ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Twenty years ago, this city’s West Side sustained little more than sage and jackrabbits. Today, it’s a seemingly endless maze of cul-de-sacs and cookie-cutter houses. Of the more than 3,700 new residential building permits issued in Albuquerque in 2005, over 80 percent were for the West Side, according to the city’s economic development director.
Much of this growth was made possible by the boosterism of Martin "Marty" Chavez, who, as the Duke City’s mayor for eight of the past 12 years, has led the charge to build roads between the city and West Side suburbs, paving the way for growth. Chavez championed the construction of the Montaño Bridge over the Rio Grande and the effort to extend a commuter road through Petroglyph National Monument (HCN, 6/27/05: Suburbia blasts through a national monument).
Chavez is up for re-election on Oct. 4, and while he enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls, one rival candidate is raising issues Chavez would rather not address. That candidate is Eric Griego, an Albuquerque city councilman, small-business owner, college professor — and stand-up comedian.
Both Griego and Chavez are Democrats, but they disagree on nearly every issue that will be on the October ballot. Griego supports campaign finance reform and raising the city’s minimum wage to $7.15 an hour, and opposes requiring photo identification at polls. Chavez opposes campaign reform and the minimum wage, while supporting the voter ID plan. But nowhere do the two differ more than on issues of growth.
In the past four years, Griego has made a name for himself as a sprawl fighter. On the council, he sponsored the city’s new "Planned Growth Strategy," which calls for infill development rather than expanding suburbs, placing new communities where infrastructure already exists, and requiring developers to pay "impact fees" to help fund roads, parks and utilities. He recently called for a one-year moratorium on West Side building permits.
"The mayor and the economic elite in the city think we can continue to sprawl," says Griego. "They think we can always buy water to deal with the drought that everyone’s expecting to come." He believes that the city’s water supply will last only 30 years, based on studies of the groundwater aquifer and city growth projections, and points out that Indian tribes, farmers and downstream water users have higher-priority water rights than the city.
Chavez insists that the city’s water supply will last 80 years, and says that he would be happy to debate that belief with anyone. But it’s harder to pin Chavez down on growth and development: Though he claims to be "anti-sprawl" and says that the city’s growth plan originated during his administration, he has opposed many of its provisions. "Growth is a reality," he says during a mayoral forum. "The question is what kind of growth we’re going to have."
Chavez has raised more than $906,000 for his campaign — a record for the city, and more than twice the amount raised by the other three candidates combined. His finance reports show most of the money has come from construction companies, real estate agents, contractors and engineering firms.
Albuquerque residents seem to share Chavez’s lack of concern about growth. During one of the many candidate forums, one woman complains that her morning commute takes 35 minutes and asks what the candidates will do to shorten it. A man says that new roads get "studied to death" and never built.
To reduce traffic, Chavez proposes creating "job centers" close to homes. He also reminds the audience of his support for the Petroglyph National Monument road, and promises still more roads to ease congestion.
"Chavez is completely oblivious to the impending cultural and economic disaster," says V.B. Price, a 40-year Duke City resident and journalist who writes a weekly column for the Albuquerque Tribune. "If you put water and petroleum (scarcity) together, you’ll see a big economic Katrina."
On the other hand, says Price, if the city’s leaders and residents start taking growth and water issues seriously, solutions such as infill, effective mass transit and new kinds of urban design can be "perfectly viable economic alternatives to the Great American Dream of moving (to the suburbs)."
At a comedy show in a downtown bar in mid-September, Griego takes on the road-builders and West Siders with his rendition of the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime: "You may find yourself living in a large West Side house ... asking yourself, ‘Where are my beautiful roads?’ "
A poll in mid-September showed Griego with just 13 percent of the vote, compared to Chavez’s 40 percent.
The author, HCN’s Southwest editor, lives in Albuquerque.