Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Lofty living

In Robert Thomas’ east Downtown loft, 15-foot tall ceilings hang like a surrogate sky, white pipes poke in and out of the space, and Shelby’s gigantic litter box – big enough for a bobcat – sits along one wall.

But Shelby is no bobcat, nor a grotesquely oversized house cat. Shelby is, in fact, a tiny white mix of schnauzer and poodle full of bounce and barks.

“I litter-box trained her,” says Thomas, 35, an assistant news director at KOB-Channel 4 and a three-month loft resident. “It totally makes it easier to have a dog.”

Shelby’s setup is just one of many ways that living the loft lifestyle in the renovated old Albuquerque High School means living a bit differently.

It’s a lifestyle that makes Thomas’ trips to the movie theater nothing more than a five-minute walk. It’s a lifestyle that has allowed Shawn Maller, 33, another loft resident who works from home, to sometimes go two days without getting in his car. It’s a lifestyle of closer-knit communities that fondly reminds loft owner Anatol Otway, 29, of the Europe he grew up in.

It’s also a pedestrian-friendly lifestyle that Downtown advocates including Rob Dickson, owner of Paradigm & Co. and developer of the Albuquerque High lofts, want to see more of. Their vision for the east Downtown, or EDO, neighborhood – the area along Central Avenue from the train tracks to I-25, and along Broadway Boulevard between Martin Luther King Jr. and Coal avenues – is one of wider sidewalks, slower traffic, more on-street parking, more shops and many more people.

Its formal name is the EDO Master Plan, a redevelopment outline for the area spearheaded by the Broadway + Central Corridors Partnership Neighborhood Association. Terry Keene, president of the association and owner of the Artichoke Cafe on Central Avenue, hopes to have the plan approved by the Albuquerque City Council in January.

“It will be the beginning of finishing the area to what it should be and could be,” Keene says. “We want to make Central Avenue . . . one of the nicest outdoor shopping centers and living areas in New Mexico.”

Maller, a mortgage broker with Anchor Mortgage Group, already thinks it is. He moved from an apartment in the Northeast Heights and has never looked back after about two years in the Old Main building of the lofts.

“When I was up there . . . it’s almost like a suburb,” he says. “You’ve got strip malls, and you drive everywhere. I was looking for a space that I could actually walk to stuff.”

Maller’s aversion to the long drives of suburban living is shared by Otway and Thomas. All three rarely spend much time driving the city, and with numerous restaurants and entertainment venues just a few blocks away from the lofts, there is little need to.

“I love that,” Maller says. “I think just that piece alone puts me in a better frame of mind every day.”

There is also the quirky thrill of living in an old school building that – with its wide hallways and stairwells – reminds Maller of his days as a student. His unit was part of a Spanish classroom, a colleague who attended the school told him. Despite the age of the room’s original wood flooring, it still glows in the afternoon sun streaming through massive windows overlooking the complex’s courtyard.

Thomas, who has lived in lofts in Seattle and Minneapolis (a city whose cold winter mornings partly inspired Shelby’s one-of-a-kind restroom arrangement) says the Albuquerque High lofts are unique. He attributes the originality to a few intentionally untouched remnants of the building’s previous life: old lockers, wide hallways and chalkboards.”Those other ones, you could tell you were in an old building, but you couldn’t tell what the building was,” he says. “You really do get the feeling what this building used to be.”

Other remnants of the building’s past include the occasional visit from former students. Thomas recalled a couple who wandered by the day he moved in. They were fascinated by what the school had become, he says.

For Otway, the lofts have become a reminder of the life he knew while growing up in Austria and northern Italy. He recalls men and women, young and old alike, going out on summer nights to drink, smoke and talk in the public spaces of cities such as Vienna.

“Everyone shares in a more friendly and communitarian approach to free time,” he says.

The Albuquerque High version of a European town square includes impromptu barbecues in the complex’s shared courtyard, group movie nights and parties that occasionally spill over into other units, Maller and Otway said.

Though Otway has yet to move into his new loft in the brand new building on Arno Street Northwest, he believes it’s as close as he’s going to get to a European neighborhood in Albuquerque.

It’s a big step forward for the area.

Keene says Central from I-25 to Downtown had been more or less a blighted corridor for years. But the lofts – and the residents it brought, followed by the businesses to serve them – have begun to change all that in their almost three years of existence. And with 54 more lofts due for completion in April 2005, their impact on the area is likely to grow.

“We expect it to be very vibrant in the next few years,” Keene says. “It’s really been a nice transition.”

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