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New Mexico United wants to move Downtown. It won’t be easy.

The team, the Keller Administration, and City Council candidates agree: This is up to the surrounding neighborhoods. That’s a recipe for intense scrutiny, but United has one advantage other developers don’t: thousands of hardcore fans.

News that the phenom soccer team New Mexico United was looking to bolt Isotopes Park for Downtown broke just over a month ago, touching off a round of neighborhood-level speculation over exactly where such a large building could be constructed in an area already packed with homes and businesses. For a while, the possibilities seemed endless: Albuquerque Business First published the map below, which KOAT reported showed “nearly two dozen potential spots.”

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Narrowing that down was the first order of business during DAN’s 45-minute interview last week with United owner Peter Trevisani. And narrow he did: He told us that actually only three locations are being considered, and they are the same sites evaluated in a feasibility study released in 2017: Sawmill, Lomas and Broadway, and the Rail Yards. 

We’ll get into the politics soon, but for now let’s take a look at practicalities of all three: 

SAWMILL: It’s not hurting for vacant land, and I-40 is conveniently located.  
LOMAS & BROADWAY: The site of a city retention pond, the location is vacant but possibly too small, unless the Postal Service could be persuaded to cede at least part of its property to the north. 
RAIL YARDS: United owner Peter Trevisani says he’s not considering a playing field within one of the historic buildings, but rather using the vacant land on the southern end of the city-owned property, which extends south roughly to the red dotted line. 

Logistically speaking, each site has advantages and disadvantages. Sawmill has lots of vacant land and I-40 access, but could involve negotiations with multiple private or federal landowners. Lomas and Broadway is owned by the city but not very big, possibly requiring some other arrangement with another property owner like the U.S. Postal Service, which has a major facility just to the north. And the Rail Yards are headed for development one way or another, but the site is full of toxic soil that would need to be dealt with. And even if the team doesn’t play games in one of the adjacent historic buildings, an existing structure might nonetheless be part of the development, and that could mean asbestos and lead paint removal.

Though he avoided naming a favorite of the three, Trevisani did save his highest compliments for the Rail Yards, noting that a stadium there would help bring people back to a once bustling set of historic buildings and play a role in revitalization efforts in the area: “I think if the city wanted to that it would be a phenomenal space,” he said.

But if there’s no official front runner under consideration, it does seem that Lomas and Broadway is the least likely site to be pursued further. Trevisani called it a “more constrained space.” Mayor Tim Keller’s spokeswoman, Jessie Damazyn, was more blunt: “The Lomas and Broadway location is simply not big enough with the Post Office located where it is currently,” she said, noting that the original feasibility study that looked at the property had envisioned a 10,000 seat stadium, smaller than the 12,000-18,000 seat facility Trevisani says is under consideration.

Thus we may well have ourselves a two-horse race featuring the Rail Yards and Sawmill: Those two areas “seem to have the most potential to bring this vision forward,” Trevisani said. 

But what will the neighborhoods think? 
If there are two things Trevisani would like to make clear, they are these: First, “I’m not interested in knocking down anyone’s house,” he said. “That won’t happen.” Second, “If there’s a neighborhood that doesn’t want a stadium, we’ll go somewhere else. There are a lot of areas that understand the value that could be brought.”

The city, which would likely be a key broker and possible financial partner in whatever site is ultimately selected, sounds like it couldn’t agree more. 

“We are very supportive of the New Mexico United team and their desire to have a facility in Albuquerque,” Damazyn said, before adding: “Any future effort will go through a community engagement process with potential neighbors.”

Also on board with a neighborhood-centric process are City Council candidates. We surveyed all six last week, five responded, and neighborhood involvement proved a very consistent theme. (Excerpts of their answers are below, as is a link to their complete answers.)

Besides revitalization, Trevisani’s pitch to neighborhoods is this: Any development around the stadium should be done in a way that’s consistent with the neighborhood and fits in with its authenticity. And the stadium itself should be more than a place for one team to play soccer, but a community resource for events and the arts.

But above all, he says, this project should serve as something like a physical manifestation of the enthusiasm that the young team has generated. When he talks about this, he seems almost to be the leader of a movement rather than the owner of a soccer team: “Now that we know that this team means more than just soccer to this city and this state, we need to go out and build a stadium that reflects that energy,” he said “The symbolism that the stadium would bring will actually far outweigh the number of jobs that it brings or some of the traditional metrics that people look at.”

Enthusiasm aside, getting neighborhoods on board will likely come down to details that have not yet been worked out and conversations that have not yet been had. As of yet, there are no plans on paper, no artist’s renderings, and no accompanying charm offensive.

Another x factor: How much it will cost, how much the city might consider chipping in, and what the city and neighborhood get for whatever they ante up. Yet another complication could be figuring out exactly what neighborhood sign off looks like in the real world. There are sure to be people on both sides of the argument, but exactly what percentage of either can be rounded up and called consensus is a judgement call ultimately made by elected officials, or perhaps even voters. 

The state of play
At this early date, though, it’s safe to say that reaction to United’s future plans will divide into three main groups familiar to anyone with a passing interest in politics: for, against, and persuadable. 

Dorothy Chavez, the president of the Barelas Neighborhood Association, is a good example of the “against” camp: “That’s not really what we’re envisioning being there,” she told DAN. The neighborhood already has a traffic-generating jewel of an institution – the zoo – that she says doesn’t add much value beyond its own walls. “We want something more engaging with the neighborhood,” she says. 

Others in the against camp will invoke the specter of gentrification that is never far from the surface when it comes to development conversations Downtown. Especially in historic and predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, fear that new development will directly push out or indirectly price out longtime residents runs deep. Sawmill resident Judy Gallegos went so far as to compare the United stadium idea to the highly controversial acquisition of land owned by Mexican-Americans by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1950s. 

“I am so focused on protecting what we have here,” she said. “When you start bringing in gentrification it ruffles a lot of feathers.” 

On the other hand, there will be many arguing in favor of a Downtown stadium, but augmenting the usual group of business and economic growth advocates will be potentially thousands of United fans, a diverse, young group that now even has its own newspaper, the Somos Unidos News. Showing the kind of organizational skill that could in the future be marshaled for more political purposes, a Somos Unidos staffer wasted no time putting DAN in touch with people like Arthur Bell, who grew up in the South Broadway neighborhood and has only missed one United game. He’s very much on board with a new stadium:

“The rail yard has been supposedly under development since I can remember,” Bell said. “I welcome anything that can kind of bring value to my neighborhood.” 

Barelas resident and United fan Max Baptiste agrees: “I really like the idea. I think that could be a major economic game changer for this city.” 

But as in so many elections, this decision may well come down not to those definitely for or definitely against, but the folks in the middle who could go either way. 

“We wouldn’t mind it, but what’s it going to do traffic-wise?” asked Anthony Havens, of Barelas. Having a good answer to that question may do the trick, since he’s generally bullish on United: “It’s a good thing for Albuquerque,” he adds. “We need professional sports here.”

“There’s ways to do it that would strike a balance between really respecting the character of the neighborhood while also creating something that’s unique and unifying,” added Eric Griego, who once represented Downtown on the City Council and serves on a panel advising the city about the Rail Yards. “I think it could be exactly what would catalyze development there…but they’ve got to do it right.”

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Of all the neighborhood-level political hurdles United must navigate, the thorniest of all may be the mathematics of parking. Trevisani, factoring in a good deal of carpooling, bicycling, and transit use, reckons the new stadium will need about 2,500 spots, perhaps 3,500 if the seating count is closer to the top of the 12,000-18,000 seat range. Based on a University of Tennessee estimate of 160 cars per acre, that would work out to at least a 15-acre parcel, an area roughly equivalent to Tiguex Park and the Albuquerque Museum combined.

The parking need not all be on the surface, Griego points out. It could be a multi-level garage, which would take up less space. Or it could look like a shuttle system from satellite parking lots – possibly even existing ones – just as the BioPark moves people from the zoo to the River of Lights at the Botanical Garden. 

Parking may not be the stuff of blaring headlines, but the stakes are high nonetheless. Build too much and you’ve wasted a lot of money to pave some valuable land that could have been used for other things. Build too little and people will improvise on the side streets of surrounding neighborhoods, much to the annoyance of residents. For the neighborhood buy in that all parties say is required, United will have to capably sell whatever parking plan they come up with. 

The Keller Administration’s take

Here’s our complete Q & A with mayoral spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn: 

DAN: In general, does the mayor want to see the team playing Downtown, or is he more inclined toward other locations, or would he rather they stay in Isotopes Park?
DAMAZYN: We are very supportive of the New Mexico United team and their desire to have a facility in Albuquerque. Any future effort will go through a community engagement process with potential neighbors. The team signed a lease extension to use the Isotopes Park for another year, and we will be happy to have them at the Isotopes for as long as they want.  This allows us to get more use out of the facility and having them this year has been great.

Q: What does the mayor think of those three proposed locations specifically? Does one or another stand out as a particularly promising or bad idea?
A: We do not own Sawmill, but would look at ways to help if that location is chosen. On the Rail Yards location, there are some challenges due to environmental remediation and transportation to and from the area. We would work very closely with neighborhood associations on any developments in the area. And finally the Lomas and Broadway location is simply not big enough with the Post Office located where it is currently.  

Q: What is the status of the discussions with the team? When might they come to some sort of conclusion? 
A: The team is eager for a stadium and we know the people of Albuquerque would love to see them have a stadium of their own, however, there are still many conversations that need to be had and work to get done before making a decision.

The City Council candidates’ take

DAN surveyed all six candidates for the district two seat and five responded. Here are the complete responses, and here are some excerpts, in randomized order: 

Zack Quintero: “I would want to do community outreach and feasibility study with neighborhoods before exploring sites for a downtown stadium. We need to know the costs and impact to the city and surrounding areas…From the doors I have knocked I am certain there is a huge fan base downtown but they often feel subjected to outside companies taking control of their everyday routes, air, and quality of life.”

Isaac Benton: “I support this enthusiastically! Soccer brings us together and is on fire in Albuquerque – our team name “New Mexico United” says it all!…At any site, a decision must involve the neighboring residents that will be most impacted. For example, regular zoo concerts negatively affect Barelas causing additional traffic and noise, and they generate fewer than 1000 cars. Any location selection must consider how fans will access and egress the stadium.”

Stephen Baca: “The City needs to keep taxpayers in mind when negotiating the Stadium. If Albuquerque Citizens are going to be footing the bill the answer is an absolute no. If a large majority of residents in these areas don’t want it, the answer is no. Efforts should go to improving and expanding Isotopes Park, where there is already plenty of parking, wide roads, and the infrastructure is already started.” 

Robert Nelson: “I’m inclined to support efforts to build a soccer stadium only if the surrounding neighborhoods are involved in the decision-making and development of the project. As far as good or bad fit, I think that’s up to the surrounding neighborhoods to determine.”  

Connie Vigil: “[A] Downtown stadium is not feasible because you would need 4 acres and good road access. We don’t have that…However, South 2nd is ideal as there is an existing baseball field and potentially more land for sale to make up about 4 acres. I think this may be a joint location for the local ball players and the soccer team to share this facility.”

Joseph Griego: No response

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