When the housing crisis hit, it stopped sprawl in its tracks. In 2006, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, new permits for single-family homes began what would become an 80% slide. But at the same time, at the edge of the city, construction workers were breaking ground on a very different approach to stopping sprawl: a vast development called Mesa del Sol.
The plan had evolved since its genesis in the early 1980s, but it boiled down to a simple premise: Instead of stopping home builders from transforming distant desert into residential exurbs, the government would give them competition. They would build the largest and most ambitious New Urbanist development in the Southwest.
A public-private partnership, built on state land with city, state, and federal funds, Mesa del Sol would eschew the short run for the very long run, planning an autonomous community to be built over 50 years. There would be parks and shops and businesses, instead of a maze of identical houses; there would be radically efficient water use where the city at large had been sucking water unsustainably; it would be pedestrian friendly where some new neighborhoods had neither sidewalks nor trees. It would be, in short, a whole new Albuquerque. And with a projected population of 100,000, it would be nearly one-fifth its size.
Fast-forward to 2013 and the 12,900-acre parcel—the size, approximately, of Manhattan—is still mostly empty desert. But in the middle, there is a university campus and a movie studio where Terminator 4 was shot. And next door, the beginnings of Mesa del Sol’s first neighborhood.
"Construction is under way currently for the community’s first dog park," residential development director David Newell told me. "We also are under way with the first 1.4-acre park, which includes the first neighborhood pool." There are approximately 60 houses next to that park and dog park, 35 of them occupied. And 109 more lots are currently "under development."
There are reasons to be skeptical of these small positive steps. The housing recovery remains weak, with housing starts in 2012 still lagging those of 2008. News of Mesa del Sol’s new houses has been clouded by the larger finding that the developer, Forest City, has spent much of the last year trying to sell its 3,000 acres. In a March SEC filing, they wrote down the value of that property by $15 million, noting that "there were few buyers that expressed interest in taking on the long-term development risk, and those that were, expected larger returns than previously estimated." In other words, a plan to build Albuquerque out of sprawl looks in 2013 like more of a risk and less of a cash cow than it did in 2006.
The fact that the project keeps trudging forwards is a testament to the possibilities of a private-public partnership: It took both generous public funds and an experienced private developer to bring it to life. If it dies, though, it will be a different kind of example: a testament to the fact that changing Western cities’ sprawling nature through new development is easier said than done.