No One Sure What Nob Hill Should Be
By Dennis Domrzalski and Sara MacNeil
Nob Hill, Albuquerque’s only real neighborhood shopping district, may be defined through the years by its adaptability.
Nearly abandoned in the 1970s when retail businesses and shoppers moved to the Coronado and Winrock malls, the area reinvented itself in the 1980s as a thriving strip of small, eclectic, mom-and-pop retail shops and restaurants resembling the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood shopping districts in older big cities.
Now, Nob Hill is changing once again.
Small retailers are closing, and bars, breweries and restaurants are taking their places. Sidewalks once populated with graying pony-tailed baby boomers, university students and young families pushing baby strollers are increasingly being filled with bar-goers.
And with that change come fears by neighborhood residents and business owners that the area will become another bar-heavy Downtown, complete with rowdy drunks, fights, and vomit and urine in streets and alleys.
Much of the change is being driven by technology and changing shopping habits as more people shop online, at destination malls like ABQ Uptown and at big-name retailers. Those changes raise the question of whether the small, family-owned retail shops that are the heart of Nob Hill can survive.
At the same time, Mayor Richard Berry’s Albuquerque Rapid Transit project is permanently altering the portion of Central Avenue that runs through Nob Hill, and the project’s critics fear it will forever transform Nob Hill into a collection of franchise stores and chain restaurants.
What they want
The changes being forced upon it raise questions about what, exactly, Nob Hill wants to be.
Many area residents say they want the neighborhood to be more of what it was before the bars and restaurants moved in. In an unscientific ABQ Free Press Weekly survey over several weeks, residents used terms such as small, family-run, clothing, entertainment, arts, jewelry and retail shops.
Ron Halbgewachs, president of the Nob Hill Neighborhood Association, said Nob Hill should try to land “brand-name anchor stores” that will be attractive to millennials.
“Attracting millennials is the goal. Young people do web searches looking for main stores,” Halbgewachs said. “Any shopping mall uses anchor stores. There are plenty of bars and restaurants that need to be balanced with stores.”
The city’s consultant, Robert Gibbs, said Nob Hill “should remain as a specialty district, not a modern shopping center.”
“Nob Hill will have a hard time surviving unless new retail is brought in,” he said.
But neither Halbgewachs nor Gibbs could offer examples of what kinds of anchor stores they’d like to see, although they made clear they’re not talking about Walmarts or Targets. Neither man explained how the area, with its dearth of parking and old, small retail spaces, would be able to attract anchor stores.
Gibbs said that the area needs more parking, slower traffic and more landscaping to become more attractive to new retail tenants. More trees, flowers and less graffiti would be a good start, he said.
Currently, Nob Hill is made up of 70-80 percent independent local retailers, Gibbs said. He envisions a desired mix of 10 percent national retailers, 30-40 percent regional retailers, and 50 percent local retailers.
No mas restaurants
Attorney Morris Chavez tried to open a Mexican restaurant with a full-service bar in Nob Hill but saw his concept shot down. Nob Hill knows what it doesn’t want, he said, but doesn’t know what it does want.
“It depends who you ask. Some want Nob Hill to be a huge shopping and entertainment district. Others want it to be a quiet neighborhood,” Chavez said. “I would like to see it grow into a vibrant and prospering neighborhood with a mix of shops, restaurants and cultural entertainment.”
Competition and congestion are two reasons Nob Hill residents and business owners cite in their opposition to more restaurants and bars. Existing restaurants don’t want the competition, while the surrounding neighborhood doesn’t want the congestion and parking problems restaurants and cars bring to side streets off Central Avenue.
Jean Bernstein, owner of the Flying Star restaurants, said restaurants bring in many more customers than do retail shops. In the course of an hour, anyone counting heads entering businesses along Central can see that. But the debate always seems to come back to parking.
“A lot of places that were retail have become restaurants, and the problem is that that parking spills into residential areas,” Bernstein said. “But landlords love restaurants because they pay more and they sign longer leases.”
Bernstein doesn’t think the area can become the nostalgic haven for small, locally owned retailers. “Nob Hill is no longer what it was built to be,” she said. “It would be better if there were a better mix, but we have to be realistic.”
Architect Tony Anella, an ART opponent who owns several properties on Central in Nob Hill and the University area, said he thinks ART will accelerate the death spiral of small retail that the internet is already damaging. Reduced vehicular traffic will mean fewer customers for many businesses, which then won’t be able to afford their rents, Anella said, which in turn will lead to mortgage problems for landlords.
“Developers will swoop in and buy up those properties,” Anella said, adding that they would most likely be rented to restaurant chains and franchise stores because banks see them as less risky than lending to mom-and-pop operators.
If that scenario plays out, “I think you will see a proliferation of the franchise culture [along Central],” Anella said. “You are going to see this organic success story transform itself with a lot more of the same – franchise culture, franchise America.”
Despite the talk of doom and gloom along the ART route, Nob Hill is showing success in filling commercial space that had remained vacant following the recession.
The vacancy rate for commercial spaces around the city is 7 percent, but in Nob Hill, it’s 5.6 percent, said Dan Hernandez, an associate broker at Berger Briggs Real Estate & Insurance Inc. “ART might be causing some retailers to give up the ghost, but we haven’t seen that yet,” he said.
The flip side of the internet threat to local retail, Hernandez said, is that it “has given small mom-and-pop businesses access to the world” and that market-savvy retailers no longer have to rely solely on customers from their immediate area.
“Before, you were really restricted to someone that was in driving distance of you,” Hernandez said. “And plus, they might not have even known that you existed.”
Sara MacNeil is an ABQ Free Press Weekly reporting intern. Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press Weekly.
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