By Jason Trenkle
Plans to build a $50 million movie studio on land in the Barelas neighborhood, at the old Santa Fe Railroad repair shops that now sit vacant and neglected near the Alvarado Transportation Center in downtown Albuquerque, are running into opposition.
In February, Mayor Martin Chavez and Gov. Bill Richardson announced that South Carolina-based Digital Media Group (DMG) would build a digital media production facility on 11 acres of the 27-acre ex-Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yards. The facility was to include two 20,000-square-foot sound stages, two digital insert stages, a construction mill, and food service and child care facilities. It would be able to handle every type of digital film and TV project, from pre-production to post-production, and would become a multi-purpose center, also pursuing advanced medical imaging technologies, virtual reality training and other digital technologies, said DMG’s two co-CEOs, Debra Rosen and Elliott Lewitt, when the plans were announced.
But now some Barelas and south Broadway residents say they want to find a way to preserve the historical 19th-century buildings, fearing the studio’s plans might not allow that to happen. Some of their ancestors worked in the railroad shops, repairing train parts and overseeing the busy mode of transportation that was a considerable source of jobs and economic development.
“This project will be something that respects the cultures of this neighborhood, or else it just won’t happen,” said Eric Griego, an Albuquerque city councilor and candidate for mayor.
“You cannot talk about design in the Barelas area without talking about politics. We’re very concerned about what direction this is going.”
The site also is slated to house the proposed New Mexico Exposition Center.
Ed Casebier, president of Renaissance Development Co., says all 27 acres of land could be sold to DMG, if they are willing to buy it. If that happens, he says the 300-square-foot Exposition Center for Downtown would be scrapped. Renaissance is set to help develop the 27-acre exposition center. Union Development Corp. is in charge of developing the movie studio for DMG.
“DMG has entered into discussions with a major national studio to buy more of the property, which may use all of it, or only a proportion of it,” Casebier said. “It’s primarily to ensure they have expansion capabilities in the future.”
‘A use that’s economically viable’
Alan Vincioni, president of the New Mexico Urban Council, which has owned the rail yards property since 2000, says DMG’s purchase or lease of the site will ensure the preservation of the historic railroad shops.
Griego says the site should be preserved and left open to public access for the benefit of the neighborhood. He says, “rural New Mexicans came to Barelas for work, much like Mexican immigrants came to America.”
At the height of its existence, Griego says the majority of Barelas residents worked on the railroad.
But Vincioni says without a viable use for the buildings, such as a profitable studio, it will be difficult for the site to be preserved from other commercial development, which might not take the area’s heritage into consideration.
“What preserves those buildings is not pumping a lot of money into it, so we want a use that’s financeable, economically viable and that will ensure it’s preserved,” Vincioni said.
The Summer Institute Program for Historic Preservation, a graduate seminar at the University of New Mexico, researched the building’s architecture and just completed a study that evaluated the railroad shops’ potential for restoration and preservation. Graduate student Cynthia Martin says the shops have the potential for both further economic development or cultural preservation.
“DMG will do due diligence — study things and present findings as to the best route to take,” Martin said. “But there’re many ways a community can go wrong with a project like this.”
She cites the former Alvarado Hotel as an example of a structure with a lot of historical significance that was demolished in the early 1970s as part of urban redevelopment.
The site, along First Street south of Central Avenue, is now the home of the Alvarado Transportation Center, whose architectural facade somewhat echoes the former hotel.
Talking it out
The big question: Will the movie studio preserve the historic buildings on the site?
Jim Trump, president of Union Development Corp., says he will share development plans with the neighborhood association before any final decisions are made.
“This is not a ramrod deal, take it or leave it,” Trump said. “A lot of jobs will be created. It’s perhaps one of the hardest kinds of projects, renovating something old to be used as new.”
Trump says it’s up to DMG whether they will need the full 27-acre property. But he says there is an additional 90 acres of land along the railroad tracks to the south of the Alvarado site that can be used for additional development.