Project mixes suburbs with nature preserve

 

Albuquerque’s Mesa del Sol will be the Southwest’s largest ‘green development’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Today, it’s a sage and snakeweed-covered expanse of state land about five miles south of downtown Albuquerque. Within or just beyond its borders are a drag strip, an off-road vehicle park and a former explosives test site. Nearby sits Sandia Laboratory’s Mixed Waste landfill — where the national nuclear lab dumped radioactive waste for more than 30 years. It’s a hard piece of land to love, even on a nice day.

But the New Mexico State Land Office has a vision for the 12,000-acre "Mesa del Sol." In a state that has shunned planning, and in a city whose sprawling west side appears to know no limits, planners are determined to try something new.

The state’s vision is of a community of 100,000 people, living amid open space and restored rangeland. The Mesa del Sol master plan combines homes and shops in eight discrete villages, all interconnected by parks, trails and open space. The plan’s first phase also calls for a high-tech "eco-industrial" business park that will try to attract businesses capable of sharing and exchanging renewable resources.

The homes and businesses will sit adjacent to 2,800 acres of rangeland known as "La Semilla," where the Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management plans to develop its international headquarters and a field station for rangeland restoration and drylands farming. Best known for the rapid rotation grazing methods recommended by founder Savory, the center has been based in Albuquerque since 1984 (HCN, 9/14/98: Worn shoes, cattle and a spring).

Mesa del Sol is more than just the biggest development project in Albuquerque history. The site is the largest parcel of undeveloped land under single ownership within a city’s limits in the nation — and one of the West’s most ambitious "new urbanism" developments.

"La Semilla is there to reconnect — or connect for the first time — people with their natural world," says Ray Powell, who just finished a ten-year stint as New Mexico’s Commissioner of Public Lands. "By providing a place for them to put their fingers in the dirt and learn about nature, it will help them learn to care about other wild places."

The project has seen its peaks and valleys since 1983, when former Lands Commissioner Jim Baca first proposed an early version, and it will require 70 years or more to complete. But two recent events signaled that the process is about to begin. In December, the state hosted a "coming-out party" for ForestCity Covington, the developer chosen last May to build the community. The same week, the Savory Center signed a 25-year lease, making it the first and largest tenant on La Semilla.

Widespread support

For a project of this scale, Mesa del Sol has few vocal critics. Even Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, a staunch proponent of development on the city’s west side, recently stated that he is now "generally supportive" of Mesa del Sol.

"We support it for a number of reasons," says Melinda Smith, executive director of the smart-growth group, 1,000 Friends of New Mexico. "It’s good urban design, with mixed use, (mass) transportation and lots of recreational capacity. If Mesa del Sol gets built, it will eliminate the need for a lot of west-side expansion."

By recycling effluent water, retaining stormwater and enacting strict conservation measures, Mesa del Sol’s per-resident water use will be 50 gallons per day — compared to Albuquerque residents’ current 144 gallons per day. This is important in a city competing for water with the endangered silvery minnow (HCN, 10/14/02: Albuquerque is dragged into Rio Grande fight).

"We’re waiting to see what will happen," says Susan Gorman with the Sierra Club in Albuquerque, noting that the project’s success now lies in the hands of the state’s new Land Commissioner (see related story). "But it makes the environmental community happy that there will be a huge chunk of land preserved."

Lessons from Arizona

The only other large-scale new urbanist development in the desert Southwest is the 818-acre Community of Civano in southeastern Tucson. The project was "grassroots" development at its finest: Envisioned as an alternative solar community during the 1970s oil crisis, it was spearheaded by the Tucson-Pima County Metropolitan Energy Commission with strong citizen support. At the behest of the commission, the state spent $90,000 to kickstart what was then called the Tucson Solar Village Project, and since 1997 the City of Tucson has spent $3 million for roads, sewers and water lines.

But enthusiasm for Civano waned in the mid-1990s, and wasn’t renewed until recently — with Fannie Mae, a private mortgage corporation, not the state or the City of Tucson, as the majority owner. Only now, 14 years after its master plan was developed, is the community’s first 300-acre neighborhood nearing completion.

Currently, almost 300 residents — most of them new to the state from California, Colorado and Texas — live at Civano. The community remains committed to sustainability, and plans to reduce energy consumption to 25 percent of Tucson’s average; solid waste disposal will be 10 percent of average, landscape water use 30 percent and potable water use 70 percent. Xeriscaped yards are dotted with ocotillos, mesquite and saguaro, and about one-third of the land is preserved as open space. A new school is in the works, and thriving businesses include a plant nursery and a manufacturer of photovoltaic solar panels.

But the lesson from Civano is that alternative projects of any size can run up against a number of barriers: funding, zoning disputes among counties, cities and developers, resistance or competition from traditional developers, and a general lack of interest from the public. After years of wrangling, planners abandoned their dream of a solar village, though residents have the option of using solar energy.

New Mexico’s Mesa del Sol still has a long way to go. Gov. Bill Richardson and the state Legislature must approve funding for an access road extension, and stalled negotiations between the state and the City of Albuquerque concerning zoning and infrastructure must be resumed before any construction can begin.

Still, developers remain optimistic. "You’re taking land that is past its prime, and instead of developing it piecemeal, you’re looking at it comprehensively, putting in parks and open space first," says John Ratner with ForestCity. "You could think of it as one big urban tapestry of open space."

The author is a freelance science writer in Albuquerque. Assistant editor Laura Paskus contributed to this report.

This story was funded with a grant from the McBride Family and Aspen Business Center Foundation.

    You can contact ...
    • New Mexico State Land Office, 505/827-5760;
    • Mesa del Sol Master Plan, www.nmstatelands.org/land office/MdelSol/MdelMPlan.asp;
    • Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management, www.holisticmanagement.org/;
    • 1,000 Friends of New Mexico, www.1000friends-nm.org.