One hundred and fifty thousand years ago, the Rio Grande rift rubbed its hands together, creating enough heat to spawn the five volcanoes that dominate the tall west side of Albuquerque. When they erupted, those volcanoes spat out a black shelf of rock that American Indians later adopted as a medium for storytelling, etching thousands of petroglyphs upon the basalt boulders.
Below that rocky escarpment, the city’s sprawl spreads like an exotic weed. Since Albuquerque sprouted from its humble beginnings in the wet embrace of the Rio Grande, this escarpment has held new development at bay.
But now, the Volcano Heights subdivision is headed for the escarpment. When the 3,000-acre area was first platted for development in the 1960s, Albuquerque’s taxpayers still subsidized developments in prime locations. But the city was reluctant to pay for Volcano Heights, largely because of the high cost of running utilities through volcanic basalt, and because no roads connected the area to Albuquerque.
That is, until last year, when voters agreed to extend two roads that would give Volcano Heights residents a straight shot to Albuquerque. One of the roads, Paseo del Norte, would pass through Petroglyph National Monument, which protects more than 25,000 examples of ancient American Indian rock art (HCN, 4/13/98: A road to ruins?).
"With the market banging on the door, it’s inevitable that the land will be developed," says Michael Cadigan, a city councilor whose district includes the subdivision. He does worry, however, that the new development, like others at the city’s edges, will force residents to drive to jobs and shopping centers elsewhere, further jamming roadways.
Last October, at Cadigan’s urging, the city council imposed a six-month moratorium on home-building in Volcano Heights so the city could organize a planning team. In January, property owners and developers, advocacy groups, neighborhood associations and government officials met to talk about land use, development style and transportation.
The committee laid out three scenarios. One of them assumes the area will include many houses and few jobs; another has modest retail services, walking trails, and encourages some protection of open space and petroglyphs. The third option would include a "downtown" area, employ about 30,000 people, and designate about 30 percent of the development as open space.
Still uncomfortable with the plans, in April, the council extended the moratorium for one more year.
Dolph Barnhouse, executive director of 1000 Friends of New Mexico, which advocates responsible growth, applauds the city’s "cautious" approach, and is optimistic that Volcano Heights will set a new example for the city. "It took 50 years to get here," he says. "We won’t turn it around overnight, but we’re heading in the right direction." Still, he says, there are currently no requirements for residents or developers to actually follow any plans the city might make for smart growth.
When the moratorium expires next April, Cadigan hopes to enact mandatory ordinances: In the past, he says, ordinances have used words like "should." Now, he says, "we’ll use words like ‘shall’ and ‘must.’ " Another option is to encourage developers to build according to the plan by giving them incentives, such as reductions in newly enacted "impact fees," which the city charges to pay for public parks, trails, and water and sewer mains.
Meanwhile, the city is still embroiled in a lawsuit with environmental, social justice and preservation groups over Paseo del Norte. The groups argue Albuquerque has ignored the National Historic Preservation Act, which would require the city to explore alternatives to extending a road through the national monument.
Assistant City Attorney Greg Smith disagrees. "We believe Albuquerque has complied (with the Act)," he says. "Extending Paseo is the only prudent and feasible alternative for the city."
The author is a former HCN intern.
This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.
Dolph Barnhouse, Executive Director, 1000 Friends of New Mexico: 505-379-4897
Michael Cadigan, Albuquerque City Councilor for District 5: 505-768-3100