New Mexico: What can a city do when its development process is fundamentally broken? Start again!

by Andrew Webb and Mikaela Renz-Whitmore, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Like many cities that adopted Zoning Codes in the 1950s and early 60s, the City of Albuquerque has relied on “band aid” special-use zones in small area plans to try to protect neighborhood character and special places that don’t fit the suburban standards of the standard base zones.  Even in 1960, the code’s standards for large residential lots, wide local streets, and auto-oriented shopping centers were not applicable to neighborhoods in the city’s core, some of which were already hundreds of years old.

Faced with an outdated, one-size-fits-all zoning code, New Mexico’s largest metropolitan area has adopted special use zones for nearly half the parcels in the city in over 40 Sector Development Plans, each with distinct zoning, design standards, and approval processes.  Coupled with additional area plans, corridor plans, and overlay zones, the city now struggles to implement, enforce, and administer hundreds of standalone documents.   This tangle of conflicting policies and regulations comprises one of the country’s most complicated systems for regulating land use – ineffective for protecting neighborhoods or encouraging desired development; unpredictable for property owners, investors, and developers; and confusing for everyone. An ambitious project led by the City Council and Planning Department aims to change that.


In February 2015, the City kicked off “ABC to Z” – a two-year effort to update the region’s Comprehensive Plan and create a an Integrated Development Ordinance (IDO), which would replace the city’s existing Zoning Code and hundreds of special use zones with new base zones tailored to local context and update and consolidate existing overlay zones, street standards, and other land use regulations into a single, easy-to-use document.  


Bernalillo County, which has jurisdiction over nearly a third of the metropolitan area and which jointly develops and adopts the Comprehensive Plan, is partnering with the city to better coordinate land use and transportation and implement the Centers and Corridors vision for future growth at the heart of the Comprehensive Plan.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to think comprehensively about growth, confirm a future vision, and implement that vision through a new regulatory framework.

ABC-Z will also benefit from recent planning and capital improvement efforts that highlight multimodal transportation and walkable development, including the recently-adopted Metropolitan Transportation Plan (Futures 2040), the city’s Bikewaysand Trails Facility Plan, the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project, anda collaborative city, county and University of New Mexico economic development effort to catalyze an “Innovation District” near downtown.  The project will coordinate with and seek to help implement these important initiatives.

The major challenge – and key to the project’s success – will be how to update policies and regulations to guide desirable growth in the future within a simplified regulatory framework while protecting neighborhood character and special places.  

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The good news is that nearly all stakeholders agree that the current system is unworkable and can be improved; the bad news is that nearly all stakeholders have been burned during at least one proposed development project, and trust between neighbors and developers and all stakeholders and city staff is at an all-time low.  The fact that over 300 people attended kickoff events is a testament to how widespread fears are.

Public Engagement



The project team has focused on the public engagement process as an opportunity to open dialogue among stakeholders in a forum outside the review and approval process for a development project.  The team has emphasized interests shared across stakeholders.  Neighbors want more convenient services and reinvestment in their commercial corridors, but they want new development to complement existing neighborhood character; developers want to create new services, and they are increasingly aware that special places and neighborhood character help attract and support successful businesses and residential projects. 

As of 2016, ABC-Z has offered many opportunities to engage stakeholders, including workshops, focus groups, surveys, and interactive online tools.  Community visioning workshops in May and June 2015, held in locations throughout the city, included a mapping exercise for small groups to decide where growth would be most appropriate and what form it should take.   Focus groups in July and December 2015 brought together staff from the city, county, and outside agencies as well as residents and other stakeholders to tackle issues by topic and later by Comp Plan chapter.  

Approval Process

The city submitted the updated Comp Plan in June 2016 to the City's Environmental Planning Commission (EPC). After two hearings in August, the EPC voted unanimously on September 1, 2016 to recommend approval of the updated Comp Plan to the City Council.  The project team incorporated EPC's recommended Conditions of Approval into a redline draft, available above, for review by Council's Land Use, Planning, and Zoning Committee in November and December 2016.  The updated ABC Comp Plan was also heard at the City's Environmental Planning Commission in August/September 2016. The updated ABC Comp Plan was heard at the City's Land Use, Planning, & Zoning Committee (LUPZ) at two hearings in November and December 2016.  LUPZ voted to move the Comp Plan for consideration by the full Council with no recommendation. (Read the presentations and more about the process.)

Community meetings focused on the IDO have followed in parallel.  The IDO has been developed in three modules:  1) proposed zones and uses, 2) dimensional standards, and 3) review and approval processes.  The modules are available on the project website.

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The outcome of the ABC-Z project will be an updated Comp Plan coordinated with a highly contextual Development Ordinance similar to efforts of other cities, such as Austin, Texas; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Los Angeles, California – cities that have all sought to reduce complicated layers of development regulation resulting from years of small-area zoning while still protecting neighborhood character and enhancing redevelopment efforts.

The new land use and development regulation system aims to reflect the work of communities and neighborhoods to develop sector plans and overlay zones, but with a single set of tools that can account for variations in lot sizes, design, scale and other characteristics that differentiate the city’s many districts. The project is intended to improve predictability, for both property owners and neighbors, so that everyone will understand what can and cannot be done with a given parcel in hopes of reducing appeals and streamlining the development approval process for desirable development. To that end, the project team will work closely with stakeholders to develop consensus around future development patterns and priorities, building on the work that has already been done during sector planning and other planning efforts.

In addition, policies and regulations have been updated to accommodate new understanding of sustainable development and new trends in housing markets and alternative transportation options driven by the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations, both of whom increasingly want to live, work, and play in more walkable and urban districts.

Updated Status

The City Council's Land Use, Planning, & Zoning (LUPZ) Committee voted to move the updated ABC Comp Plan for review by the full City Council in January 2017 with no recommendation. If the Council adopts the updated Comp Plan, the draft will then be sent through Bernalillo County's formal review and approval process. A greenline draft incorporating proposed additions has been posted for review. (Read the presentations and more about the process.)

On Feb. 2, 2017, the city's Environmental Planning Commission will hear the Integrated Development Ordinance, intended to replace the city's zoning code and subdivision ordinance. Public testimony will be taken throughout the hearing.

Project Team

The ABC-Z project team includes consultants that bring considerable expertise in comprehensive planning and citywide development ordinances that are clear, well-illustrated, and carefully constructed.   Denver-based Clarion Associates provides project management for the entire ABC-Z effort and lead the IDO drafting.  Fregonese Associates, a Portland, Ore.-based planning firm that authored the open-source Envision Tomorrowscenario planning tool, lead the Comprehensive Plan update. Local resources include architecture and planning firm Dekker/Perich/Sabbatini, public engagement specialists Tim Karpoff and Associates, and engineering and planning firm Bohannan Huston.  Kimley-Horn has provided transportation expertise, particularly developing new and effective context-sensitive street standards, and Leland Consulting Group has provided the market and economic analyses to guide both the Comp Plan update and ensure that new zoning standards are feasible and desirable. Urban Interactive Studiohas provided innovative, online, interactive public engagement tools and turn the IDO into a web-based document available across desktop, tablet, and smart phone platforms.


For further information about this project, or to be added to a contact list for this effort, please visit

Andrew Webb is an Urban Planner with the City Council Services at the City of Albuquerque. Mikaela Renz-Whitmore is a Planner with the City of Albuquerque Planning Department, Urban Design & Development Division.

Published in January 2017 (Editor's Note: The first version of this article was published on the website of APA-NM.)