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Albuquerque, N.M., Innovation Project May Accelerate

With the University of New Mexico now back leading the way for the work, the Innovate ABQ high-tech development zone in downtown Albuquerque could soon enter a new, accelerated phase of growth.

by Kevin Robinson-Avila, Albuquerque Journal / August 17, 2020

(TNS) — With the University of New Mexico back at the helm, the Innovate ABQ high-tech development zone in Downtown Albuquerque could soon enter a new, accelerated phase of growth.

UNM purchased the seven-acre property at Broadway and Central in 2014, and then handed ownership, management and development over to Innovate ABQ, a nonprofit whose board of directors includes leaders from the city, county and business community.

Under the nonprofit, Innovate ABQ gained significant initial momentum, with the 2017 opening of the six-story Lobo Rainforest Building built by UNM, plus the launch of the FUSE Makerspace in the old Noonday Ministries soup kitchen – a 13,000-square-foot facility that Central New Mexico Community College renovated into a modern community center.

Those facilities have since evolved into bustling locations for entrepreneurial development and startup activity. And despite the coronavirus, community events and programs continue to operate online.

But further buildout of the Innovate ABQ property ground to a complete halt long before the coronavirus broke out, reflecting the nonprofit’s difficulty in raising cash, plus legal and structural issues that have distracted the board, such as a two-year battle over property taxes with the Bernalillo County Assessor’s Office.

In response, the UNM Board of Regents voted in July to reclaim ownership and management of the Innovate ABQ property. It’s now turned further development over to the university real estate entity Lobo Development Corp., and to UNM Rainforest Innovations, the university’s technology transfer and economic development office.

With UNM back in the saddle, Lobo Development Corp. is making plans for the next phase of growth, which will focus on redeveloping the old 71,000-square-foot First Baptist Church Sanctuary, office tower and parochial school.

The Innovate ABQ board did draw up plans to renovate and rebuild that building, which sits on the southeast corner of the Innovate ABQ property. Those plans never moved forward, but they provide UNM with substantial building assessment and redesign work to draw on, said Lobo Development Corp. Vice President Tom Neale.

“We want to build on what’s been done,” Neale said. “They left some projects teed-up to move forward.”

The original plans called for tearing down the two-story west wing of the church building where the parochial school operated to replace it with an entirely new five-story office tower. The new facility would become a biotechnology incubator with wet and dry labs, plus offices for startup companies and possibly a food court or a restaurant.

On the east side of the building, where the church’s two-story chapel and a five-story office tower are located, plans called for renovating those structures into a mixed-use area while preserving the original architecture.

The chapel’s front doors, which face Central Avenue, would become the main community gateway into Innovate ABQ, providing a welcoming area with administrative offices in the entranceway. The chapel itself would become a community gathering space for meetings and events. And the office tower behind the chapel would house different groups, including nonprofits, economic development organizations, entrepreneurial support programs and startups.

Lobo Development is now reviewing those plans to determine what can be renovated and what should be torn down, Neale said. It will begin with the west wing, which will be converted into a biotechnology incubator as anticipated, but UNM must still decide whether to reconstruct or rebuild.

“We’re looking at the feasibility of everything right now to decide the right course of action,” Neale said. “It’s expensive to renovate, because we have to make sure the structure has a long life going forward.”

If the west wing is razed, the new building might not have five stories as anticipated in the original plans.

“We want to get as much density as we can, but given the current economic environment, we’ll rebuild to the highest density we can actually fund and sustain economically,” Neale said. “…We‘re in the process of securing grant funding to develop the property at a price that allows us to offer competitive rates for tenants.”

The Innovate ABQ board did raise significant funds to build the biotechnology incubator, including a $1 million grant from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, plus matching funds from private sources, said Rainforest Innovations President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila. The EDA will permit UNM to use the grant as the new property manager, but the university must still raise more funds.

“We’re working on options now to fill the gap,” Kuuttila said. “We expect to get the funding worked out in the next few months.”

Innovate ABQ leaders previously estimated a $23 million price tag to demolish the west wing and build a new five-story building. But current costs are unclear, since UNM must finalize its plans there.

Separately, Innovate ABQ projected about $8 million to remediate and remodel the church chapel and tower into a mixed-use structure. But Neale said costs must yet be determined, and Lobo Development is postponing plans there to first concentrate on the west-wing biotechnology incubator.

“The former church sanctuary and five-story office tower is a complex structure to redevelop with significant costs to put it back in operation, so we’re holding off on that for the moment,” Neale said.

UNM expects the future biotechnology incubator, plus the eventual mixed-use space on the east side, to be in high demand from prospective tenants, given the rush to occupy space when UNM opened its $35 million Lobo Rainforest Building, which sits just north of the First Baptist Church structure. Students live in dormitories on Lobo Rainforest’s five upper floors. The ground floor is fully occupied by UNM’s Innovation Academy, startup companies, and tech-transfer teams from UNM and three of the state’s national laboratories.

“One of the challenges after we opened the Lobo Rainforest building was the tremendous demand from startup companies to locate onsite,” Neale said. “We just didn’t have enough room.”

There are no other existing structures on the rest of the seven-acre Innovate ABQ property, meaning future development apart from the church building must start from scratch. But UNM could potentially partner with CNM on more projects beyond the FUSE Makerspace, something both institutions are discussing.

CNM has yet to publicly commit to any new projects. But the college remains committed to its partnership with UNM at Innovate ABQ, said CNM President Tracy Hartzler.

“We look forward to Innovate ABQ evolving and generating more opportunities for entrepreneurship, creativity and economic development to flourish in Albuquerque,” Hartzler told the Journal in an email.

©2020 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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