The Sawmill District…A New Urbanism

Sawmill Market rendering

Sawmill Market rendering

Today, the former home of Frank Paxton Lumber Company is a scruffy blue-and-white warehouse down Bellamah Avenue in Albuquerque’s Sawmill District. In the early 20th century, it was part of a bustling lumber district whose neighborhood-wide operations earned the quarter its moniker. In the ensuing century, Albuquerque has grown up around Paxton Lumber—most recently in the form of the residential Sawmill Lofts and the luxurious Hotel Chaco—and the neighborhood has become an A-plus location, nestled between Downtown, Old Town and the Rio Grande River. By early 2019, that vintage lumber building will be the home of the state’s first food market in the style of San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace and New York’s Gotham West Market, to name two.

Although food markets may seem an emerging trend, with new editions cropping up in Austin, Texas, and Denver, Colo., they’re a vintage reflection of the way people originally shopped. Although the rising tide of supermarkets and big-box stores washed away many neighborhood bazaars, as the interest in the family farm resurfaced, so too has the relevance of food markets, according to Steve Carlin. Carlin, a retail marketplace developer who founded Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, is consulting on the Sawmill Market. Additionally, “There are also more people doing more interesting things,” Steve says of the purveyors. “They need a place to come together to share their wares with the community. Food markets are extensions of farmers’ markets—they’re just indoors and seven days a week.”

Sawmill-DSC_6932Mark Miller, a chef and 15-time restaurateur—who also helped develop the menu at Hotel Chaco—is another project consultant. He’s observed the emergence of the “theatre of public food in many spaces, from the first open kitchens in the ’80s to the world traditional markets, to farmers markets and food trucks…all have become huge destinations to the general public, not just food professionals as before,” he says.

To give the market an immediate sense of community and place, Jim recruited two (adopted) locals as concept developers and curators: Lauren and Jason Greene, of The Grove Café and Market, who since their restaurant’s opening have fêted local farmers and purveyors. “Food markets have been a passion for us when we travel,” Lauren says. Although the married business partners have long stayed contentedly close to home with their single restaurant, “This was an opportunity to have a big impact on the greater culinary scene. There’s nothing of this scale in New Mexico—it’s not just Albuquerque this will impact, it’s all of New Mexico.”

Sawmill-DSC_6813After three months of research and development trips to 15 markets across the country, the Greenes have sketched a list of restaurant concepts they want to include in the 24,000-square-foot space, though they have yet to identify specific restaurants or to what extent they may be involved in any of those endeavors.

The highlights at this phase include a wine bar, a hip Mexican concept, a New Mexican restaurant, an artisan food market, a bakery and coffee joint, and a place for nightlife with dinner and cocktails. Large restaurants will be mixed in with smaller vendors and “micro kiosks.” Lauren says, “We want to bring in awesome culinary operators that may not be ready for bricks and mortar quite yet.” Mark adds the market will “keep a specific gestalt of making the food experience particularly New Mexican with representing the Hispanic culture and history, and Native American food traditions and, of course, the unique products of New Mexico, from chile salsas to micro breweries.”

Sawmill-DSC_6883The market is in its early days still, with the hiring of an interior designer next on the task list. Local food immediately lends a sense of place, and the Greenes’ design statement enhances that focus, calling for plenty of “New Mexican light and reclaimed building materials” that will give the building a local aesthetic, Jason says. “We certainly want it to have a sense of New Mexico. We don’t want it to feel like it could be anywhere in the U.S.” The social fabric is also interwoven, with planned gathering places throughout.  

Steve compares successful markets to a fine glass of wine; both are judged on the overall impression on the palate. “When you go into a market that feels right, the seating is not cafeteria-style seating, the stalls are unique, the merchants have a personal expression of who they are. All those things really make a difference,” he says.

The projected opening is still a year-and-a-half away; however, Steve says the project is tracking for success. “From what I’ve seen, this is what you need to implement a successful market: vision, rich history, an owner/developer who is sensitive to all those things and has the wherewithal to create an interesting design and assemble a successful team. Jim has done all that and will continue to do that,” he says.

The Sawmill Market is just one facet of the polishing taking place in the district. Jim Long envisions it as a distinct, memorable place that reflects a new urbanism, which prioritizes walkable neighborhoods where people live, work and play. “When people visit this district, we want them to experience the most wonderful and creative things that reflect the unique personality of Albuquerque,” Jim says. “It will become a place where culture, art, architecture, entertainment and culinary offerings can be enjoyed by both locals and visitors alike. We plan on creating a thriving music, entertainment and art scene, an inventive restaurant culture and a savvy retail experience.”

Already, Heritage Hotels and Resorts introduced Tablao Flamenco Albuquerque, an intimate dance performance venue blended with a tapas bar housed in Hotel Albuquerque. This month, it’s also slated to open Spurline Supply Co., a best-of-New Mexico retail store curated by Tess Coats, with women’s and men’s apparel, home décor, body products and artisanal foods on Twentieth Street, adjacent to Hotel Chaco. Jim also envisions developing upscale residences to pair with the more affordable housing Sawmill Community Land Trust is populating the neighborhood with.

Of Sawmill, Jim observes, “It will not be a place that will be created overnight, but through thoughtful planning, experimentation and investment, something truly magical will emerge in the future.”


Story by Ashley M. Biggers

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