The 640-acre Elena Gallegos Open Space, located in the foothills of the Sandia mountains, is currently the subject of concern among community members because of the legality and consequences of a potential project from the Albuquerque Parks and Recreation department to create an education center in the space, according to Save the Elena Gallegos co-founders Viki Teahan and Katrina Sanchez.
The potential educational center would be no larger than 5,000 square feet, according to Dave Simon, the director of the Albuquerque parks department.
Since the 1960s, advocates have fought for protection of the park from development when the Albuquerque City Council began a tax to purchase the space in 1969, according to The Paper.
The legality concerns surround a 1982 deed when the city of Albuquerque purchased the open space from the Albuquerque Academy to create a city park as outlined specifically in the deed, according to Teahan and Sanchez. The deed also details what can specifically be built on the grounds.
“The city will limit use of the park property to passive recreation use which will include only the installation, construction, maintenance and use of picnic benches, tables, shelters, barbecue grills, drinking water facilities, associated minor recreation facilities (such as volleyball or horseshoe pitching facilities), restrooms, access roads, parking lots, hiking trails, trailheads, a trailer or other residence for a residential caretaker, and electric power facilities associated with the specified uses, all as specifically designated by the City,” the deed reads.
Teahan and Sanchez, along with other residents near the space, have begun a lawsuit under local attorney Wade Jackson which seeks to block the creation of the education center in the park for breaking the deed.
“Our government is subject to our laws the same as all the rest of us, and a government cannot just ignore or dismiss a deed just because it's inconvenient,” Sanchez said.
Simon said that the project is still in the early stages of development and the department will conduct more studies and facilitate more public input before deciding whether or not to move forward with it. Simon also said that the deed allows for specific structures to be built, but they won’t build on the property if it is determined the center does not fall under those structure parameters.
“Depending on if we propose something formal and what that looks like, then we would address the issue of whether it is consistent with the deed or not. And right now, there's no specific proposal,” Simon said.
The only other party that could have a say in the development is the Albuquerque Academy, which retains veto power over how the land is used. The school has publicly stated that they do not intend to object to the project because the city bought the land, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
Save the Elena Gallegos has started an online petition with almost 10,000 signatures in opposition to the creation of the center. Sanchez said that over 6,000 of the signatures have come from Albuquerque specifically.
Other surveys have also shown community opposition to the project, including a study done as part of a Parks and Recreation feasibility study, performed by local architecture firm Dekker Perich Sabatini. Of 28 responses, 14 were outright opposed. Trail improvements were listed as the top concern, with the education center ranking fourth.
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“Funds should be spent for more security and bike-only trails, this should be a natural space with no building, additional traffic and parking is an issue and would disturb the peace, and that an education center would be too intrusive on a sensitive wildlife natural area,” the study reads.
An additional survey conducted by the Sandia Heights Homeowners Association concluded with 73% of responses being ranked in opposition. The center took fifth in a priority ranking with trail improvements once again ranking first.
Other concerns voiced by community members include the development being “commercial.” Notes from the first advisory committee meetings detail a “kitchen/café (with) removable walls that could open up the space for larger events.” The kitchen/café was not mentioned in subsequent meeting notes, and Simon said a commercial kitchen is not a part of the current plan.
“Early in the process — when people were thinking big — we're at the very beginning of the process. So what do you do when you do that? You start brainstorming, right? It's, ‘Well, we could do this, we could do this, or we could do that.’ And you gradually narrow your focus down to like what people really feel is appropriate,” Simon said.
One of the current site options for the center is in Inner Loop Road, an area that Simon said has already been impacted by human activity vis-á-vis the current road and parking spaces available for visitors. The other options include at the Pino Trail, by the current attendant booth on South Loop Road, further down Tramway Boulevard or by Cottonwood Springs.
Another factor in the potential project is whether or not it would aid accessibility. By providing an indoor location, it would make school field trips more weather adaptable, however, projects to improve current trails and make them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act are separate and not contingent upon the education center plans, according to Simon.
Sanchez proposed that reducing parking fees or providing more public transportation to the park would better aid the accessibility of the area. The parks and recreation department has talked about creating a shuttle system up Simmons Road, which, according to Simon, would require funding.
“If you look at what makes the Elena Gallegos difficult to access, it's the only open space property in the city that charges for parking. It's a very low amount: it's $1 during the week and $2 on the weekend. But even that small parking fee can be an obstacle to families,” Sanchez said.
While Simon said that the parks department has no plans to push for the development of the open space beyond the education center, Sanchez fears it nonetheless would set a precedent of development for those who come after Simon.
“Those restrictions in this deed are no longer relevant because they clearly didn't apply in the past and are clearly no longer in effect. And it clearly is not against the history of the Elena Gallegos to have buildings: there is now a precedent for buildings,” Sanchez said.
Maddie Pukite is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @maddogpukite