By Mike Cook
For the Bulletin
Much of Las Cruces’ recent development has been on its eastern and western edges, forming a kind of doughnut that has left parts of its core suffering from urban flight and blight. The city began to reverse that trend more than a decade ago with a revitalization of downtown. Now, with a blueprint in hand and plans underway for a multi-million dollar renovation of Valley Drive, the city is looking to continue the redevelopment of west Las Cruces by breathing life back into the multi-use neighborhood it calls Amador Proximo.
The area, located north of Ama- dor Avenue, east of Valley Drive, south of Hadley Avenue and west of the railroad tracks, played an important role in the early development of Las Cruces. It includes 50plus acres that are home to historic cotton gins and warehouses and an old onion shed, alongside Brewer Oil, MacArthur Elementary School, Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, the Gospel Rescue Mission, Save Mart grocery store, several locally owned restaurants, High Desert Brewing Company, Branigan Park, Project in Motion and Las Cruces Fire Station No. 3, along with other retail businesses and residential areas.
The Amador Proximo blueprint was approved by the city council in October after more than a year of planning and research and a five-day charrette in June that included significant public participation; although “thoughts of developing this area date back at least 20 years,” said commercial real estate broker and former Las Cruces city councilor Gil Jones.
The name Amador Proximo was arrived at collaboratively by city staff and the consulting firm Placemakers to guide the charrette. Placemakers, a planning and urban design company, has offices in Canada and the United States, including one in Albuquerque. Proximo is the Spanish word for “next.”
The blueprint would make the neighborhood “more walkable and bikeable,” improve its “mix of commerce and housing” and “provide better connections between where people live and work,” city Community Development Department Director David Weir told Mayor Ken Miyagishima and city councilors when the blueprint was presented at an August 2015 council meeting.
Amador Proximo’s “historic connection to the city’s legacies of agriculture and industry gives it a special identity,” according to the blueprint. “And while its assets have been underutilized in the recent past, a variety of residences and businesses have located there, with others suggesting they’d consider relocating if the mix of opportunities was right. That makes the area ideal for testing the city’s strategies for encouraging more integrated approaches to redevelopment.”
The area has a “unique identity,” said former City Councilor Nathan Small, who championed the Amador Proximo blueprint process. His second term on the council ended in November, but Small continues to be an advocate for the neighborhood’s redevelopment.
There is “certainly a great deal of opportunity and relevance” for revitalization efforts, which must be pursued with “a grounding in the heart and heritage” of the area and an “eye toward more value, more safety, more opportunity,” he said.
The “most exciting piece” of the blueprint process “is all the different people from different perspectives who are working together,” Small said. The “strengthening and invigorating” of Amador Proximo will be “based on the folks who live and work and/or want to live and work nearby,” he said.
City Downtown Planning and Development Coordinator Andy Hume said about 200 people from throughout the Amador Proximo area attended the charrette, including residents, business owners and officials from nonprofits in the neighborhood.
One of the great values of the charrette was that it allowed Amador Proximo redevelopment to be discussed in “a positive environment,” Hume said. The blueprint was not designed to provide all the answers, but to present all the challenges and opportunities of redevelopment, he said. Jones said 95 percent of stakeholders, including residents of the neighborhood, are aware of the planned development. He credited Small with getting city funding for the charrette and driving the blueprint process. “Nathan was essential,” Jones said. “It took Nathan’s leadership to bring it forward.”
“Public input (has been) a very important part of this process,” said Jerry Paz, vice president and Las Cruces branch manager of MolzenCorben, the Albuquerque- based engineering, architectural and planning firm hired by the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) for the Valley Drive project.
Renovation of more than 1.5 miles of north Valley Drive and less than a quarter-mile of Avenida de Mesilla will be one of the first steps of Amador Proximo redevelopment.
Because Valley Drive is a state road, NMDOT has committed $11 million to the project, but could spend $2.5 million more.
“If NMDOT pursues a project inclusive of oversized storm drain and proposed improvements for the Amador Proximo, the anticipated cost is approximately $13.5 million,” said NMDOT Public Information/Compliance Officer Bridget Spedalieri. “Should NMDOT pursue a standard department project to not include Amador Proximo improvements and recommendations for City of Las Cruces drainage structures, the estimated cost is approximately $11 million,” she said.
If the drain system and improvements are included, Spedalieri said, NMDOT would enter into a road transfer agreement with the city, making the city “responsible for all maintenance, permitting and any future construction or improvement needs,” she said.
“The project will include approximately 1.6 miles on Valley Drive (between Picacho Drive/US 70 and Avenida de Mesilla) and approximately 0.2 miles on Avenida de Mesilla from Hickory Drive to Valley Drive,” Spedalieri said.
“Project scope will consist of full depth roadway reconstruction, storm drain system and curb and gutter, new street signals and lights, bike lane and ADA sidewalks,” she said. “Existing signals will be replaced with new signal hardware.” Paz said the new traffic lights will be synchronized.
“N.M. 188 (Valley Drive) is one of the key north-tosouth corridors through the City of Las Cruces,” according to www.valleydrive.net. “As Las Cruces has urbanized over the past 20 years, Valley Drive has seen its importance to the community grow as well. This segment is part of the Historic U.S. Route 85, the primary route between El Paso on the south, extending north all the way to the Canadian border prior to the construction of the interstate system.”
The Valley Drive project is currently in the study phase, Paz said. Next, it will move into the environmental compliance phase, with project design expected to begin in early 2016.
“Our current completion date for design and bidding is scheduled for March of 2017 with an expected construction start date of late summer of 2017,” Spedalieri said. “At this point, a 12- to 14month construction time is estimated, but will be finalized as the design process progresses.”
The construction phase could be extended “because the public has requested that we build it in pieces, segments, so the whole two miles isn’t torn up all at once,” Paz said. That was one of the recommendations that came out of the charrette and other public meetings, he said.
The reconstruction of Valley Drive has to be done “in a manner that is least harmful to existing businesses and to the flow of traffic,” Small said. “Rehab is such a necessary part” of redevelopment, but the challenge is that the extreme inconvenience can be very harmful, especially to existing business. That’s why careful planning and public input are so important to the process, he said: “Measure twice, cut once.”
“From what I understand, it’s going to be a big project, very well needed,” said Jerry Silva, one of the co-owners of Save Mart grocery store, which is located at the corner of Valley Drive and Hadley Avenue and has been a fixture in the area for decades. “We just want to make sure it’s done correctly so we don’t have any problems with traffic,” he said. Silva said he is especially glad the construction on Valley Drive will include an upgrade to the traffic light at Valley and Hadley that will include left turn signals, making that intersection safer for drivers.
Small described Valley Drive as a “major thruway for the entire county and city,” and said it is the “catalyst piece … to the area and the regional future.”
Planting trees along the street will also be important because they will help to “calm traffic (and improve) the visual aspect as opposed to just a ribbon of asphalt,” said Hume, who has worked extensively on the Amador Proximo project.
Valley Drive began as a farm road, he said, and “the city has grown up around it.” Reconstructing part of it will “interface with re-development,” as Amador Proximo is converted “from its very heavy history of agriculture and ag production and processing to one of residence, retail, offices and those types of opportunities,” Hume said.
Since the neighborhood is “a confluence of so many different things,” Hume said, the challenge will be to determine “how does re-development of the area integrate and enhance and be enhanced by?”
For example, he said, the water tower and cotton gins visible to the east from Valley Drive “are icons from our history; and at the same time, how do they fit into the redevelopment?”
Calcot, Ltd. owns about 31 acres in the Amador Proximo area, including the land containing the water tower and many of the unoccupied warehouses in the area, said Jones, who is an associate broker with NAI 1st Valley Realty. Calcot, which has offices in Bakersfield and Hanford, CA and Glendale, AZ, is a cotton marketing cooperative founded in 1927 and owned by cotton producers in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, according to www.calcot.com.
“The cotton gins (one saw gin and one roller gin, now long removed from their buildings) are located between Hayner and Hadley, and on the corner of Compress and Hadley,” said Jones. “Compress is actually singular. It was/is a press that repressed cotton bales when gins had much older pressing technology. Cotton has been important in the area at least as far back as 1926,” he said.
“The B.E. Harvey cotton gin was built in 1926 but burned to the ground in 1927,” according to the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum’s Research and Collections (see www.nmfarmandranchmuseum.org/oralhistory/detail.php?interview=64). “It was rebuilt in 1928 and has remained at the original location along the railroad tracks in Las Cruces.”
Members of the Salopek family own the land with the tall, peaked warehouse just east of the Gospel Rescue Mission on Amador Avenue, Jones said. That warehouse is such a Las Cruces icon, it is part of the Amador Proximo masthead created during the charrette to help brand the project.
“Assets wear out,” Jones said. But, because of the charrette and the blueprint, the city “has a plan” for redevelopment. Research by city staff has already produced “justifiable and recommendable” results, he said; but, the challenge is still enormous. “Redeveloping is very, very expensive.
We need more economic viability in Las Cruces to drive development,” Jones said.
“It’s absolutely essential that we continue our efforts to revitalize the core of our city,” he said. And, although it may be a while before private developers are willing to invest in Amador Proximo redevelopment, “over time it will be successful,” Jones said. Renovation plans for Amador Proximo are “going to be very valuable for the community,” Silva said.
Within the next decade or so, Small said he hopes to see “a good deal of development” in Amador Proximo, so that residents can “get to work, school, health care efficiently and safely,” enjoy “good roads with good sidewalks, parkways and green space,” and live in an area that is friendly to vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists and has grocery stores, restaurants, medical services, recreation and entertainment.
The charrette recommended a number of major changes to the neighborhood, including “creating a system of parks, trails and playgrounds to tie the neighborhood together, to nurture healthy, active lifestyles for kids and adults, and to deal with storm water challenges,” according to the blueprint.
It also said “Hadley, Hayner, and eventually Compress must have streetscape improvements to incentivize new development. These should be city investments to leverage the potential employment base of the neighborhood. As development intensifies, landowners and developer groups will be responsible for the additional streets required to achieve the development capacity of the neighborhood.”
The blueprint suggested that “funding for public projects may be identified through the formation of a Tax Increment Development District, the Capital Improvement Program or general obligation bonds.” For more information, visit www.amadorproximo.org and www.valleydrive.net