Sunday, April 2, 2023

Nob Hill Gets Its Groove Back

The triple whammy of the recession, road construction on Central and the pandemic crippled the historic commercial district. But business is making a comeback


First came the Great Recession, then a years-long road reconstruction project that choked off access along Central Ave., and finally a global pandemic that forced many businesses in the historic, somewhat swanky and eclectically cool Nob Hill area to close their doors for good.

But a part of town that first flourished nearly a century ago as part of the city’s eastern expansion, rode the wave as a rest stop along Route 66 and ultimately put the quirky into Albuquirky, is in the groove again. 

“It’s coming back nice,” says Richard Rivas, whose real estate company manages the “Lobo block” on Central where the west end of the Nob Hill historic district abuts the University of New Mexico. “Nob Hill has always been a place you could go to shop and stroll. It was the place to go. And now it’s becoming that again.”

Rivas has been part of the revitalization with the revisioning of the old Lobo Theater into the Historic Lobo Theater Lounge and Events Center.

After Calvary Church moved out of the 84-year-old theater a few years ago, Rivas says a lot of business people inquired about its availability.

“But I got a wild hair and thought I could do it better than everyone else,” he quips.

Rivas is quick to add that his venue is just a piece of the jigsaw that makes up Nob Hill’s commercial district. Restaurants, retail stores and the assorted shops all contribute collectively to Nob Hill’s unique character. 

And while Rivas said it was heartbreaking to watch local businesses shutter due to the triple whammy of the recession, road construction and COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a lot of positive energy flowing now. New businesses have filled the empty storefronts and there’s a renewed spirit of community and collaboration in the business community.

“Nob Hill people are amazing and it’s because of them that we’re seeing this resurgence,” he says.

Positive energy

Amy Baca Lopez is among them. She moved her art gallery and gifts store from Downtown to a small shop at Silver and Wellesley in March.

“Best move I ever made,” she says.

Baca Lopez describes her work as “happy art,” expressing a positive, uplifting message. That syncs perfectly with the “community spirit” she’s found in Nob Hill.

“You can definitely feel it,” says the artist. “Just in the last six months there’s been a lot of activity.”

She says she feels like she’s rediscovering Nob Hill all over again, mentioning neighboring new businesses, like Stickks and Stones, Amity, People & Planet Refill, Enchanted Z and others.

A few blocks away, William Curry opened Terrazzo Archives, an import store featuring gift items and home decor, about the same time as Baca Lopez opened her shop.

“We looked around all of Albuquerque and saw a lot of opportunity and potential here and wanted to be part of that,” he says.

Next door, at Organic Books, owners Kelly and Steve Brewer have seen the resurgence in Nob Hill since opening their store four years ago. 

Then, about half the spaces in the Nob Hill Business Center were vacant due to the crippling impact of the city’s rapid transit ART project that tore up Central.

“We were hopeful that it would fill in and it has,” says Kelly Brewer, who maintains Nob Hill never lost its cool during the lean years, it just lost momentum. 

Nob Hill always has, and probably always will be an appealing place for businesses and residents alike, she says.

“We picked Nob Hill because of the eclectic neighborhood, good traffic, and the university. It’s where a lot of places in the city connect and it has always drawn a great mix of people.”

Bringing a new mix of people to Nob Hill is the Hotel Zazz.

Proprietor Sharmin Dharas is perhaps the poster child for Nob Hill’s regeneration. She grew up in another hotel on Central, was the first in her family to graduate college, became a surgeon and traveled the world, only to return to Nob Hill to chase her vision of “turning an old hotel into a bold hotel.”

Taking some inspiration from Meow Wolf, Dharas decided, “Why not tell the story I have to tell?”

So she created an immersive boutique hotel out of the old University Lodge. Now, the colorful and whimsical property includes 48 rooms that offer a unique experience, the Z-Lounge Speakeasy, Zanzibar Venue and outdoor pool. 

What it doesn’t have is an on-site restaurant.

“We purposely don’t have a kitchen. We decided why not send guests out to dinner?” she says.

Good eats

Dharas and others interviewed for this story credited restaurants that stayed open for keeping people connected to Nob Hill when things were lean and the new fare that’s been added to the district’s menu of restaurants for contributing to the comeback.

Notably, Scalo, a fine dining favorite, closed in 2018, but Kristie and Prashant Sawant soon brought it back.

“People were upset when Scalo closed, so we decided to purchase it to give back to the community what had been a landmark restaurant for 30 years,” Kristie says. “Nob Hill has taken several hits in recent years and we want to see it thrive again.”

She says she doesn’t see other restaurants in the area as competition. 

“They’re our neighbors. We’re all in this together,” she says.

That attitude is shared by M’tucci’s Bar Roma, which jumped at the chance to add a fourth location, according to Howie Kaibel, the restaurant’s minister of culture and brand management.

“People have a real affinity with this building,” he says of the former automobile service station, which has gone through many iterations, lastly Kelly’s Brewpub. “We wanted to see Nob Hill return, and we felt we had the opportunity to be in the center of it all.”

Kaibel says M’tucci’s has been active in helping rejuvenate the district, collaborating with surrounding businesses. 

As part of that collaboration, he serves on the board of Nob Hill Main Street, a grassroots group that works to revitalize urban communities.

“It’s neighbors and residents connecting with business owners and creating a network that ultimately supports everybody,” he says.

A people place

Chris Smith is president of Nob Hill Main Street, a program supervised by New Mexico Economic Development. 

“You can’t discount the fact that there has been a lot of investment in Nob Hill,” he says.

What that’s done is draw residents to the area. The master plan allows for building, creating density along the business corridor and the rest of the neighborhood.

“Young millennials to Baby Bombers all want to live on Central. We’re starting to see the synergy of all this coming to fruition.”

And it’s all good, says Lobo Theater owner Rivas.

“Albuquerque needs Nob Hill to be what it used to be, if not better,” he says. “There’s so much negativity in the world, but this is all positive, positive, positive.”


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