'The people making this plan, they don’t live in San Jose' - San Jose resident Steven Abeyta
Concentrated Pollution in Minority Neighborhoods Would Continue Under ABC-Z
BY JOHNNY VIZCAINO
The Berry administration has rolled out a massive rewrite of Albuquerque’s comprehensive planning document that some community groups are charging is racist.
The new comprehensive plan will control how and where future development in the city will occur, the maximum height of buildings, the location of public parks and the allowable proximity of industry to residential areas.
Mayor Richard Berry says it’s a much-needed rewrite of a patchwork of decades-old development guidelines that has held the city back. The plan, known as “ABC-Z,” was set to go before the Albuquerque City Council on March 6.
Critics, however, say that during drafting of ABC-Z, the public discussion lacked a representative number of minority voices, and they argue the document will allow the continued location of polluting industries in predominantly minority neighborhoods.
“For New Mexicans, being involved in the decision-making of their land and how their land is governed is essential to who we are,” Bianca Encinias of the Historic Neighborhoods Association told the City Council during public comment last month.
“This process is really no different than when we were a territory,” she said.
Records of City Hall’s two-year rollout of ABC-Z confirm few minorities were involved in shaping it. City planners say that wasn’t from lack of trying; minorities just didn’t turn out at advertised public meetings or respond to online polls offered in both English and Spanish.
The city says that 1,700 people had input at 80 in-person and online outreach events. Of those, 1,115 people gave input on ABC-Z – 293 at meetings at which demographic data was captured and 822 through online surveys in which demographic data was requested. The remaining people attended meetings at which demographic data wasn’t requested.
Although 60 percent of Albuquerque’s population is Hispanic, Native American, Black, Asian or Pacific Islander, in instances where demographic data was collected, 79 percent of the input into the ABC-Z plan came from whites. When planners specifically sought out participation by millennials and business owners, those participants also tended to be white, according to supporting data in the ABC-Z plan.
“These numbers don’t represent that diversity,” Encinias said.
Hispanics make up 49 percent of the city’s population, but they made up only 15 percent of the people who had input into the plan who were identifiable by race or ethnicity.
City officials defended the outreach they did on ABC-Z. They said notices announcing meetings were printed in English and Spanish and extra meetings were held earlier this year specifically seeking minority input.
A coalition of neighborhood advocates was going through the sign-in sheets of public meetings on ABC-Z to determine how many of those who attended were city employees or city contractors. They believe their presence may have inflated the city’s claimed attendance numbers.
“We have no evidence to show that the input we have received from thousands of participants has been inaccurate, ineffective or demographically insensitive,” a spokesperson for the Planning Department said in response to questions from ABQ Free Press Weekly.
The newspaper asked the Planning Department why demographic data wasn’t captured at all outreach events. “The ABC-Z Project team did not ask for or track demographic data from any other events, which would have been highly unusual for a planning project,” the statement reads.
“Those who choose to participate have the greatest opportunity to shape the process and have their voices heard,” the statement said.
The ABC-Z plan encourages continued location of certain types of industry in neighborhoods where those types of industry are already conducted – meaning that if a neighborhood already is home to polluters, it will be the likeliest candidate to get more, said San Jose resident Steven Abeyta.
Abeyta said wording and maps in the ABC-Z plan show that, under ABC-Z, in the San Jose neighborhood, straddling the railroad tracks south of Barelas, “the only type of industry that could be in this particular area is most likely going to be gravel, tar, asphalt-crushing – things like what we got right now.”
“How is the plan going to protect us when you’re going to keep bringing the same industry to our neighborhood?” Abeyta asked.
He called the plan the product of environmental racism. “What environmental racism looks like is when businesses that pollute are located in these particular neighborhoods in disproportionate amounts.”
While City Hall may pay attention to a potential nuisance business elsewhere in the city, “in our neighborhoods it doesn’t matter what type of a polluting industry wants to come in, they’re going to get approved.”
In the last year, San Jose residents successfully petitioned the EPA to conduct a civil rights investigation into how the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board has allowed so much polluting industry to be concentrated in their predominantly minority neighborhood. That probe is ongoing.
“The people making this plan, they don’t live in San Jose,” Abeyta said.
What’s the rush?
The city’s comprehensive plan has been tweaked over the years, most recently in 2013. In 2001, it was amended to include corridors and centers, but this is the first radical overhaul since the late 1980s.
An expected four years of drafting and public comment on ABC-Z has been compressed into two years. Community action groups complain the plan is being rushed into law so as to be in effect before Berry’s term ends this fall.
“What’s the urgency?” Javier Benavidez, executive director of the Southwest Organizing Project, asked. “Why is the mayor pushing this?”
Several groups have asked City Hall to delay the plan’s implementation for two years to allow “culturally significant” and demographically representative public input.
“It’s becoming top-down,” Encinias said of the way Burqueños experience their city. “It’s not a community who are involved in the development of their land.”
At a City Council meeting on Jan. 4, councilors explored the extent of public input into the plan. After the low minority participation numbers were revealed, Councilor Trudy Jones echoed the Planning Department’s position: “If you don’t participate, how can you complain?” she asked.
In response to other councilors’ questions regarding City Hall’s outreach, Mykaela Renz-Whitmore, a city planner, said, “As a community planner, I am saddened by the lack of diversity in our outreach results, but we certainly were attempting to let everybody participate.”
Nonetheless, she said she thought highly of the input the project team gathered. Had the meetings been packed with participants on the basis of their race or ethnicity, the events “wouldn’t have been as effective,” she said.
“We were really trying to reach the people who are passionate in the community and engaged in the community around topics, rather than around ethnicity,” Renz-Whitmore said.
Andrew Webb, policy analyst for the City Council, also acknowledged the low minority participation. “We made it as easy as possible for people to participate, but you can only do so much,” he said. “It’s extremely hard to get people interested in these things, especially early in the process.”
The new master plan can do only so much to remedy the historical development of neighborhoods like Barelas, San Jose and South Broadway, which sprang up as bedroom communities for industrial workers working nearby, Webb said.
“Over time, industries became less and less compatible with those neighborhoods,” he said. “The city established zoning [policies] in the 1960s, and the zoning sought to address what was on the ground at the time.”
It would be practically impossible, he said, for any city to use zoning to outlaw industrial uses, no matter how harmful. “The easiest thing, what can be done,” he said, “[the city] can try to encourage those land uses to change, and the way to do that is typically to add less noxious permissive uses to those areas.”
City Councilor Pat Davis said he believes Berry’s administration did a better job of outreach for ABC-Z than it did with the ART project, but added there’s a difference between effective, representative community input and an administration merely “checking the box” on community outreach.
“There’s no way to make everybody happy, but [the ABC-Z project] has gone a long way in modernizing and simplifying this,” Davis said. “We have to do a better job of outreach, period, when it comes to communities of color and people who don’t read the Albuquerque Journal and who don’t have the freedom to come Downtown on a Monday night for five hours to sit in a city council meeting.”
Richard Moore, co-coordinator of Los Jardines Institute, which works to build sustainable communities, said he’s managed to find the time and effort to sit through hundreds of such meetings, for his neighbors’ sake. “I don’t know [whether] we’re going backwards or we’re going forward,” he told the City Council.
Johnny Vizcaino is a reporter for ABQ Free Press Weekly.