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NIMBY-ism & urban sprawl highlight NM United stadium placement
The tale of a homeless soccer team, displaced minorities, and a City addicted to cars
Albuquerque Mayor, Tim Keller, recently announced the building of a new stadium at Balloon Fiesta Park (BFP) for Albuquerque’s soccer team, New Mexico United. While this is exciting news for the team, their fans, and Albuquerque, the debate over the location of the stadium has been quite contentious.
Keller noted that the existing infrastructure at the ballooning venue should be sufficient for the team’s growing fan base. The existing infrastructure he mentioned was… parking lots. If you’ve been a Complex Effects reader for a while, you probably already know how I feel about parking lots. If not, in a nutshell, car-dependent infrastructure leads to many of the issues climate and housing advocates are frustrated with - urban sprawl, housing shortages, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
That being said, I do feel bad for the Keller administration, because BFP wasn’t their first choice.
A City shouldn’t place a sports stadium just anywhere it fits - it should be strategically placed to account for transportation diversity and efficiency, economic impact on the surrounding neighborhood, and environmental impact. Today’s post is about the NM United stadium placement, where the stadium should have gone, and how we can make the best of this situation we find ourselves in.
Keller said they initially mulled over different locations Downtown and decided to try for a stadium near the Rail Yards in Barelas. In my opinion, this would have been the best option, and I can see why the City, the team, and the Chamber of Commerce wanted this in the first place. Let me explain:
First of all, the Rail Yards have enough room for a stadium. It’s prime real estate that hasn’t done much for the City since the booming railroad days other than hosting a farmers market on Sundays and a few scenes in Breaking Bad. It’s kind of a miracle that undeveloped land of that size exists so close to the city center.
Second, there are diverse and flexible transit options for the whole city. The Rail Runner, ART line, and both Interstates are all within reach for game-goers to utilize. The Rail Yards are easily accessible and offer fans cheap, climate-friendly ways to get to the game.
Third, small businesses around the stadium would benefit from more foot traffic. United fans would patronize local small businesses before and after games, further enhancing the City’s Downtown renewal goals.
Fourth, we would get drunk drivers off the road. The last thing we want is drunk soccer fans driving home after a game because alternative modes of transportation aren’t available - something that really bothers me about The Pit, Isotopes Park, and Isleta Amphitheater.
Lastly, the stadium would revitalize the historic Barelas and South Broadway neighborhoods currently suffering from high poverty rates. The Rail Yards, in its heyday, employed over 20% of the City. The adjacent neighborhoods have since been impoverished and could use the jobs and investment that would spread from the stadium. Petco Park in San Diego is a great example of how sports stadiums can revitalize blighted urban areas.
Now, despite all of the logical reasons above, the stadium will not be built at the Rail Yards. This is due to two things - a bad financing scheme, and NIMBYism.
To finance the stadium, the City asked the voters for the approval of a bond issuance (permission to use taxpayer dollars to build a privately owned stadium). The voters said no.
Meanwhile, there was a backlash from neighbors and community organizations that felt their neighborhoods would be further gentrified if the stadium was built there. The neighborhoods of Barelas and South Broadway have been around longer than Albuquerque, and the families and cultures from these areas are especially sensitive to gentrification. So much so that the city has locked these neighborhoods into low-density housing zones, free from apartments and mixed-use zoning, despite the proximity to Downtown that would urge most urban planners to opt for density and development.
If the Rail Yards are truly the best option, what about all the gentrification stuff? Well, I’ll argue that there’s a difference between gentrification and evolution. Gentrification happens when natives of a neighborhood are displaced by rising housing costs due to development or “urban renewal”. It’s a function of capitalism that infiltrates a neighborhood when it subjectively becomes more desirable for the wealthy.
Evolution, on the other hand, is when a neighborhood decreases its poverty, evolves to the growing needs of a city, and avoids displacement. In order to evolve, a city needs to have, among other things, YIMBY housing policies.
Albuquerque residents (just like residents in most liberal US cities) are under the impression that all urban development leads to displacement, but that’s not true. A study by The Brookings Institute and Common Good Labs shows that you can increase development and decrease poverty without displacing folks by increasing homeownership, housing density, self-employment, and community-building organizations.
Downtown Albuquerque doesn’t need to reject development to avoid displacement. Instead, it should welcome development and prepare for it by building more housing, lowering the barriers to homeownership, and developing strong, community-based, business ecosystems.
Housing, transit, and economic policies will determine the rate of gentrification Downtown, not soccer stadiums.
ABQ Stadium Sprawl
Since Albuquerque residents rejected the City’s bond issuance, the State of New Mexico jumped in with their broader-sourced taxpayer money to make the stadium happen - this time at Balloon Fiesta Park without voter approval.
As Mayor Keller said during his announcement of the stadium, BFP has plenty of parking and space to build. While true, this only further accentuates our car-dependent entertainment scene in this city. Albuquerque’s entertainment venues have a lot in common: they’re nowhere near current mass transit infrastructure, they take hours of stop-and-go traffic to leave, and they’re not where people actually live. If you have gone to Isleta Amphitheater, BFP, The Pit, or Isotopes Park, you have experienced the sobering experience of idling in traffic after the entertainment has ended.
Great cities build their stadiums in urban areas next to diverse and flexible transit options. The City had the right idea by originally looking to the Rail Yards to build the stadium. It’s accessible from the Rail Runner, ART line, both Interstates, and there’s more than one road in and out (unlike Isleta).
So, now what?
NMU is set to start construction on the BFP stadium by (checks watch) the end of the year. In a perfect world, we would wait until we have a better spot identified, but the Mayor is likely looking for a political win, and per USL mandate, New Mexico United needs to have its own stadium by 2026 if it wants to continue to exist.
If the stadium actually does go to BFP, they should adequately build out alternative transit capabilities. Luckily, the City and State could leverage existing sustainable infrastructure in the BFP area to relieve game-goers of driving.
There is an existing bike lane that runs along drainage canals that connect BFP to UNM, the NE Heights, the Rio Grande trail system, and more. Furthermore, the Rail Runner passes near BFP, but there is no existing station that would allow pedestrians to easily get from the train to the stadium. If the City could tap into the cycling and Rail Runner potential near BFP, they could salvage what would be just another car-dependent stadium.
In summary, the United stadium should have gone to the Rail Yards, but NIMBYism and half-baked urban planning still infect Albuquerque’s growth pattern. Albuquerque’s Downtown continues to be denied the growth and development that makes great urban environments great.
I believe Albuquerque can be a great city. Great cities don’t become museum exhibits of their former selves. They don’t shy away from opportunities to evolve, they embrace evolution in inclusive, culturally important ways. Great cities are living, breathing, evolving, ecosystems that provide sustainable places for humans to thrive. A great city makes its investments near people and culture, not just where there happens to be a big parking lot.