Residents talk about walking in downtown

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From a dog park to a downtown youth center, Belen residents proposed numerous ideas Saturday on how to make the area a much more attractive place for residents as well as visitors.

This was the first of three town meetings to help planners learn what is needed, what is wanted and what will work best in Belen.

The meeting, held at the Belen Public Library, was hosted by the Resiliency Corp., a youth injury prevention initiative, that is collaborating with the University of New Mexico's School of Architecture and Planning to organize the Walkable Belen project.

The project is funded by a $6,200 grant from the 2012 Pedestrian Safety and Walkability Initiative, which is sponsored by the N.M. Department of Transportation Traffic Safety Bureau. The goals being address are the revitalization and sustainability of the area, and making downtown Belen a place where tourists will visit and where locals will enjoy.

"Belen is in a position to bounce back," said Belen resident Dubra Karnes-Padilla, director of the University of New Mexico's Fitness and Wellness Education Center and member of the Resiliency Corp. "Belen is a small town with big ideas."

Alfred Simon, Ph.D., director of the UNM Landscape Architecture Program and associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, said there are two theories of having a Walkable Belen: The ability to walk in a safe place, and offering venues people will want to go to in the area.

He identified downtown Belen as being from Reinken to Becker and from First Street to Main Street.

"It doesn't matter how great a sidewalk is if there isn't anything there making it desirable," Simon said of the area. "We need to find out if people will be wanting to walk in this area for its destinations. We want to give them a reason to jump on the train on a Saturday and come to Belen."

Some of the questions Simon asked the audience of about three dozen area residents were: What do you want Belen to be? What's Belen's identity — not theme, but true identity and sense of who you are?

A strong identity, Simon says, coupled with having an attitude that the city will become a destination place, will make the project successful

"All of you are here and are invested here," he said.

Some of the key areas of downtown Belen are the Kuhn Hotel, the Harvey House Museum, the gateway from the Rail Runner station to the area and the Doodlebug Park.

Architecture students at UNM have also been designing proposals for the area. One design included the rehabilitation of the historic Kuhn Hotel. Currently, the hotel, which is owned by Joan Artiaga-Armijo, is uninhabitable. Simon said that if something isn't done with the building soon, "it's a goner."

One student proposed a design for the old hotel that would include an artist work/live area with a few hotel rooms.

Another proposed design included a plaza area on First Street at the bottom of the pedestrian bridge. It would be an "welcoming entry" into the city to draw visitors in.

Some other designs shown were courtyards at the Harvey House Museum, several rail cars at the Doodlebug Park to be used as art studios, a spiral ramp up to the water tower, a youth media performance center and a system of signage to guide visitors through downtown Belen.

"Most of the projects require lots of money," Simon said. "But we'd like to focus on getting things done."

Before the area residents broke into groups, Simon told them to discuss several key questions, including, what is Belen's identity, what areas are in need of improvement, what are the existing assets, such as activities and businesses, should there be a signage system, what would attract people to come to Belen, how could the area be a more walkable place and what venues or activities would attract youth to downtown?

One group said there were several identities to Belen, such as the Hub City (railroad), it's history and culture. They also pointed out the rural atmosphere and its place in the Rio Abajo.

Some of the improvements cited from the group were safety issues, such as stop signs and sidewalks. One resident said some sidewalks are buckled and has fallen several times while taking a walk. Overgrown shrubs on sidewalks were also cited as safety concerns.

They also came up with a list of what would attract people to the area: A dog park, tree-lined streets, additional landscape, a bike-safety training park, an adopt-your-street program where residents would keep their neighborhood clean, more lighting, a refurbished bowling alley and using the old Rail Runner Café as a visitor's center.

Joanne Burns, of Rio Communities, also suggested a youth center, which would be accessible to teens who would be allowed to use the center after performing community service. She said the community service would be an incentive rather than a punishment.

Another group suggested a youth-run bike co-op, a park off the Rail Runner station, a space for murals, a skate park and making the water tower an emblem of the city.

A third group mentioned traffic on Main Street makes it difficult for pedestrians to cross in certain areas. They also spoke about additional lighting in the area, having a bowling center and building an aquatic center at the old Belen Schools Transportation Center, located south of the Belen Public Library.

One resident said law enforcement needs to be part of the discussion and talk about the safety issues.

"Belen is a beautiful town, but you have to make it beautiful and everyone has to work together," she said. "And you've got to be inclusive and hear what everyone has to say."

Simon said they will take back everyone's comments and ideas and will hold another town meeting in September.


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.