Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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Thousands of community members who enjoy the pristine quality of Elena Gallegos Open Space Park in the foothills of the Sandias are determined that the city of Albuquerque respect the property’s deed and keep it from being developed.

Save The Elena Gallegos, a nonprofit, its cofounder Viki Teahan and 17 Bernalillo County residents have just filed a complaint against the city of Albuquerque in an attempt to uphold the Land Use restrictions in the deed that governs Albuquerque’s Elena Gallegos Open Space. Another 8,500 have signed a petition opposing the city’s “improvement” project and want to permanently protect the Open Space Park from development and see the land preserved and maintained in its natural state for generations to come.

The City of Albuquerque (led by the Department of Parks & Recreation and the Open Space Division) announced plans to build a large “Education Center” in the heart of the Elena Gallegos in January 2022. However, the deed to the Elena Gallegos has clear “limitations on use of park property” and prohibits all buildings of any kind in the Open Space’s acreage.

The complaint alleges CABQ is planning to ignore the terms of the deed – written in 1982. The city’s project was originally planned as a 10,000-sq. ft., two-story building focused on tourism (not students, children or education) as described in city planning notes.  Teaham said the planning notes mention the need to “appease” the regular park users and the rerouting of roads in the park to “accommodate the building.” The deed clearly states no large buildings are allowed.

Birth of Albuquerque’s Open Space Began with Elana Gallegos

Doña Elena Gallegos was a daughter of early seventeenth century Hispanic colonists, Antonio Gallegos and Catalina Baca. They fled New Mexico with their newborn daughter during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, and she returned in 1693 with two brothers and an uncle. In 1699, Elena Gallegos married Santiago Grolé, a native of La Rochelle, France. They had one son. Santiago died around 1712.

Gallegos did not remarry and conducted her own business affairs raising stock. In 1712, Gallegos wrote to the governor asking for permission to register her brand and became the first woman to obtain her own livestock brand.

Gallegos purchased thousands of acres in 1716 from Diego de Montoya, which he had received from the crown in 1694. During the mid-late 1800s, the vast tract of land became known as the Elena Gallegos Land Grant. Today, most of her land, which stretches from the banks of the Rio Grande near the village of Alameda to the Sandia Mountains, is part of the City of Albuquerque. A parcel of land at the foothills of the Sandia Mountains became Elena Gallegos Park.

In the 1960s, in hopes of saving some of the city’s valuable open space from development, advocates began to try to preserve what is now Elena Gallegos Open Space. In 1969, the Albuquerque City Council agreed to enact a tax so it could purchase the land, save it from development and create an open space trust fund for the acquisition of other open space properties. Albuquerque’s Open Space Division was born two years later.

Plaintiffs Weigh in on the Open Space Development

— Paloma Garcia, an “outdoor influencer” and advocate for homeless children with the nonprofit Cuidando Los Niños, urges the City not to break the promise it made to its citizens when it signed the deed to Elena Gallegos.

—Terri O’Hare, a wheelchair user and disability activist, believes the “Education Center” violates the ADA (American with Disabilities Act). Development in the Open Space will leave her with no accessible options in the Foothills to experience undisturbed nature.

—Barbara Blumenfeld, a retired attorney and UNM Law School professor, calls the “Education Center” a profound loss that is both real and existential. “This property, and its promise of permanent and real wilderness without buildings or similar human intervention, belongs to Albuquerque and its residents…Violating the deed is a violation of the public trust in those we elect to govern.”

Other plaintiffs believe that “their experience of the Open Space would be grievously and irreparably harmed by the planned government development.”

“Save the Elena Gallegos” has also received the support and endorsement from:

—The Central New Mexico Audubon Society, who state: “The Open Space is an amazing place for birds and wildlife and the implementation of a building would be disastrous.”

—Albuquerque developer Art Gardenswartz was a member of the City’s 2021 Advisory Committee that helped design and approve the building; he quit after three meetings. “I was on the original committee to study the possibility of this ‘educational center.’ I dropped off because I disagreed with the study group that a new building is an enhancement for the citizens of our state. This land was purchased for the purpose of open space and should remain that way.”

—Sandia Heights, the unincorporated Foothills neighborhood which borders the Open Space, has formally opposed the “Education Center.”

—A survey conducted by Sandia Heights Homeowners Association (SHHA) of residents in May 2022 found 75% of respondents opposed the project,

The City of Albuquerque’s “Feasibility Study” for the “Education Center” was commissioned with $250K in taxpayer money.