KUNM

Runoff Candidates Talk Environment And Zoning In ABQ's Historic Neighborhoods

Nov 21, 2019

Council District 2 in Albuquerque is home to the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the ones people often think of when they’re talking about the character of this place. That’s areas like Martineztown, Barelas, Duranes, Downtown, San Jose, Well’s Park. Voters there are choosing who will represent them on the Council, which has a lot of say in how those neighborhoods grow—and which companies get to move in. KUNM spoke about balancing the past and the future with a longtime Council incumbent and the newcomer gunning for his seat in a runoff election.

It’s a rare rainy weekday morning when Zack Quintero walks up to Manuel’s Food Market, a little corner store in Martineztown that’s been open more than 90 years. The plan was to walk around a little.

“You can’t diss the rain whenever we get it, as you know,” he said. “If you want to get to know any community, my philosophy is go to the panaderia and talk to anybody who walks in. People who get their morning coffee, or the viejitos that come in and just sit and read the paper and are talking politics more than anything. And that’s where you get to really feel the sense of not just place but people.”

Quintero, who’s new to politics, spent these last weeks knocking on doors in what he calls the mini-provinces of this district. Within them are 11 of 19 of the city’s superfund sites—areas where industry left behind a toxic mess—often near homes. It takes the Environmental Protection Agency decades sometimes to clean up, and they can affect the health and even life-expectancy of the people who live near them.

“That tells you the story of District 2,” he said. “And if you look where they’re at, too, that also gives you some insight as to where our priorities have been for our people in this district.”

Quintero studied environmental law and works as a legal analyst. He says the city should try to curb the effects of the superfund site pollutants on the neighborhoods now.

Where companies are allowed to set up in a city comes down to zoning. “I truly believe that communities of color and historic neighborhoods have not only been left out of the process but have been systematically denied opportunities to be engaged in their own government,” he said.

Councilor Isaac Benton
Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM

Quintero is challenging Councilor Isaac Benton, one of the co-sponsors of a major 2017 zoning rewrite. KUNM met up with Benton a little later that morning as he walked through his neighborhood, starting at the newly reopened police substation near Old Town. He’s a retired architect and contractor.

“You got the carwash, the famous carwash, across the street,” he said, “and a couple dilapidated commercial properties, and then townhouses for the most part.”

That’s common down here, he said: business cluster on the major street, apartments and condos behind them, and then, further back, the single-family homes. A lot of this developed before the city even had a zoning code, which came about in the ’50s.

“The places along the railroad tracks, the places near Downtown evolved organically, too, sort of in the way you see in places like Latin America, where there will be a lot of just scattered through the neighborhood,” he said. Was it good that the community evolved this way?

“Good and bad, right?” he answered. “Because before the zoning code, there was a lot of noxious uses in some neighborhoods, intermingled with the residential uses.”

It’s not like zoning suddenly solved all those problems. Industrial businesses were still built near homes and continue polluting today.

Benton said working people don’t usually have time to come to meetings to give input on zoning codes. He mostly hangs out in this area where he lives, he said, so overall, he relies on people to reach out to him with their concerns.

“The outreach to every single neighborhood, again, is difficult, especially in the working-class neighborhoods where there is very little organization going on,” he said. “I can’t be the organizer. I am happy to help and assist organizers in any and every neighborhood.”

Benton is against re-opening the process for more diverse community input on the zoning measure that was passed two years ago but says there’s still a way for people to weigh in.

“The most important thing about the new system,” he said, “is that we've created a way for constant improvement of the zoning.” Today’s zoning code has more protections from industry for neighborhoods, he said.

Early voting in Albuquerque’s runoff election has begun, and Election Day is Tuesday, Dec. 10