While countless areas of Albuquerque have experienced revitalization of late, thanks to new housing projects, retail spaces and industrial construction, Downtown Albuquerque remains firmly lodged in the last century. With the construction of freeways and the introduction of suburbs in mid-century America, life slowly drifted away from inner-city downtown hubs. Since the 1970s Downtown Albuquerque has continually been on the knife edge of revitalization. The surge of nightclubs and bars in the ’80s and ’90s gave some new energy to the area, but blocks full of historic buildings still sit largely empty and unused.
This year the City of Albuquerque is pushing an initiative that could breathe life into our city’s long-neglected core. Albuquerque’s Metropolitan Redevelopment Agency is spearheading a public-private project known as the Rail Trail, a “vibrant and artistic urban trail” aimed at revitalizing Downtown Albuquerque. According to the website (cabq.gov/mra/rail-trail), the proposed Rail Trail will “link Albuquerque’s vibrant Downtown area to nearby neighborhoods, mass transportation options and the Rail Yards” and will “create a world-class urban amenity that will catalyze redevelopment.” Similar urban redevelopment projects can be seen in NYC’s High Line, a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side.
Bike and Walk
According to Karen Iverson, manager of the city’s Metropolitan Redevelopment Agency, “The Rail Trail will provide a safe, healthy bike and walking path from the Rail Yards and through Downtown. It will also reconnect EDo to Downtown, providing safe at-grade crossings for cyclists and pedestrians.” When completed, the Rail Trail will consist of well-landscaped biking and pedestrian paths connecting the northernmost point of the Rail Yards to Downtown, passing through the Alvarado Transportation Center and along Tijeras to Lomas Blvd. Eventually, the long-term development plan is to take the trail all the way to the Sawmill District. Sheri Brueggemann, manager of the city’s Public Art Urban Enhancement Division, says the project will “provide more outdoor recreational amenities. Also it will give tourists and visitors a way to connect the Convention Center to more parts of Downtown. North and south as opposed to east-west on Route 66.”
The project will go forward in phases and brings together both public and private resources. For years many investors have tried to revamp Downtown areas not directly on Central Ave. Lack of an overall plan by the city has often stymied these efforts. But now, according to Brueggerman, “Some historic building that are both publicly and privately owned are getting attention and reinvestment.” She mentions Ed Garcia with Garcia Automotive Group who “has a huge investment on the eastern side of the railroad track south of Lomas.” Known as Glorietta Station, Garcia’s project is housed in the long-defunct Southwestern Brewery and Ice Company (once home to Albuquerque’s own “Glorietta Beer”). It sits on Commercial Street just off Lomas and backs up to the railroad tracks. The space is being converted into Albuquerque’s Neon Museum, with more than 100 vintage neon signs—all locally sourced. A cafe is expected to open there later this year, and spaces are available for other retail businesses. Also in the area is the FUSION Theater on the west side of railroad tracks along First Street. There, Executive Director Dennis Gromelski runs a cutting-edge multimedia performing arts center. These are the sorts of businesses that would benefit directly from the Rail Trail’s construction. In the meantime the city is busy locating “other businesses and professions that have historic buildings that want to have railroad track-facing activities.”
Last Wednesday the City’s Metropolitan Redevelopment Agency took a step forward on its plan to build a Rail Trail Sky Bridge. City Council approved a development project that includes a pedestrian sky bridge to the Convention Center, a plaza along the proposed Rail Trail and up to 140 residential units or hotel rooms on adjacent tracts of land. The MRA is partnering with Zydeco 66, LLC, on the project, which includes a city contribution of up to $1 million in GO Bond funding. “Along the trail we can transform bridge underpasses into a shade oasis,” imagines Iverson. “These types of surprising spaces are the types of urban amenities that will catalyze redevelopment and investment in Downtown.”
For now, the city is moving forward on infrastructure. Landscape architecture and engineering plans for the overall Rail Trail project are expected to be complete and available for public scrutiny in early October. “The first phase is putting in an at-grade crossing at Marquette,” says Iverson. “Construction for the Marquette crossing will commence this fall.”
Art As Well
Along with increasing pedestrian and bicycle traffic to businesses along the historic railroad line, the City of Albuquerque hopes to install plenty of public art. As part of her job, Brueggemann has spent much of 2021 working on a side project known as Rail Trail Time Traveler. Ten local artists have been selected to create interactive “community engagement projects.” The installations are housed inside of 10’x10′ tents and, according to Brueggemann, are designed to “engage people in thinking about ‘place’ through a long period of time. And that ‘place’ is the railroad tracks.”
Among the interactive installations is one that involves “walking into a phone booth and making a phone call to ‘home.’ Leaving a message about ‘home.’ The artist takes that recording and creates word clouds of what people feel is the meaning of home. Another artist is using the traditional healing form of the curandera to build knowledge about native plants and uses of native plants that continue to grow even in our built environment. Other artists are doing live silkscreen printing of posters that ask questions like what should we honor, what should we let go of. Others are asking people to give very direct feedback on what would make them go to the Rail Trail. Write those ideas on paper cut-outs, like cartoon quotes.”
These “interactive booths” were revealed at the First Friday ArtWalk earlier this month in Downtown. On Sunday, Sept. 19, from 10am to 2pm at the Rail Yards Market, New Mexicans will get their next change to examine the installations and give their feedback. That feedback will be used to inform what future public art installations along the Rail Trail will look like. Brueggemann calls them “temporary experiments of what we think might work best on the Rail Trail.” She hopes to see some more permanent art installations throughout Downtown by springtime.
To those ends, the city’s Public Art Division secured a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Once public exhibition of the temporary “Time Traveler” exhibits ends, Public Arts will start taking applications for new, more permanent Rail Trail installations from local artists and creators.
For the Rail Trail, Brueggemann envisions a multimedia approach to public space and public art. “We’re including a lot of digital connectivity. We could take advantage of really large walls on back of Convention Center. They’re not ideal for painting murals, but we could use digital projections to make digital murals.”
Although there are will still be certain access restrictions, safe delineations between bicycle paths, pedestrian walkways and the railroad tracks to contend with, the city is hoping—sooner than later—to hook one end of Downtown to the other with what Brueggemann calls “fun, interesting nodes”: restaurants, galleries, breweries, overpasses, great shady places and plenty of historically minded Albuquerque art.