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Rehabbing Central Avenue in Albuquerque: City Takes Enforcement
 Action Against 48 of the 150 Hotels Along Old Route 66
By T.J. Wilham, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jun. 10--There are vacant lots and boardedup hotels along Central Avenue that are covered with graffiti and overgrown with weeds.

These properties used to be "cesspools" -- magnets for crime, housing prostitutes, drug dealers and transients.

City leaders now call them prime real estate.

During the past seven years, the city has taken enforcement action against 48 of the 150 hotels along Central Avenue. Fifteen of the hotels have been closed, condemned or demolished. The owners have made repairs or renovations to the rest to bring them into compliance with city codes. Of the closed or demolished hotels: Two have been renovated or rebuilt. Five are vacant lots with no immediate plans in sight. Plans are being discussed to turn one hotel property into a retail and restaurant center, another into a small business and a third into an office complex.

Renovations are planned for three to reopen as hotels.

One that is being demolished was looked at by developers for possible conversion to condos and retail shops.

The city is buying one with hopes of having it remodeled.

"Twenty years ago, 85 percent of our DWIs, 80 percent of our drug sales, 99 percent of our prostitution arrests occurred along Central Avenue by these hotels," Police Chief Ray Schultz said. "The message is clear to the hotel owners: Either you get on board or expect us to come knock at your door."

In 2002, the 15 closed or condemned hotels accounted for 533 police calls. City officials estimated that those calls cost the city $79,950 in public safety services. In 2007, police were called to the properties 19 times.

Real estate activity

Although the progress has been slow and some of the land is still vacant, developers and investors are looking at the land as potential profit, real estate agents say.

"The activity on Central is cranking up because of what the city has done," said John Lewinger, chief executive officer of Grubb & Ellis New Mexico, a commercial real estate company that has assisted three developments on closed Central hotels.

"If the economy wasn't in such a slump right now, you would see even more development on these properties."

The effort to clean up the Central Avenue hotels started about seven years ago when the city formed the Safe City Strike Force.

The strike force is made up of police officers, firefighters, attorneys, prosecutors, city planners, inspectors and social workers.

The strike force generally targets a property after a serious crime has occurred. The team looks for things like the number of police calls and code violations.

The strike force, for example, has shut down four Central bars that were the site of thousands of police calls over a decade.

Although still an eyesore, neighbors and police say a vacant lot is better than what was there before.

"We don't mind the vacant lots because of the fact of what is scraped there is much better than what was built there," said Claude Lewis, president of the Highland Business and Neighborhood Association. "Our neighborhood is far better now that what we were."

Mayor Martin Chavez said he wouldn't stay in a hotel along Central a decade ago.

Now, Chavez said, he could think of a couple of hotels there where he would stay, including the recently renovated Travel Inn.

Chavez said the area used to be the "single most dangerous spot in Albuquerque."

"What we have done has gotten rid of the 'War Zone,' '' Chavez said, referring to a nickname police officers gave to parts of the city's Southeast Heights. "The program has been phenomenally successful."

Developers' judgment

Some developers say Central no longer has the draw to accommodate as many hotels as it did during Route 66's heyday. It's possible, some say, that the newly renovated hotels could revert back to being eyesores if the owners are unable to make money.

Gerald Landgraf owns six Central Avenue hotels. He bought five of them after the city took enforcement action against the properties.

Three of the properties have been closed.

He and his partner are discussing plans for those properties, although he would not elaborate.

City officials said there have been discussions of turning some of Landgraf's properties into retail shops, restaurants and business offices.

"You can't remodel all of these hotels and expect them to be profitable economically. That can't happen," Landgraf said. "There needs to be more activity. People need to come down Central first.

"People are not going to drive to Central to spend the night. There are too many options for them that are a whole lot safer."

Chavez says he is not worried about the newly remodeled hotels turning into cesspools again. He said he is going to trust the developers' judgment on what can make money.

"I would encourage these developers to do whatever they think is going to make them the most money so I can tax them," he said. Online

To see a video about the efforts to rehabilitate Central Avenue, go to

www.ABQJournal.com

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To see more of the Albuquerque Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.abqjournal.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

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