Why the New Mexico United stadium bond failed

Neighborhood alliance puts stadium project in historical context

By: - November 5, 2021 6:00 am

Opponents of the New Mexico United stadium bond question marched on Monday, the day before Election Day. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans / Source NM)

With the $50 million New Mexico United stadium bond defeated, officials from Albuquerque city government and the soccer franchise still plan to build the stadium, just not in the historic neighborhoods of South Broadway or Barelas.

The stadium’s defeat is a win in part for the Historic Neighborhoods Alliance (HNA), one of the groups that organized against it. Led by women of color, HNA argued that such a large expense would be counter to residents’ actual needs in terms of providing affordable housing for people of color, especially the “pocket of poverty” that encompasses the Downtown, Barelas, Wells Park, South Broadway and San Jose neighborhoods, where they have been organizing since the 1990s.

Albuquerque today has a gap of about 15,500 units of affordable housing for renter households with extremely low incomes, according to a study from last year by the Urban Institute.

HNA made it clear the day after the election that its members would work to keep the soccer franchise and city officials from building in any of Albuquerque’s other historic neighborhoods. They see the proposed stadium development as a continuation of racism in the city’s zoning codes adopted in 2017.

“We are pleased that voters chose to not fund a stadium with public tax dollars that would not directly benefit our communities,” the HNA wrote in a statement. “And, we will continue to organize to ensure that the stadium will not be located in the Historic Neighborhoods. We will continue to organize and put an end to the City of Albuquerque’s history of systemic racism in the planning and zoning of working class people of color communities from Santa Barbara Martineztown, South Broadway, San Jose, Barelas, to Wells Park.”

Albuquerque voters on Tuesday rejected the stadium bond for many reasons, among them fears of accelerating gentrification and a lack of prior notice and broad community involvement in the conversation that led to a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) which city officials including Mayor Tim Keller touted as beneficial to the historic neighborhoods.

At an HNA news conference last week, Frances Armijo, the president of the South Broadway Neighborhood Association, said city officials never had CBAs in mind when they first proposed the stadium. The CBA was first proposed when Councilor Isaac Benton amended the legislation authorizing the bond at a City Council meeting on Aug. 16, two weeks after the bill was introduced.

“It was never in the agenda to consider these things. If they didn't consider it in the beginning, what do they care about now? This is nothing but a Trojan horse, ladies and gentlemen.”

– Frances Armijo

The San José, Wells Park and South Broadway neighborhoods were not part of that conversation about community benefits, said Robert Nelson, an HNA member and former City Council candidate.

“That was meant to placate the city, so they could push this project forward with messaging,” he said.

The city’s own expert acknowledged before the vote that CBAs do not stop gentrification.

And it’s not like Albuquerque residents are dogmatically opposed to the concept of using bonds to fund public services. They approved all 10 other bond questions on their ballots, many with supermajorities approaching 80% in favor.

Perhaps the clearest answer for many residents of the city’s historic neighborhoods comes from just looking at local history. San José resident Janelle Astorga-Ramos said the city’s barrios have long been at the center of political games that hurt their people.

“These political stunts are usually framed as economic development opportunities, when in reality, our neighbors are left with bad air quality due to industries having no restrictions for contamination, noise pollution, disturbing our home lives and an immense amount of toxin-emitting facilities surrounding our children’s schools,” Astorga-Ramos said. “This is a continuous cycle of people of color in low-income neighborhoods fighting against big money to protect our families.”

The stadium is a class issue and a race issue, Nelson said.

HNA members see it as a gentrifying and displacing force for their community, part of a longer history of displacement, including in south Martineztown in the 1970s under the rubric of “urban renewal,” especially after city officials asked some property owners near the proposed stadium sites if they would sell.

“The City of Albuquerque has a long history of siting development projects in historic neighborhoods leading to displacement and discrimination in zoning practices, which perpetuate disparate public health impacts from contamination in our air, our soil and our water,” Astorga-Ramos said.

Discriminatory zoning laws and practices can also affect, for example, senior residents living on fixed incomes who are facing rising property values and therefore bigger property tax bills, said Onastine Nuñez Jaramillo, who has lived in the South Valley her entire life and was raised in Barelas. She is a small business owner who helps seniors and people with certain disabilities with their health care options.

Ahead of the vote, she worried that the stadium would lead to rising property values and make it difficult for older adults to age in place whether they owned or rented.

Jaramillo said very low-income seniors can freeze their property taxes in Bernalillo County, but the process can be very convoluted. She said it needs to be streamlined and simpler.

“Developers may say our community is stagnant or ignorant, but first they need to understand and acknowledge the trauma and distress the community has evolved through,” Jaramillo said. “We need our senior housing rehabilitated to be a priority, with a concentration on roofs and plumbing for moderate- to low-income seniors, who deserve to age in place with dignity.”

Those property value impacts could extend beyond the city limits. A 2018 study of professional sports stadiums’ impacts on rental values across 10 U.S. cities found median rent increased an average of $15 to $75 per year before construction, and an additional $40 to $50 per year after construction. Rent increased 10 miles in every direction, the study found.

Astorga-Ramos said young people in the historic neighborhoods need more support and activities that will build careers, not just temporary jobs, unsheltered people need support and housing, and air and water needs to be protected.

“Neighborhoods have solutions and want to represent themselves in spaces that impact their futures,” Astorga-Ramos said. “The money used for the stadium should be awarded to our communities to help create solutions to these issues that we have been facing for years.”

Fight is not over

Before all the votes were counted on Tuesday night, Keller acknowledged that the vote for a New Mexico United stadium in Albuquerque was headed toward a failure.

“In considering a publicly owned, multi-use stadium for affordable fun for Albuquerque families, we felt it was important to let voters choose if they supported bonding, that would not increase taxes,” he said in a statement. “Tonight, we respect the voters’ decision not to do so. We appreciate everyone, on both sides, who took part in the vigorous conversation over the past months and showed up to decide this important issue for our city.”

Carrie Robin Brunder spoke to a panel of journalists on Tuesday night on behalf of New Mexico United For All, the political action committee created to campaign in favor of the stadium bond question and bankrolled by the team.

She said her group is “disappointed” by the outcome, but that the fight for a stadium isn’t over. She said fans across the city love New Mexico United and that she hopes they are willing to stay open-minded to a new proposal.

“I think if we had more time to explain some of the issues the outcome could have been different,” she said, “but election day is election day.”

Asked whether the team would pursue a private financing model rather than using $50 million in taxpayer money, she said it’s too soon to say but that it was obvious the voters rejected public financing for a stadium in the downtown locations proposed.

The team itself issued a statement Wednesday that it will still build a stadium in the city only in a location where the community supports it.

Another group of residents from the historic neighborhoods and across the city called Stop the Stadium issued a statement on election night saying they are “committed to pushing forward the growing movement for affordable housing in New Mexico.”

“The defeat of the Stadium Bond reflects the sentiment of those who are able to vote, that a tax-payer stadium is not a priority for the City of Albuquerque,” the HNA wrote. “We are excited that this issue has brought so many of us together and we look forward to continuing our work for racial and social justice in the planning and zoning of the historic neighborhoods, support for small local businesses in all of the historic neighborhoods, and affordable permanent housing that leads to more public safety and long-term positive outcomes for our families and children.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.