he gave a first look at the projects.

The 120-room boutique hotel, located just west of the Sawmill Market, would take on a different vibe in its architectural style and decor than Hotel Chaco: "This will be a little bit louder, a little bit more interesting," Long said.

All three structures would feature ground-floor retail - but no national brands - and "self-contained" parking lots or structures that would not border the street, he added.

The past two years have not been kind to the hospitality and tourism business, but Long is clearly bullish on the Old Town and Sawmill area. He said that Hotel Chaco, which opened in 2017, "has become very successful," and that Sawmill Market, which opened just a few days before the 2020 lockdown began, has been "a really fantastic addition to the district."

"This is the place people want to be," he said. "They want to experience Old Town."

The plan is to begin construction of all three buildings during the first half of 2023, staggering the groundbreakings into two-month intervals. Each is expected to take two years to build. The businesses that presently occupy the apartment complex construction zone - Mama's Minerals and Spur Line Supply Co. - will be moved to other spaces for the duration, Long said.

Heritage is requesting a zone change for all three properties, a process that would involve a public hearing at the city's Environmental Planning Commission. There, it will have to prove that "the requested zoning does not include permissive uses that would be harmful to adjacent property, the neighborhood, or the community," among many other criteria. Separately, it will request a variance to allow some of the building's facades to come closer to the street than is normally permitted.

If the projects attract any opposition, it could well center around traffic, parking, and noise. Neighbors, particularly in the small residential area wedged between I-40 and Zearing Avenue, have previously complained about Sawmill Market customers parking along streets there and have argued that generally increased traffic has hindered their access to Rio Grande. Following complaints from residents, the city also last year investigated Sawmill Market for possible noise violations stemming from live music performances there (DAN, 11/22/21).

But Heritage also boasts many friends - particularly among the entrepreneurs who now call the Sawmill Market home - who could be called upon to testify in favor of the expansion.

"It's given a platform to all of these wonderful artisans," HAWT Pizza Co. owner Felicia Meyer told last week's meeting (she is also the proprietor of Thicc Pizza Co., located at the 505 Central Food Hall). "It's a magical thing for us."

The Sawmill and Old Town area has in recent years become a vortex of Greater Downtown development. Besides the Heritage properties, which also include the building that is presently home to the immersive Van Gogh exhibit, new buildings have gone up nearby for Tierra Adentro of New Mexico, a charter school, and the National Insitute of Flamenco. 516 Arts and Outpost Performance Space are well on their way to meeting fundraising goals for a major new arts center at Bellamah and Eighteenth (DAN, 8/30/21). Explora is pursuing a new pre-school even as it finishes up with its teen center. And in Old Town, two new wine tasting operations and two taprooms have opened in the last year.

Main Library faces a tough recovery from the pandemic, but also from the internet age
Two years and counting into the COVID era, the Main Library is still struggling to recover its pre-pandemic level of patronage and trails behind the rebound pace set by more far-flung library branches. It's a new twist in an ongoing identity crisis that libraries have been having for decades as they attempt to reinvent themselves in the digital age.

The numbers from January and February tell the story: At Main, patron visits were 41.4 percent of what they were in those same months in 2019, with checkouts at 39.6 percent. But at the Taylor Ranch Library, those figures are 17 and 26 percentage points higher, respectively, relative to 2019. At Juan Tabo, patron visits are back to a whopping 70.8 percent of 2019 levels, with checkouts there at 55 percent, 15 points higher than Main.

To be sure, these are unsettled times for libraries and the statistics that come out of them, but while the situation may change, this much at least is clear: Main Library is facing a unique set of challenges tied to its Downtown location. 

One reason is that commuters are one of the library's principal constituencies, library system director Dean Smith told DAN. While there isn't much in the way of hard data on local changes to remote and in-person work habits, it's plain enough that employees have not so far flocked back to the office at pre-virus levels. Others are returning only a few days per week.

The other main group of patrons, however, is still at least physically nearby, and Smith is counting on them.

"The Downtown neighborhood is just a block away," he said. "We have something that a lot of main libraries don't have: a true thriving community."

When the pandemic wanes, Smith said he hopes "we'll be pleasantly inundated by people returning, and maybe even more, because we're all feeling cooped up," but he conceded that producing this effect may also take some encouragement and marketing. 

Attendance at Main Library programs has increased recently, he said, and the library's café, Al's Big Dipper, has had a few days of customer counts at pre-COVID levels. 

As for the return-rate difference between the Main Library and the outer branches, "that kind of shift in our statistics we don't worry about too much," he said. "You get that kind of shift from year to year."

Long term, Smith is betting on the health of Bernalillo County's flagship library and the health of Greater Downtown, on which it depends.

"The Downtown's expanding, and I think it will continue," he said. "Certainly the Downtown neighborhood is still a very desirable place to live."

But if it turns out that working remotely - if only part of the time - becomes the norm and a much-anticipated residential boom (DAN, 12/9/21) doesn't pan out, the question of what to do with the Main Library's large building will become another new challenge for the system.

When the current library opened in 1975, it was intended as a public research facility for the county on par with a community college library, Smith said. But thanks to the internet, and a new era in which encyclopedias and almanacs are no longer printed, fewer researchers actually need it.

The Main Library still attracts genealogy researchers, Smith said, because a significant amount of ancestry data still can be found only in physical form and because the researchers often work together to help each other through research roadblocks. The library's second-floor newspaper microfilm collection also still brings in researchers who run into gaps in online digitized collections. Other digital references are only available for free at library computers.

Younger generations may also be a source of continued relevance for libraries: A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that millennials aged 18 through 35 used them at a higher rate than any other cohort of adults. The same study found that following a small decline in book reading around 2011 and 2012, the percentage of Americans who reported having read a book in any form in the previous year remained steady at around 74 percent. 

Book sales during the 2021 pandemic year also increased 8.9 percent. While that fits into the larger pandemic-era rise in at-home entertainment, devoted readers may still find it encouraging that the book category with the largest sales increase was young adult fiction, which went up just over 30 percent.

—By David Lee

Last chance for the $10 billion brainstorm
We've received a healthy batch of responses to our question of what your agenda would be if you had the consolidated powers of the mayor and City Council, a mandate to improve Downtown, Old Town, and surrounding neighborhoods, and a $10 billion budget. There's still time to send in your ideas, but we're setting the deadline for tomorrow at the close of business, so don't hesitate for too long. There's no shortage of problems to solve out there, and for this kind of money, your flexibility in solving them is practically limitless.

Happy pondering...
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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