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The state of the Downtown core: The patient has stabilized a bit. Is tangible improvement next?

Year in review: Big ideas for revitalization have come to the forefront at least, but there's a long way to go

ALSO: Costumes, selfies, paint, and other favorite images from 2022
Down but not out.
The year 2020 in the Downtown core could probably be fairly summed up as a dumpster fire. The commuters stayed home, the hospitality and entertainment venues shut down or barely limped along, and the only major gatherings to speak of were a series of protest marches following the death of George Floyd - one of which evolved into a horrible night of civil unrest that turned several blocks of the Central streetscape into a mass of broken windows and graffiti. A few people even broke into the KiMo Theatre and were fixing to burn the place down before being driven away, police said. Plywood window coverings - later dressed up with murals - were a common sight for months afterward.

From that low bar, 2021 got better. More businesses opened back up and others enjoyed the increased flexibility that the ever-changing COVID restrictions allowed. First Fridays became a major social occasion - almost a street carnival - particularly before the bars and nightclubs reopened. 

But 2021 wasn't exactly a banner year for the core either. Thousands of commuters and conventioneers were still staying away. And while nobody tried to burn down the KiMo, other high-profile incidents gave off the distinct impression that things were coming apart at the seams. One person was caught on camera firing a large gun from a moving car on Central, while another shot up the windows on Bernalillo County's new headquarters building. The regular Sunday cruise night - once a family-friendly occasion that paid special attention to highly stylized lowriders - became rougher, louder, more lawless, and no longer confined to Sundays.

If the situation wasn't a dumpster fire per se, it was at least still a dumpster.

So what's to make of 2022? On one hand, there was still plenty of bad news to go around. As of May, those conventions and meetings that could in the Before Times be counted on to bring in a steady stream of lanyard-wearing out-of-towners with money in their pockets were making a painfully slow recovery - about fifty percent of 2019 levels. Remote or hybrid work didn't magically go away either and now seems to be a permanent feature of American life, so even though Downtown office occupancy rates are pretty much what they were before the pandemic, fewer people are ducking out for lunch at a restaurant or to run errands on any given day. Few were satisfied with the Downtown core's bustle factor before the pandemic, but from today's perspective it would be an improvement.

Crime is still a big problem, especially at night. Data analysis from July showed that fully 79 percent of reports of shootings and 87 percent of DUIs happen in the 12-hour period between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., and there's evidence that the trouble is concentrated on weekends. Even during the day, as we learned in February, merchants have been dealing with some of the most acute security challenges they've ever seen.

And within the box created by Copper, Eighth, Gold, and the railroad tracks, there had been five homicides this year through last week, including two at parking areas. There were four in 2021. In all of 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, that same area saw just three.

And adding insult to injury, the Space Valley Center, a second major attempt to do something with the parking lot just north of Civic Plaza, ended in defeat due to a lack of federal funding.

But there was more to 2022 in the Downtown core than moaning and gnashing of teeth. The year also featured some possible green shoots, some big money for infrastructure, and some big plans that could over time dramatically change the equation.

Taking advantage of city incentives, 15 new storefront businesses opened up or expanded - everything from the administrative offices of Electric Playhouse to hospitality venues like Echoes, the new brewery near Gold and Fourth, its next door neighbor Wing it Up, and a gift shop on Second and Coal called Flyby Provisions. The Hotel Andaluz, meanwhile, has a new owner that is critical of the security situation in the core but has nonetheless bet heavily that it's a decent-enough place to do business.

In construction news, the long-vacant former convent at Seventh and Copper is slated to become an apartment complex - a project that broke ground this year. The townhomes Homewise is building at Second and Silver look very close to finishing up. The Hotel Blue's renovation project also broke ground, then appeared to stop, with a representative telling DAN in October that it'll be another year's delay into 2024 for the ribbon cutting.

On the criminal justice front, the city center now features several cameras that are wired directly to police, plus a series of signs alerting would-be troublemakers to their presence. The policing-by-donation program called Downtown TEAM was controversial when it debuted over the summer and slow to get off the ground, but it did eventually start adding a bit of extra enforcement oomph by September. And the long-heralded police substation opened up in the Rosenwald Building at Fourth and Central.

Welcome though they may be, however, those sorts of improvements are unlikely to serve as the game-changers that will get the core out of its purgatory - a place where it is lauded for its "potential" by weary fans and ignored by most everyone else. It will take bigger and more dramatic action, the experts say, and assuming a massive sudden reduction in crime and homelessness is not a near-term possibility, that leaves three main options. 

The first of those is the Garcia family (of Garcia Automotive fame) somehow revving up its extensive property holdings in the area and in so doing making a convincing case that riches will accrue to those that follow their lead. They are the core's most talked about developers because they appear to have the potential to create their own economic weather and a genuine desire to make Downtown a better place. But they are also among the least talkative developers on the scene, so not much is known about their grand plans. This year they showed signs of opening a new distillery/winery operation on Commercial Street (near the new Marquette rail crossing that also opened this year), but there wasn't much apparent action across the rest of their extensive Downtown portfolio, which includes the former Skip Maisel's Indian Jewelry, the Rosenwald Building, First Plaza, and the future Neon Park on Lomas.  

The second big possibility surrounds the Rail Trail, a project that reeled in over $30 million in funding this year and promises to become a more visible presence soon. The trail is the sort of project, as we learned in January, that has spurred on all sorts of knock-on investment in other cities. Thanks to all that funding, we ought to know within a few years if the same trick is going to work here.

Then there were the plans. Lots and lots of plans.

Some of them seem just about ready to come to fruition. For years now when he has been asked about homelessness, Mayor Tim Keller has pointed to the forthcoming Gateway Center, a comprehensive shelter and services hub on Gibson, as the thing that will finally turn the tables on the problem. It is slated to come online in a matter of weeks, at first with 50 beds reserved for women, then with more capacity coming in phases next year. 

Other plans are barely off the drawing board, as with Housing Forward ABQ, Keller's plan to add 5,000 new units to the city by 2025. While more duplexes and casitas - one part of the proposal the City Council is presently entertaining - might potentially lead to a few more customers moving into the area, the bigger headline for the city center is probably the part that would spend $5 million on the conversion of commercial and office buildings to housing. Keller has in recent weeks singled out Downtown as an obvious candidate for some of that cash, but for the time being that's about where the details end.

The marquee Downtown Forward Plan (there is also a transit initiative that uses "forward" prominently) falls somewhere in between. Part of it is those storefront grants that are already out the door, plus the TEAM policing effort that has already started. Other bits are not exactly Downtown centric, such as new electric buses and zero fares, or have been in the works or deployed for years, such as the new police substation or gunshot detection technology.

And then there is the not-very-prominent-yet-possibly-revolutionary idea of creating some flavor of financing district to subsidize future development, public works, beautification, cleaning, and countless other projects. These sorts of districts, and their alphabet soup of acronyms (TIDD, BID, PID, etc.), are certainly not the stuff of blaring headlines, but they should also not be underestimated. If one is created for Downtown, its impact could dwarf the game-changing potential of the Garcia family and the Rail Trail's coattails put together. 

Consider: In the last year or so, the city has used just under $3 million to bring 15 storefronts back to life and beat a soft path for roughly 200 new market-rate housing units, most of which would be at the Downtowner, a project by developer Jay Rembe on Silver between First and Second slated to break ground next year. Now imagine if the budget for such things was closer to $10 million per year. Or $20 million. For a couple of decades.

Depending on the dry legal mechanics of the district, the exact borders, whether Downtown property owners can be brought along, and whether the state legislature cooperates, that sort of heft is not actually out of the question. 2022 raised the possibility, and 2023 will bring with it a chance for Downtown's political and business leaders to stand and deliver.

Such districts have utterly transformed the urban cores of other cities, and as we learned in a two-part series in August (here and here), Las Cruces is one of them. 

Following the spectacular failure of an urban renewal effort that turned Main Street into a pedestrian mall nicknamed the "toaster oven" for its heat-trapping metal roof, Downtown Las Cruces spent the better part of 40 years in a kind of dreary suspended animation. There was much talk over those years of revitalization, and a few failed attempts to get the politics and the money right.

But it eventually came together with a big assist from a tax increment development district, which got rid of the roof, turned Main Street into an attractive and walkable place, spruced up a few prominent properties including a historic theater just a year older than the KiMo, and built a now-popular plaza. The area continues to attract considerable new investment.

"It takes time, but we can see it happening," longtime Downtown Las Cruces business owner Mike White told DAN. "The community needed a gathering place. We have it again ... if we can do it in Las Cruces, you can sure as hell do it there."
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Costumes, selfies, paint, and other favorite images of 2022
The artist Nazario Sandoval, also known as wemfer, painted this work in front of the KiMo as part of a summit in June called "For the Love of Downtown."
Katrina Ice Cream Shop (near Central and Sixth) posted this photo in February of a special room they've set up for selfies, or as in this case, more conventional photos. (Turns out this is a thing in the retail world.) We profiled the shop in July of 2021.
Layla Baca decided to dress up as a ballon animal for Halloween, and we ran into her on the ever-popular Laguna Boulevard that night. She reported that people really seemed to like the costume but that it wasn't easy to walk around in.
Makeup for the silver screen is often ... different, as we learned in this profile of the Southwest Makeup Institute from March. This student creation was part of a presentation made to a local branch of a theatrical union. Southwest Makeup Institute
Back in May, Alert Reader Ralph sent in this photo of a Madonna-themed mask he arranged to place on a neighbor's statue in Barelas.
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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