ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – More than seven years after its inception, the University of New Mexico is effectively restarting its vision for a bustling innovation district in downtown Albuquerque’s gateway. UNM is now taking over the seven-acre Innovate ABQ project at Central and Broadway as the effort has struggled to see continued development in recent years.
UNM’s Board of Regents approved the property takeover in a July board meeting, acquiring the property from a non-profit that had been overseeing the project from the start. The non-profit, public-private partnership which shared the project’s namesake, “Innovate ABQ Inc.” struggled to keep the project moving in recent years as it dealt with a fight over tax debts and raising investment funds.
UNM says the project will now be co-managed by the university’s Lobo Development Corporation and the “Rainforest Innovations” economic development division. President and Chief Economic Development Officer of UNM Rainforest Innovations, Lisa Kuuttila says the new ownership structure will help UNM be “more efficient” with the project.
“We’re all optimistic that things can happen quickly and it won’t take as much funding as we need to get things rolling but the reality is, is that it does take time, and it does take more money than you think it’s going to for a development,” Kuuttilla said. “These kinds of projects take a long time, they literally take decades and if you look across the country, you’ll see many other similar kinds of ebbs and flows of these public-private partnerships.”
Tuesday, the Innovate ABQ campus is home to a six-floor student housing complex with office space on the ground floor. Several of New Mexico’s various research labs occupy those offices alongside a coffee shop and a credit union branch. Central New Mexico Community College also occupies a small building on the western edge of the campus with its “Fuse Makerspace” where people can rent high-tech tools for cheap.
While Kuuttilla says the Rainforest building has proved to be a successful development, the three old, adjoined church buildings along Central Avenue remain vacant with no signs of redevelopment in recent years. According to Innovate ABQ’s website, the entire innovation hub was initially expected to be completed by 2024. Last June, then-Executive Director John Freisinger told KRQE News 13 he hoped to see the next steps beginning in late-summer 2019.
Conceptual renderings from Innovate ABQ’s initial master plan show a future Innovate ABQ as a densely packed hub with several office buildings, apartments, science labs, cafes and other entertainment spots at the site of the former First Baptist Church. UNM says while that is still the vision for the project, the university is planning to revise or create a new master plan for the project.
“With the pandemic, we have to kind of rethink that model because now we need to be able to create social distance opportunities for people, but still be an opportunity to live work and play in a thriving innovation development,” Kuuttilla said. “When I talk about that rethinking and revisioning, (the Rainforest building) is the kind of thing we need to really think about, what are the kind of right spaces that allow for us to of course reconvene as we’re able to, but also to social distance as necessary.”
UNM says the next phase of the project will likely take on the larger two-story church building along Central which is part of existing plans for future bioscience classroom and lab space. UNM still has about $1-million of federal grant funding saved up for the project which could go toward clean-up work inside the old church.