Throughout U.S. history, industries that dump toxic waste into the air, water and soil get put in neighborhoods where low-income people of color live. Advocates from historic neighborhoods in Albuquerque are calling for a real chance to make changes to city zoning rules, because they say the city's planning process was racially biased and ignored their concerns in favor of developers.
Bianca Encinias grew up in Mountain View, a semi-rural area in the South Valley where her family planted gardens and raised goats and horses. It wasn’t until later that she learned about the long history of contamination there – chemicals put out by the military and industries that operated too close to churches and schools.
“We have areas where communities gather,” she said. “They’re breathing in and eating the dirt and smelling these toxins. You’re seeing higher rates of asthma, different kinds of learning disabilities in our children.”
Mountain View, San Jose, South Broadway and Santa Barbara-Martineztown are among the historic neighborhoods near Albuquerque's city center that have long been zoned for heavy commercial and industrial use alongside family homes. For decades, residents have pushed back against development they say has brought unregulated traffic, air and groundwater pollution, and other environmental health impacts.
In 2015, the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County kicked off a big redesign of their zoning systems, the Integrated Development Ordinance and the ABC Comprehensive Plan. Officials said the old system was too complicated, with too many hurdles for developers.
Encinias, who has a master’s degree in planning from the University of New Mexico, says the process failed to be inclusive from the start. She remembers an early meeting where planners handed out maps and stickers and asked people to mark what zoning should go where.
“People were just putting stickers everywhere," she recalled. "For example, they were putting stickers for industry in San Jose. And, being that we're from those communities, we said, 'well, San Jose already has its fair share of toxin-emitting industry. Why don’t we put these over here by the Country Club area?'"
Encinias said her overall impression from meetings like that was that "the city and the county, with their out-of-state consultant, went in already with these pre-determined zoning codes of what they wanted.”
Encinias and other community organizers filed public records requests and looked at sign-in sheets for eight public meetings the city held in the spring and summer of 2015. They found that the vast majority of people at those meetings identified as White. Less than a quarter were Hispanic, and hardly anyone there was Native American, Black, Asian or Pacific Islander. They brought these concerns to City Council, asking for materials to be made in Spanish, for better outreach, and ultimately to slow the process. But the Council went ahead and approved the new zoning code in late 2017.
“What we believe,” Encinias said, “is that the city was very strategic about really not wanting the kind of participation that they claim that they do.”
Community organizers from the Historic Neighborhood Alliance continued to ask city officials to sit down with them, to establish a task force that would identify major issues in the existing zoning code and how to fix them. That still hasn't happened.
On November 13, 2019, the city council’s Land Use, Planning and Zoning Committee considered a proposal to set up a series of six community meetings about zoning specifically in historic neighborhoods in 2020.
Councilor Klarissa Peña introduced the measure, saying it would address parts of town that pre-date the City of Albuquerque, areas that hold a lot of the unique history and culture that draw people to the city.
“And yes, a lot of them happen to be in disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Peña said. “And it’s just input, it’s just asking them, 'What are we missing? What could we do better?' and making it part of the process.”
Councilor Isaac Benton said he agrees those neighborhoods should get “special treatment,” but he said they’ll have their chance at input over the next few years during the regular process of reviewing the the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Comprehensive Plan.
For now, he said, the City should stick with the zoning rules they’ve already made. “That’s what’s expected by the community," said Benton, "and by community I mean both the residential community and business interests."
The city does review applications from property owners who want to change what’s allowed on their private land, as part of its annual update of the IDO. Councilor Trudy Jones said that’s the way for people to get what they want.
“I still believe it is an individual property right, and it should be vested in the property owner, not the people who can gather the most, loudest complainers about something,” Jones said.
Councilors Benton, Jones and Diane Gibson did not support Peña's proposal to prioritize input from historic neighborhoods, so it did not go to a vote by the committee.
Bianca Encinias points out that actions like this – that disregard concerns from poor communities of color – are coming from both the conservative and progressive officials at the City of Albuquerque.
“These are mostly white men,” she said. “No different from the founding of this country. To me, it’s a modern form of Manifest Destiny. They know what’s best for us, they’re gonna redevelop our communities and not have us engaged in the process.”
Encinias said residents like her aren’t anti-development. They just want a say in what development looks like before it goes in next door.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that no other city councilor supported Councilor Peña's proposal at the LUPZ meeting on November 13, so it did not get a committee vote.