It’s More than a Bus: Democracy, Gentrification and Urbanicide in Albuquerque

For the second time in two years, Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a proving ground for democracy and governance. The first test came two years ago, months before the nation was shaken by the events of Ferguson, Missouri, when mass protests in Albuquerque erupted after the police shooting of homeless camper James Boyd.

Finally exploding a long-simmering powder keg over police violence, the Boyd shooting was followed by the entrance of the U.S. Department of Justice into an ostensibly local matter; mass outrage at Albuquerque City Council meetings that was capped off by protesters’ take-over of one session;  political jockeying over the power of the mayor, city councilors, appointed officials and the public in the management and reform of a deeply troubled justice system; and voter approval of a new civilian police oversight commission.

While the policing crisis is far from resolved, a new controversy is testing democratic notions and practices of governance that cut much deeper than partisanship and electoral rituals. This time the ballyhoo is over mass transit, specifically the Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) bus system promoted by Republican Mayor Richard Berry, supported by a majority of city councilors (Democrat as well as Republican), but opposed by many residents.

At play in the controversy are the pre and post-election interactions between public officials and their constituents in the stuff of everyday governance, the respective power of different branches of government over decisions that could affect the city for generations to come, and the ability of citizens to not only voice their concerns but have them acted upon.

Envisioned as a ramped-up, rapid ride system centered on nine miles of Central Avenue, the main drag of the Duke City and historic Route 66, the $119-plus million ART project would temporarily tear up swaths of Central Avenue, reroute traffic that will likely include 16-wheelers lurching onto residential streets, uproot old trees and, when it’s finished in late 2017, showcase a new Central Avenue with dedicated  bus lanes, minimal auto lanes, state-of-the-art bus stops and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks all ready to whisk the mass transit hungry masses dripping with oodles of disposable income on shopping sprees to upscale stores, pricey restaurants and trendy breweries along the ART corridor, according to the visions of planners.


ART is slated to begin construction during the 100th anniversary of the emblematic Nob Hill neighborhood where rapid buses will run. Both the Bernalillo County Commission and the Albuquerque City Council passed resolutions this year recognizing the birthday, with city councilors declaring Nob Hill “the heart of Albuquerque’s Route 66 culture.”

If the image of a low-rider puttering along as oldies drifted from the car stereo once symbolized Central Avenue culture, the Millennial pecking away on a laptop while entranced by the ear buds might become the poster child of future ART culture.

Far more than a squabble over a fancy new bus system, the ART battle has renewed debates on poverty, economic development, homelessness, generational differences, public spending priorities, the car culture, and other heady matters that will define 21st century New Mexico’s identity.

In a February 29 letter to Mayor Richard Berry and other New Mexico elected officials, the District 4 Coalition of Neighborhoods opposed federal funding for ART.

Endorsed by 22 neighborhood associations, the letter supported spending “… scarce dollars on real priorities and the critical needs for the City of Albuquerque,” including “a problematic and under-staffed police department” and aging infrastructure.

Three distinctive camps have emerged at public meetings and City Council sessions involving ART in recent months:  pro-ART, anti-ART and ART with modifications.

A critical moment in the controversy came at a packed, March 21 meeting of the Albuquerque City Council, where Democratic City Council Rep Ken Sanchez and his Republican colleague Don Harris introduced a measure seeking City Council approval of a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant for ART.

Interrupting the evening, a stand-off ensued between City Council President Dan Lewis and Silvio D’Angelo, a 76-year-old outspoken veteran and strident ART critic, over D’Angelo’s hanging of an upside down American flag along one of the seating rows. Wearing a Vietnam veteran’s cap and insisting that the flag was the signal of distress, D’Angelo declined Lewis’ request to remove the flag as it was in violation of City Council rules against banners in the chambers. Not backing down, Lewis then had security remove D’Angelo and a friend from the meeting.

Typifying pro-ART arguments that see investment and jobs showering down in the path of the buses, a young man who said he now lives in Santa Fe because of the Duke City’s economic malaise heralded ART was a means of giving disenfranchised populations like the homeless an opportunity to better themselves in the world.

The Mother Road “ceased to exist decades ago,” he said. “The idea of Route 66 is ridiculous.”

Representatives of a new group of professional planners and Central Avenue business people, Make ART Smart, said they were ready to help revamp a flawed project their analyses concluded was laden with critical traffic and other design flaws.

Dr. Paul Lusk, professor emeritus of the University of New Mexico, said other city officials had previously rebuffed his overtures for free advice. “We’re not opposed to ART, we want to refine ART,” Lusk said during an exchange with City Council Rep Ike Benton.

Critics asserted that ART-related construction would seriously disrupt businesses and residences, compared the fast bus scheme to controversial Richardson era, government-funded projects like the New Mexico Spaceport between Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences and the New Mexico Rail Runner Express train between Belen and Santa Fe,  assessed the proposal as a costly and poor choice of spending priorities, and critiqued it as merely an overlay of an existing, Central Avenue rapid bus route that does virtually nothing to address gaping mass transit holes throughout the remainder of Albuquerque.

In response to criticisms over the planned elimination of green spaces and parking, Michael Riordan, chief operating officer for the City of Albuquerque, told the meeting that ART will actually net 62 or 63 trees and 18 parking spaces near downtown and the Nob Hill District.

Later, Mayor Berry’s administration earmarked $175,000 for small businesses impacted by the ART construction in its proposed 2017 city budget.

Hunkering up to the microphone, attorney John McCall vowed to the councilors he would sue them, because of “the collaborative conversation that hasn’t happened.” Subsequent developments would show McCall wasn’t bluffing. In an appeal for direct democracy, longtime resident Mimi Lopez proposed that ART be voted on in a public referendum. “This project is highly divisive and controversial,” Lopez said.

The council, however, ignored Lopez’s suggestion and voted 7-2 to accept a $69 million grant from the FTA. Going for the money were Republicans Trudy Jones, Don Harris and Brad Winter together with Democrats Benton, Dianne Gibson, Pat Davis and Ken Sanchez. Voting against the grant were Dan Lewis, a Republican, and Klarissa Pena, a Democrat.

Outside the meeting, meanwhile, a scene unfolded that evoked the larger concerns voiced in the debate. In an interaction that is repeated countless times in a city where legions of the homeless and mentally disabled wander the streets, municipal firemen and cops talked to a disheveled man who was propped against a wall lining a vacant lot a couple of blocks from City Hall.

A sub-plot of the ART drama, or perhaps the real one if the pieces of the bigger show are disassembled, was also sounded out at the March 21 meeting. Residents of Albuquerque’s so-called “Pocket of Poverty,” low-income communities designated as eligible for Urban Development Action Grant moneys back in the 1990s, spoke out against a City of Albuquerque proposal to use $2.5 million in pocket-of-poverty funds now channeled into the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Economic Development Fund (HNEDF) for ART.

Wells Park resident Bianca Encinias, who told the Council she recently encountered irregularities like the lack of meeting minutes of the committee charged with spending the HNEDF money, got a hefty round of applause when she urged councilors to support the original intent of the program.

Councilor Benton, who represents communities where the HNEDF money was originally earmarked, assured the audience was against using the HNEDF money for ART. In a subsequent phone interview with Frontera NorteSur, community activist Loretta Naranjo-Lopez seconded Encinias’ concerns. Now a member of the Albuquerque Interfaith-affiliated Martineztown Work Group, Naranjo-Lopez was among the original network of activists who secured the federal anti-poverty money in the first place.

Yet, the life-long resident of the Duke City told Frontera NorteSur that she did not even know a February public meeting on the HNEDF money and ART was being held until Encinias, finding out about the event almost at the last minute, called to alert her only an hour or so before the meeting began. “We didn’t know anything,” Naranjo-Lopez said. “It’s underhanded, under-the-table. They’re making decisions without the community.”

A community planner by profession, Naranjo-Lopez criticized the City of Albuquerque’s outreach style. ART, she contended, has engendered negative public reaction because of the city government’s failure to do “good planning” and involve residents from the ground up.

“This was because the city failed to bring the community together,” the University of New Mexico graduate said.

In response to City of Albuquerque Chief Operating Officer Michael Riordan’s insistence that the planning process for ART dates back to 2003, Naranjo-Lopez insisted that the city administration should have directly contacted business owners along Central Avenue or, per Encinias’ suggestion, tucked relevant notices in water bills to adequately inform the public. “That’s community planning. That’s the key to good community planning-going door to door,” she added.

Naranjo-Lopez is a passionate advocate for her community, Martineztown, a historic Chicano neighborhood tucked between downtown and the north UNM campus that was settled by her mom’s side of the family in 1850. But she expressed frustration that residents didn’t even know about the unspent HNEDF funds after 2008 even as urgent matters such as a park upgrades and a disabled man’s desperate need for home rehabilitation turned into a condemnation.

“This is crazy. We have that problem and we can’t even tap into (HNEDF),” Naranjo-Lopez said.

The “C” in community planning is a blazing letter in general in greater Albuquerque these days. In March, the West Side Coalition of Neighborhoods wrote a letter to Mayor Berry and other officials requesting that the city’s planning department delay moving forward with the new Albuquerque/Bernallilo County Comprehensive Plan so residents could have more time for review and input.

“To do otherwise would make it a pretense of the public involvement process,” the letter stated. Among the issues raised in the letter was the contradiction between higher density infill development in order to protect water resources and Santolina, a planned housing development involving the giant Barclays bank of England which critics assert will foment sprawl.  “These goals conflict with one another and should be reconciled,” the neighborhood coalition wrote.

A key consideration in the ART controversy that has gone virtually undebated in the chambers of city government is gentrification. If the project succeeds, empty lots and abandoned buildings along Central Avenue could suddenly become more valuable, not to mention the occupied real estate paralleling Route 66.

In a recent posting on the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) website, Raphael Pacheco noted that the planned ART route passes by 15 Census tracks which have income levels below Bernalillo County’s median household income of $48,390.

“Residents who currently live along or very near the proposed route may not be able to readily afford new higher rent and mortgage prices due to the improved transportation options,” Pacheco wrote.

“Coupled with the potential new demand from people who do not currently live in Albuquerque, low income families may be driven out of their current residences in a process known as gentrification. Knowing this, further examination of how ART might adversely affect these households needs to be conducted.”

On April 4, the Battle of Route 66 extended to another branch of government-the courts. Making good on his promise, lawyer McCall filed a lawsuit in the state’s Second Judicial District Court on behalf of several impacted businesses and residents, including Mimi Lopez and other bus riders, alleging the City of Albuquerque’s ART plan not only engaged in an improper planning process, but constitutes an illegal taking of private property and threatens historical sites along old Route 66.

Seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions against ART, the lawsuit accuses the city government of violating local ordinances in addition to the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, and challenges the Berry administration’s claim in the FTA grant application that popular support for the new rapid bus system is widespread.

Terming Central Avenue (Route 66) one of the best known “iconic roads” in the U.S., the suit cites the historic value of the present strip as depicted in 1950s’ television shows, in songs and in graphic image as captured by photographers and artists enamored with neon signage and the like.

A separate but similar lawsuit filed the same day in U.S. District Court by lawyers for the Coalition to Make Art Smart and other plaintiffs accuses both the City of Albuquerque and the FTA of violating state and federal statutes pertaining to environmental impacts, traffic flows and historical landmarks.

The federal litigation contends that many affected Central Avenue business owners did not even know about ART until the latter part of 2015,  and challenges statements allegedly made by a City of Albuquerque representative at an August 2015 meeting with business operators, including a claim that ART would be popular among families from the far-flung and auto-centric Northeast Heights that would drive to and park their cars at an East Central ART station, take the bus to Nob Hill for dining, hop back aboard a bus for a jaunt to the Albuquerque BioPark, and then take a third bus for the trip back to the family car. “To say that the attendees expressed skepticism at this extraordinary prediction is to put it mildly,” the lawsuit reads.

Viewed in a global lens, the Albuquerque battle over mass transit joins similar conflicts breaking out across the world as environmental, economic and urban crises deepen.  In Mexico City, for instance, the city government of Mayor Miguel Mancera clashed with cultural preservationists earlier this year when the administration stepped up plans to add a new bus route on the Mexican capital’s main drag, Paseo de la Reforma.  As in Albuquerque, critics contended the project would harm landmarks integral to the historical and cultural patrimony of the nation.

Proceso magazine framed the Paseo del la Reforma controversy as a possible case of “urbanicide.”

In Acapulco, polemics continue over the Acabus project originally launched by the administration of former Governor Angel Aguirre in 2012.  Modeled after Mexico City-style bus systems, the Acabus was originally scheduled for service in late 2013. In early 2014, Frontera NorteSur observed new bus terminals along the Costera main route without the corresponding buses.

More than two years later and multiple delays blamed on bungled constructions, sewer and water line replacements, slow government payments to contractors and protests by bus drivers charging displacement, the Acabus has yet to kiss the pavement. Guerrero Governor Hector Astudillo told the local press last week the Acabus would begin service on May 31, though with only one-fourth of the initially planned buses. According to the Guerrero daily El Sur, approximately $130 million had been spent on the unfinished project solely through December 2015.

Back north of the border, the City of Albuquerque originally pledged to begin construction on the ART project in May but later moved the start date back to July, a timeline which also is very questionable if the state and federal lawsuits proceed.

In May a stir developed when the Albuquerque Bernalillo Water Utility Authority blocked off two intersections of Central Avenue and, shades of Acapulco, began relocating archaic water and sewage pipes.

Crying foul, ART opponents blasted the city government for jump starting the mass transit project even before the lawsuits were considered. While admitting that the work got underway with the idea that ART was coming, the Water Authority insisted that the infrastructure improvement was necessary anyway because of the age of the pipes, “many of them more than 50 years old,” according to a press release.

Meantime, a contest of signs unfolds on Central Avenue, especially in or near the Nob Hill corridor, where celebrations are in store for the neighborhood’s 100th birthday.  Some businesses proudly display “No Albuquerque Rapid Transit” signs, even as official signs posted in medians boast “Albuquerque Rapid Transit Proposed Location Future ART station.”

On a Saturday afternoon, traffic gnarled at the intersection of San Mateo and Central where Water Authority work was in progress, perhaps giving a glimpse of the future if ART survives the legal challenges and auto traffic is eventually confined for one lane in each direction to make way for the fast buses. West of the congestion, at Carlisle and Central very near where another ART station is planned, yet another sign informs of “luxury condos” under construction.

It’s a safe bet that the new, hip digs will bear prices excluding most of the New Mexicans living in the 15 Census tracks next to the planned ART route who were identified by the BBER’s Raphael Pacheco as reporting incomes below the local median.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.