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04.09.2014
Sunup at the Sundowner
Albuquerque motel converted to affordable housing.
Courtesy Newlife Homes

Vintage postcards depict the Sundowner Motel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a chic place where debonair-looking people sipped martinis by the poolside and a neon sign beckoned locals and travelers along Route 66 alike. Built in 1960 along Albuquerque’s then-developing East Central Avenue corridor, the mid-century modern, two-story, U-shaped motel included 110 rooms surrounding a swimming pool as well as a casino and popular nightclub.

But like dozens of other old motor lodges in town, the Sundowner fell into disrepair with the development of the Interstate Highway System that displaced the Mother Road. A prolonged era of urban decay, most notable along East Central Avenue, followed. The Sundowner was eventually shuttered in 2009 after last being used as transitional housing for veterans.

 
Garrett Smith's modifications to the motorcourt maintain the building's envelope while incorporating minor improvements.
Courtesy Garrett Smith
 

“Over the past three decades, the area has steadily declined in property values, economic viability for retail and commercial uses, and has seen a rise in drugs, prostitution, and transience,” said local architect Garrett Smith.

Last year, Smith partnered with NewLife Homes, a local non-profit housing developer focused on creating affordable housing, to oversee a $9 million-dollar transformation of the Sundowner that has given the old place—and many locals—a new lease on life. With accommodations for an outdoor grower’s market, retail, and community space, the project maintained the basic scale and composition of the original buildings in a way that retains much of the Sundowner’s early mod aesthetics. “Keeping the basic flavor of this Del Webb–type motor court was a key,” said Smith. “Most of the work on the buildings was kept within the basic envelope with carefully incorporated design improvements that work with the original design.”

Courtesy Garrett Smith
 

The original motel rooms were converted into four apartment types, from efficiencies to three-bedroom units. A design competition determined the gray and blue color scheme of the apartment blocks. The mixed-use portion of the complex was painted in vibrant colors to enliven the streetscape and complement prospective weekend markets where festive multicolored umbrellas will adorn the adjacent parking lot. “We also wanted to greatly reduce the vast asphalted parking area into smaller areas of permeable parking with surrounding amenities such as play areas for different ages, community gardens, meeting areas with picnic tables and barbecue pits, and very nice landscaping,” said Smith.

The Sundowner is expected to achieve LEED-platinum certification and NewLife Homes reports that its 71 residential units are almost completely occupied, the majority reserved for individuals who make less than 50 percent of the local median income. “We’ve adopted the permanent supportive housing model, an evidence-based and cost-effective practice for bringing our most vulnerable community members out of unstable housing situations and into a high-quality, supportive apartment community,” explained NewLife Homes executive director John Bloomfield. “On-site staff members—managers, service coordinators, even maintenance staff—often form deep connections with residents and host educational events, social gatherings, and basic services like food commodities.”

 
Courtesy Garrett Smith
 

In 2012, Bloomfield and Smith worked together on the renovation and expansion of another Route 66 motor lodge exactly two miles east of the Sundowner on East Central Avenue. Originally built in 1950, the Luna Lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now provides 30 apartment units for low-income residents. “These motel rehabilitation projects act as catalysts for neighborhood revitalization while putting affordable housing on the map as an asset to our communities,” said Bloomfield. “Our residents tend to be loyal patrons of local business and invested in the neighborhood for the long haul, which facilitates additional small business initiatives in formerly blighted areas.”

Such projects yield benefits in other far-reaching ways. “They increase the tax base; they promote use of public transportation; they help stabilize population segments; they restore decrepit properties; in many cases they preserve historically valuable properties; and they are widely supported by businesses and neighbors who see we are providing vitality that otherwise wouldn’t be produced by the for-profit development community because of perceived risk factors,” said Smith.

While the current incarnation of the Sundowner may not include a casino or dance floor, it will soon feature a museum component that pays homage to Route 66 and two former Sundowner guest tenants, a pair of computer scientists who made the motel their home for a year or two in the mid-1970s. Back then, Bill Gates and Paul Allen weren’t household names and, after failing to solicit venture capital in Albuquerque, they moved to Seattle, where they established Microsoft. It is difficult not to wonder what fate would have held in store for the Sundowner and, indeed, for Albuquerque itself had the pair been able to find funding here.

“We are carrying out the legacy of Microsoft by finding innovative solutions to community issues, such as turning dilapidated motels into successful and replicable models of sustainable building, award-winning design, and affordable housing,” said Bloomfield.

Benjamin Ikenson