Rail Yard Rebirth

By Ed Asher – Tribune Staff
December 20, 2004

That plan envisions a “boutique-sized” luxury hotel, a larger convention hotel, some type of housing and retail shops along a boardwalk. And plans include an exhibition center with 300,000 square feet of exhibition space.

It’s a project estimated to cost $300 million over the next four to five years, said Ed Casebier, president of Renaissance Development Co. of Fort Worth.

According to the plan, Renaissance and a subsidiary of the Urban Council would buy the 27 acres from the Urban Council. The partnership also would purchase an additional 40 acres from Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway, Casebier said.

But things changed, slightly, when the Digital Media Group entered the picture. Casebier says the master plan is being tweaked to incorporate DMG.

The idea is that Build New Mexico would buy 11 acres out of the original 27 acres, Casebier said. Build New Mexico in turn would lease the 11 acres to DMG, Lewitt said.

James Trump, executive director of Build New Mexico, said: “Not everything is done. I’m not comfortable talking about the deal.”

But he said: “I’m very excited about the deal. I can confirm there is definitely a deal in sight.”

If negotiations work out, Lewitt would transform the 11 acres into a “campuslike environment” for moviemaking.

It would include six soundstages, screening rooms and post-production, sound, digital-research and job-training facilities.

“It’s not a film financing entity. It will serve filmmakers who come in to use the facility,” Lewitt said.

Waiting on the sidelines is the Wheels Museum, a nonprofit group that has a small office near Downtown, but no museum. The group has invested $750,000 to ensure its place in the rail yard redevelopment, said Leba Freed, museum president.

Alan Clark, museum executive director, said the museum has invested in environmental studies, appraisals and attorney fees on the 27 acres. It has an additional $800,000 available to develop a transportation history museum within the yards, he said.

But the museum board is waiting to see how it fits in with the master plan.

“We feel we are invested in the redevelopment of the rail yards, and it is our expectation to be somewhere on the yards,” Freed said.

“We are optimistic the Wheels Museum will be included.”

But all of these plans are far from a done deal. The shadow of a federal lawsuit looms over all of them.

The lawsuit was filed by Richard Maron and MRN Limited Partnership of Cleveland against the Urban Council earlier this year. Maron claims he gave the Urban Council $410,000 in cash and has an underwriting stake in the property of more than $1.1 million.

Ron Ashcraft, Urban Council president, declined to comment on the lawsuit. There was no word from Maron either.

“Mr. Maron is not available for comment,” said Christy Harst, MRN marketing director.

But Casebier said: “That will have to be resolved before the property transactions occur, and those discussions are under way. We’re hopeful we can resolve the issues.”

There is a factor that could spur those discussions, says City Councilor Eric Griego.

He is sponsoring a bill to condemn the entire 27 acres. The city could take the land and put it up for new proposals, Griego said.

The city would have to pay fair market value to whoever wins the lawsuit, Griego said.

“The truth of the matter is, the property is tied up in litigation. My hope is that introducing this legislation will bring the parties together to resolve their differences,” Griego said.

“If it looks like they are making progress, I’m happy to defer the bill. If it looks like a train wreck, I’ll move the bill to the full council.”

So, this vision of a new destination point for Albuquerque still comes down to a lot of ifs.

If the legal disputes are resolved, if the city doesn’t condemn it, if the financing falls into place, the deal-making is consummated, the master planning finished and all the other nuts and bolts of a multimillion-dollar, multipartner development fall into place, there might be a huge exhibition, entertainment, retail and filmmaking complex, with a museum to boot.

The developers are quick to say the rebirth of the yards means an economic boost to the city and the state. But they also say it would boost the Barelas neighborhood.

The yards slid into decline at the end of the Korean War, when railways began converting from steam locomotives to diesel engines, said Clark of the Wheels Museum.

“Steam locomotives are labor intensive, they require high maintenance operations,” Clark said. “Diesels were cheaper to operate, so they began taking over.”

The shops were turned over to track maintenance, and jobs began to disappear, Clark said.

“The impact on the surrounding neighborhood was profound,” he said.

All of the plans promise jobs for Barelas, said Robert Vigil, vice president of the Barelas Neighborhood Association. But the studio has piqued particular interest, he said.

“I think it’s an opportunity for our kids to learn the latest, cutting-edge technology. And what better place than our own back yard,” Vigil said.