For a downtown revitalization success story, look to Las Cruces

In recent years, they have completely transformed the look and feel of the place - once an urban renewal failure

Retail is coming back. Housing is planned, too.

Part one of a two-part series
This alley off of Main Street has been turned into a pedestrian park, among many other projects.
LAS CRUCES -- Though Mike White was still a relative newcomer to this city in 1960, he had at least made friends with a local surrogate for the presidential campaign of an upstart Massachusetts senator named John F. Kennedy, and it led to an unusual assignment one fall day.

The campaign had taken to dispatching the candidate's brother, recent law school graduate and future Senator Ted Kennedy, around the country to speak on John's behalf, and a Las Cruces engagement with Senator Clinton Anderson was planned for October 25, just two weeks before the election. But the campaign had a strict rule about the optics of how exactly Ted would be picked up at the airport: Such an errand must not be done in a luxury car.

In 1960, White owned a 1953 Oldsmobile convertible, still with its Massachusetts license plates. He got the job, picked up the youngest of the nine Kennedy siblings at the airport, and took him to an outdoor rally at the corner of Griggs and Main, in the heart of Downtown.

The location choice was an obvious one, and about 1,000 people showed up, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported the next day. 

"Downtown was the gathering place for the community," White said, describing the area as busy and thriving, albeit a little shabby.

That status as a hub for the city, which then had a population of 30,000, went away just a few years later thanks to an urban renewal initiative bent on doing something about the shabby bits. Authorities fixed up some buildings and tore down many others, often leaving dirt parking lots in their former footprints on the district's periphery. The area was encircled by one-way streets arranged in an oval, an arrangement that was later popularly known as the "racetrack."

But the coup de gr
âce was on Main Street, an eight-block north-south strip that became a large pedestrian mall complete with an imposing metal canopy and a winding yellow brick pathway that still draws comparisons to "The Wizard of Oz."

It proved to be a spectacular multi-decade failure.

"By 1971, Main Street was gone," White said. "One by one, stores just closed. By the late 1990s, there wasn't much left."

Among the few exceptions were operations that could either create their own economic weather or count on customers to find them wherever they happened to be. White's own musical instrument shop, White's Music Box, was one of them and is still located on Main Street. There was also ABC Printing, which first opened Downtown in 1972 and is still there. A Saturday farmer's market, meanwhile, kept a shred or two of communal positivity about the area in the public consciousness.

Plenty of other factors contributed to the post-World-War-II fall of the American downtown, and Las Cruces faced those challenges, too. The population has tripled since that October day Ted Kennedy came to town, but like Albuquerque, much of the growth was in the sprawling suburban style, and much of the retail energy centered around malls and other retail operations surrounded by vast parking lots.

No successful Downtown revitalization project could ever unwind that history, no matter how much urbanists and city center boosters consider it an abomination. But the potential to create something Las Cruces could be proud of remained. The chief problem, after all, was just a "silly little wandering path," said Chris Faivre, the main Downtown development staffer at the City of Las Cruces. "It slowly kind of killed off the Downtown."

Back and heading toward better than ever
Fast forward a couple of decades to the summer of 2022, and the picture is very different. Main Street is now dotted by two popular coffee shops, a small collection of restaurants and bar/grill operations, and a couple of museums. A bank parking lot and drive-through has been replaced by a large plaza with a covered stage area.

The yellow brick road, along with its infamous canopy, is also gone, replaced by a street with thin driving lanes that carry a speed limit of 15 mph and wide sidewalks that can and often do accommodate outdoor seating. There are trees, small xeriscaped areas, potted plants, shade structures, wayfinding signs for the out-of-towners, and even some more modern touches like benches that come equipped with solar panels and USB charging outlets. (And yes, they actually work.) A few digital kiosks advertise upcoming events on the plaza and at the museum.

New murals include one with a literary theme - fittingly next to a bookstore - and another by the Albuquerque artist wemfer, who among many other Duke City projects masterminded the music-themed group mural at the back of El Rey Theater (DAN, 3/1/21).

Downtown is "more pleasant, really, than I ever imagined," said Joaquin Acosta, the manager at Mesilla Valley Pharmacy and Consulting, which opened in August of 2021 in what had been some insurance offices at Bowman and Main. "It really worked out for us."

"When they opened up Main Street it made a drastic change," added Frank Silva, the owner of ABC Printing. "More businesses came in ... more people are coming Downtown - even after hours - to eat and visit the pubs."

For all the success, however, Downtown Las Cruces is often just as not-exactly-bustling as Downtown Albuquerque. There are more shops and events, but except for that still-running farmer's market, most of the action happens in the afternoon or evening. Take a walk there in what for July passes as the cool of the morning and very few people are out and about. Many of those that are look to have slept there the night before.
TOP: The former pedestrian mall, circa 2008. BOTTOM: The same street corner in 2018, unrecognizable except for the cross of a church at the left. Google Street View
The Rio Grande Theater opened the year before the KiMo. It closed in 1997, but following a restoration project reopened in 2005.
A digital "neighborhood newsfeed" appears on several kiosks along Main Street.
Solar USB chargers, which are often near or attached to benches, are also easy to find.
This mural by Coy Lowther, on the northern wall of COAS Books, went up earlier this year and features quotations from literary luminaries throughout history and into the modern day.
There is, in short, plenty left to do. There's room for more businesses, particularly storefront retail. There are restoration opportunities, including one underway to fix up the historic Amador Hotel. And there are plenty of surface parking lots that had buildings on them before urban renewal came along - and they could again. 

One major next step is set to involve getting more potential customers to not just visit, but live there.

"If we want Downtown to thrive, we have to bring in housing," said Sandra Espiritu, a realtor who also owns Grounded, a Main Street café that features pizza and wine. "I think businesses are waiting for that to happen."

A consultant has recommended 200 units as "a good place to start," the city's Chris Faivre said, adding that the area is basically starting from zero.

The good news is that there is a decent amount of private sector interest. While Albuquerque must presently subsidize Downtown development it wants to see happen, "we have developers reaching out to us," Faivre said. "There would really be no need in our instance to offer incentives."

Las Cruces, in other words, is far from finished with its Downtown revitalization work, but it is also no longer in the perennial holding pattern that Downtown Albuquerque finds itself in. Things have changed rather dramatically for the better in the last 10-15 years, and it's easy to find people here who believe that despite the recent challenges of the pandemic, things are still very much headed in a good direction.

"It takes time, but we can see it happening," said Mike White, the owner of the musical instrument shop. "The community needed a gathering place. We have it again ... if we can do it in Las Cruces, you sure as hell can do it there."
Coming in part two: How Las Cruces started winning the Downtown revitalization game
Barring breaking news, next Tuesday we'll have the story of a farmer's market, a key Downtown group, a tax increment development district, and the mechanics of revitalization success in New Mexico's second-largest city.
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