One way to explain how a Manhattan-sized mesa may become the Southwest's largest green development is to point to its past success as an apocalyptic wasteland. In 2008, a touch of twisted metal transformed part of Mesa del Sol, a 12,900-acre expanse south of Albuquerque, into a robot-ravaged Los Angeles for the movie Terminator Salvation. The film's backers chose this spot for its empty land and government subsidies -- the same things that, years earlier, attracted developer Forest City Covington.
If Forest City's plans are fully realized, the production facility that hosted Terminator will anchor a "New Urbanist" community for 100,000 people. Like other desert boomtowns, Albuquerque's loosely planned sprawl is on a collision course with its finite water supply. Mesa del Sol will have an extremely efficient water system, and its dense, mixed-use design could reduce the need for more development on the city's west side, where suburbs have consumed huge tracts of once-wild desert. Still, "sustainable" development in the arid Southwest sounds quixotic at best, an oxymoron at worst.
In this uncertain economy, nowhere else in the West is a New Urbanist project of this scale moving forward. And yet, this March, Forest City broke ground on Mesa del Sol's first neighborhood. The developer's persistence is thanks in large part to its unusually close alliance with local government. But to understand that, it's best to take a tour.