By Kevin Robinson-Avila / Journal Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14th, 2021 at 9:30pm

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The old First Baptist Church at Central and Broadway in Downtown Albuquerque on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

A new round of accelerated development is coming to the University of New Mexico’s Innovate ABQ high-tech research anddevelopment zone Downtown.

UNM will unveil an updated master plan this afternoon to reinvigorate the build-out of the 7-acre site at the corner of Central and Broadway. The new plan calls for a more flexible approach to developing the Old First Baptist Church property that UNM acquired in 2014, allowing it to be built in more manageable, bite-size spurts, said Lisa Kuuttila, president and CEO of Rainforest Innovations, which manages the university’s entrepreneurship and technology-transfer programs.

That could help renew investor interest and funding for the site, which UNM, public officials and private sector partners have worked on since 2015 to turn into a bustling Innovation District in the heart of Albuquerque where new, high-tech businesses can access needed resources to launch and grow.

UNM asked Perkins & Will, the design firm that created the original master plan in 2015, to “refresh” its design strategy based on changes in the local business and economic development landscape since the first plan came out, Kuuttila said.

“We expect the new strategy will help us navigate those changes and take advantage of new opportunities,” Kuuttila told the Journal. “We expect quite a bit of development to occur over the next five years.”

Perkins & Will executives discussed the updated plan with the Journal in advance of this afternoon’s online presentation to community leaders. Overall, the new design aims to make Innovate ABQ an integral part of Downtown revitalization efforts, rather than develop the 7-acre site as just a neighboring entity among the expanding businesses and public infrastructure under development in the area, said Stephen Coulston, the Perkins & Will principal leading the project.

‘A new front door’

One major change, for example, would convert the west side of the Innovate ABQ property – which abuts Downtown’s north-south railroad tracks – into a welcoming gateway into the research and development zone. That area could become a central hub, or public gathering place, for people to meet or hang out, possibly with coffee shops, restaurants, and maybe a brewery and small park located there, said Perkins & Will Principal David Green.

“It would become a new front door to the innovation district,” Green told the Journal. “That’s where everyone working at Innovate ABQ or surrounding businesses would sit down at 5 p.m., drink a beer and watch people walking by or biking through the area.”

A welcoming entrance there would organically connect Innovate ABQ to the city’s new “rail trail” project, which aims to turn the north-south rail line into a lively public pathway that runs from Lomas in the north to the rail yards in the south.

Connecting thread

The city envisions new parks, businesses, multi-family housing and more lining up along the trail to create a connecting thread that unites Downtown’s northern and southern sides, plus the east and west sides as well, which are currently separated by the railroad tracks, said Karen Iverson, manager for the city’s Metropolitan Redevelopment Agency.

“The tracks are a big barrier Downtown that bifurcates the east and west,” Iverson told the Journal.

“We want it to become a multi-modal path that connects Downtown locations. We want to make it all accessible for people to freely and safely cross the tracks and move throughout the area.”

That includes a city plan for a sky bridge to connect the convention center’s parking structure to a new plaza to be built east of the railroad tracks.

The rail trail development could open more space for startup businesses and other Innovate ABQ entities to locate in areas north of Innovate ABQ, said Coulston of Perkins & Will.

“There’s prime open space there that, as it’s developed, can catalyze activity in and around Innovate ABQ,” Coulston told the Journal. “Properties to the north can accommodate development in close proximity.”

New flexibility

Strategies for direct construction at Innovate ABQ will also change under the updated master plan. For one thing, an original design concept to extend existing streets and build new ones in crisis-crossing fashion throughout the site has been scratched. That original design aimed to make the entire site accessible with vehicles from all directions – including Central on the south, Broadway on the east and Tijeras on the north – while dividing the Innovate ABQ property into blocks to allow construction to progress in quadrants.

But changes in and around the property now interfere with those plans. For instance, the six-story Lobo Rainforest Building, which UNM opened in 2017, now occupies some area originally designated for street extension.

The new plan calls for more flexible, agile development, with four- to five-story multi-tenant buildings constructed as project initiatives, investor interest and funding emerges. The buildings themselves would be scaled to need, with perhaps 5,000-square-foot spaces created for different tenants rather than a huge, 100,000-square-foot facility for one agency or institution.

“The (new) plan is designed to be flexible and adaptable for incremental implementation,” said Perkins & Will Project Manager Paul Ward. “The Albuquerque innovation market is different from other cities. Occupants tend to seek smaller, multi-tenant buildings, so we envision many pieces fitting together and developed flexibly over time.”

As new facilities are constructed, the ground floors will always incorporate gathering and networking spaces inside and out to promote the networking and community sharing opportunities that lead to creative innovation, Coulston said.

Perkins & Will didn’t discuss plans for the old church sanctuary, office tower and parochial school that still sits on the southeast corner of Innovate ABQ at Broadway and Central. UNM wants to turn part of that 71,000-square-foot structure into a bioscience center with offices and wet labs for startup companies.

Still, development plans will be reviewed at this afternoon’s forum, Kuuttila said.

UNM’s decision last year to re-take control over its Downtown property from Innovate ABQ – a nonprofit 501(c)3 that UNM set up in 2015 to independently manage the site – encouraged the university to update its master plan, said Teresa Costantinidis, UNM’s senior vice president for finance and administration. The nonprofit had faced financial difficulties and legal issues in developing the property.

“It seemed like an appropriate time to rethink our strategies following the land’s return to UNM governance,” Constantinidis said. “We’ve had real engagement with community stakeholders with lots of meetings and feedback. We’re very pleased with the results.”

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