Financing Delays Railyards Redevelopment

By Lloyd Jojola
Journal Staff Writer

Sunday, May 25, 2003
It’s an ambitious plan: transforming Albuquerque’s old railyards near Downtown into a huge urban center of convention and meeting space, shops, restaurants, hotels and apartments.

Mayor Martin Chávez calls it “the most exciting redevelopment project in the history of the city of Albuquerque.”

Promoters claim it could generate an annual economic impact of more than $265 million in Bernalillo County.

More than two years after the nonprofit Urban Council of Albuquerque closed a deal with Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway to purchase the Barelas site, construction has yet to start on Albuquerque Station.

“We need to complete putting our initial financing package together,” said project director Franklin Conaway. Cost estimates approach $260 million, most of which would come from the private sector, he said.

“And we need to put an end to the squabbling over the future use of the site,” he said.

Community consensus still needs to be reached on such issues as the location of a proposed Wheels Museum, representatives say.

Conaway said he expects the financing and site issues to be resolved within 90 days.

The master plan
The historic structures are envisioned as the project’s cornerstone.

The council created the concept for Albuquerque Station and has completed a master plan. Albuquerque Station LLC is a for-profit company formed to attract investors and help carry out the project, with the assistance of the council and other developers.

“The purpose of the project is to create a mixed-use, center-city development that is anchored by an exposition center complex of national importance,” Conaway said.

“The purpose behind the purpose is to make Albuquerque and New Mexico competitive in the national and regional meetings and conventions marketplace, which it is not now competitive at all.”

Albuquerque Station is broken into several components, mixing renovated buildings and new construction. The design is centered around two themes: the “historic village” and “all about trains.”

“The historic village theme really keys on maintaining the design integrity of the 12 historic structures in the site,” Conaway said, adding that new construction would follow the same character.

“All about trains” is derived from the original purpose of the site, which was to maintain and repair steam locomotives, together with an area that continues to be used for passenger and freight rail service.

The proposal includes: a 240,000-square-foot exposition center, which would use space in the old main buildings; 1,100 new hotel rooms in two hotels; more than 80,000 square feet of retail space and restaurants; more than 250 townhomes, condos and apartments; parks and plazas; and primarily underground parking.

A “live rail component” would include excursion trains to destinations such as Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Raton, a possible connection to the Sunport — and ultimately even commuter service to Santa Fe.

Renovation of more than 340,000 square feet of existing building space would cost about $40 million alone.

“Once the financing is in place and community consensus has been reached, the project can go forward, and both of those things should happen within the next 60 to 90 days,” Conaway said. “If those two goals are accomplished, this project can be open to the public in three years.”

Looking for a home
Location of the Wheels Museum remains a question.

“The Wheels folks are still trying to work out their differences with the new concept, which is the Albuquerque Station,” said City Councilor Eric Griego, who represents the district.

Leba Freed, Wheels Museum president, first came up with the idea of saving the old railroad shops for a transportation-themed museum. Exhibits would showcase everything from automobiles, a fire engine, milk truck and auto-racing memorabilia to rail-related antiques such as a steam locomotive. Stories of Route 66 and the Camino Real would be among those told.

In the Albuquerque Station site plan, the museum is not in one of the original main buildings.

“Initially, we had hoped that there would be a place for the transportation museum within the original complex of buildings,” Conaway said.

But the buildings would be needed for exposition center space if the project is to be economically viable, he said.

“It has generally been ironed out that we will be on the site,” Freed said. “But because we want to do the best for the entire project, the specifics of where things will be has not been ironed out.”

Wheels Museum has raised about $1.5 million for the transportation museum, which Freed estimated would need 60,000 to 100,000 square feet in the first phase. A museum official estimated that a 60,000 square foot museum would cost $12 million.

By comparison, the new Explora museum building in Old Town is about 50,000 square feet, with about 35,000 square feet for exhibits.

The Urban Council intends to work with the Wheels Museum to identify a location for the museum, Conaway said.

“There is no intention to exclude them and never has been,” he said. “A museum is an attraction. And attractions in a project like this come after the main (economic) steam engine gets up and running.”

The interested parties are in mediation, city officials said.

There are other issues, too.

One is how passenger rail carrier Amtrak fits in.

“The city has invested in the Alvarado Transportation Center,” Councilor Griego said. “Well, these guys have hope that Amtrak moves” to Albuquerque Station. Conaway would not comment on any discussions with Amtrak.

Also, the Barelas neighborhood has endorsed a mixed-income housing development at Third and Atlantic SW, across the street from the old main buildings. Albuquerque Station planners are eyeing that land for an entry plaza, city officials said.

“I was initially quite cool to the (housing) idea, simply because I don’t think Barelas needs more affordable housing … and when you’re looking at the railyards, you have to be very sensitive to what will people walk out into from those yards,” Mayor Chávez said.

Griego said the neighborhood still supports the housing project, and therefore he still supports it.

Raising the bar
Conaway believes the exposition complex would take Albuquerque to another level in the conventions and visitors market.

“You look at the surrounding states — Arizona, Texas, Colorado — they’re doing hundreds of millions of dollars of business drawing in trade shows and conventions annually in a marketplace, which is the Southwest, that’s becoming a preferred destination,” he said.

The Albuquerque Convention Center is too small and outdated to compete, he said.

“It has 106,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space and there are approximately 400 organizations nationally that need between 110,000 and 220,000 square feet of exhibition space, and that is the market that Albuquerque should be targeting and … should be in,” he said.

The existing center is a “big box” design that proved popular in the 1960s and ’70s, he said, but has since fallen out of favor for designs that incorporate an abundant amount of natural light — something that is in ample supply at the old shops.

“The most successful venues across the country are the ones where the shops and restaurants and taverns and fun places to go are outside the door,” he said. “Beyond that, the most successful exposition complexes are ones that have a historic theme. San Antonio’s River Walk comes to mind and Chicago’s Navy Pier.”

Great possibility
The city officials interviewed believe the redevelopment plan poses a “great opportunity” for the city.

“I think the expo center idea is a great idea,” Griego said. “I think it’s incredibly ambitious. The question is, ‘Will they be able to get it done? Will they be able to get the investors?'”

“The taxpayers certainly don’t have the money,” Chávez said. “This is one where everybody is going to have to be at the table.

Chávez sees a potential monumental failure for the city if the old site is not reborn.

“This is one of those ones that, oh, if we fail and lose those yards, then we will be condemned for centuries,” Chávez said.

“I think everybody agrees that failure is not an option. But getting to success is a real challenge.”