For most people living in modern urban environments, “food” more or less translates to anything gathered at a supermarket or eaten in a restaurant. But there are those within our very city who are trying to expand the nutritional options of folks far removed from rural farms and, at the same time, increase the opportunities of those who produce food on a far less corporate scale.

Albuquerque’s Downtown Growers’ Market (DGM) has spent the last 25 years supporting and promoting local agriculture, small business and community engagement by operating our city’s longest-running seasonal grower’s market out of Robinson Park. Born out of the Downtown Growers’ Market around 2018, Three Sisters Kitchen is a nonprofit community food space that affords farmers, gardeners, cooks and food entrepreneurs an opportunity to experiment and build small businesses. Boasting a cafe, test kitchen and community classrooms, Three Sisters bills itself as “a place where delicious, affordable and locally produced foods come together to nourish our community from the ground up.”

Both organizations are part of the DowntownABQ MainStreet Initiative, an offshoot program of the New Mexico Economic Development Department (NMEDD). But the success of these programs is starting to prove their own downfall. Having reached capacity at their current locations, DGM and Three Sisters are now partnering to construct a “Downtown Local Food Campus” on a disused commercial lot that will significantly expand the idea of how city dwellers access food.

The two groups held an open house last week to celebrate Three Sisters Kitchen’s fourth anniversary and to share with the public the initial plans for their ambitious expansion project. The nonprofit groups have teamed up with MASS Architecture & Design to create a revolutionary concept for the new space. MASS (which stands for Model of Architecture Serving Society) is an international design firm whose mission is to “research, build and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.” Several members of the design firm’s team came down from their Santa Fe office to the celebratory gathering at FUSION Forum last Wednesday evening to present their ideas and to express their affinity for the Downtown project. Joseph Kunkel, director of MASS’s Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab, said the firm is committed to introducing “spaces to people who have not traditionally had access to good design.”

The Downtown Local Food Campus will be sited at 1023 Central Ave. NW, a space that has served largely as an area eyesore since its last resident, the Cafe Oaxaca restaurant and nightclub, vacated nearly 15 years ago. The current building will be torn down and replaced with a mixed-use, indoor-outdoor space whose grid-like structure mirrors the ancient ribbon farming along Albuquerque’s acequias. At the same time, Senior Architect Mayrah Udvardi said the linear design flow sought to “re-orient the grid of Downtown Albuquerque.”

An architectural rendering showing the proposed location of the Downtown Local Food Campus on Central (courtesy MASS Architecture & Design)

The building will feature a production kitchen, a manufacturing kitchen, a food shop and an indoor market that will allow the Downtown Growers’ Market to operate year-round, regardless of weather. Upstairs there are plans for offices and classrooms, allowing Three Sisters to continue its mission as a “new and emerging” small-business incubator. The roof will be employed as a green garden planting. A water feature running down the center of the space replicates a traditional acequia and will highlight “edible landscaping.” Despite the fancy new digs, the original mission remains: providing “food justice” and “food-based economic development” by educating and connecting local food producers and consumers.

For her part, Udvardi said she and her firm were excited to be designing a “values-based food system in Downtown.” If successful, the architects behind it hope that the Food Campus will spur a revitalization of other unused buildings around Downtown Albuquerque and help bridge the underused gap between Downtown and Old Town.

Kunkel cautioned that the expansion project is “very early on in vision and planning.” Speaking to The Paper. after the event, Three Sisters Executive Director Anzia Bennett clarified that the principals have “been working with partners, hosting focus groups and collecting a number of targeted surveys from vendors and shoppers at the Downtown Growers’ Market, graduates of the Three Sisters Kitchen Food Business Training Program, participants in our ReFresh Healthy Food Access program, organizational partners, local farmers, ranchers and food producers and the general public to ensure that the Downtown Local Food Campus is as relevant and useful for as many community members as possible.” Next up on the plan is fundraising, design development and construction. Bennett estimates that the project will end up costing around $10 million for land acquisition and construction. “We are excited to collaborate with multiple funding partners,” said Bennett, “and are exploring opportunities with Federal, State and City sources as well as a broad network of philanthropic partners, commercial lenders and impact investors who are excited about positive community development, healthy food systems, creating jobs with dignity and a vibrant Downtown Albuquerque.”

Ground is expected to be broken on the Food Campus site in late 2023.