A Master Plan for the Ages.
Photo by Mary Martin
And Now, a Little History
The 660 acres now known as High Desert were once a part of the vast Elena Gallegos Land Grant going back hundreds of years. Subsequently gifted to the Albuquerque Academy, the land was later transferred to the Academy-owned High Desert Investment Corp., with a goal of developing a community unlike any other, for residential and public use.
Thus one of the first sustainable, master-planned developments was created, not just in the U.S. but in the world. The homes are designed to look as if they bloomed organically from the land. All are compatible with each other thanks to the architecture, landscaping and natural color palette.
We who are privileged to live here are not just homeowners, we are stewards of the land, the neighborhoods, the trails and the foothills - all of it. Let’s keep it beautiful for ourselves, our neighbors and those who will follow us.
Again, welcome! We’re happy you’re here.
And Now, a BIG History
HIGH DESERT: THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
By Peter Strascina
I’d like to share with you a bit of what I know and have appreciated for over thirty years now about High Desert, including some historical context; because as an early resident, and an even earlier participant in the development, I think it’s important that, as our neighborhoods turn over in the years to come, new owners as well as present residents—“High Desert Dwellers”, as I call them—have at least some understanding and appreciation for this very unique, very special master-planned, sustainable community we call home.
So, here’s the story in a nutshell—the “Readers’ Digest version”, you might say.
About the time the Pilgrims were trying to carve their adopted new home out of the woods of New England, the Spaniards were out here, marching up from lands they’d already conquered and claimed for the King, trying to overtake the Aztecs, the Mayans and other indigenous native peoples of Mexico. It was the 16-hundreds, a time of great explorers, discoverers and conquerors from the “Near East.” The major powers of Europe—including the French, the Spanish, the English, the Portuguese, the Dutch and others—were all about expanding their influence, stealing land, and suppressing or eliminating the occupants and rightful indigenous residents. Great wealth was their target, they’d heard stories and lore of great cities of gold and other valuable goods, and the goal was to help fatten up the treasuries of the royal families, rulers and churches of Europe in exchange for royalties in land, while establishing beachheads to begin colonization of the area.
However, in 1680, the indigenous people (called “Indians” by the Europeans) revolted and drove the settlers back down into Mexico. Nearly 20 years later, the Spaniards returned to re-colonize the area and put the natives down for another hundred-fifty years or so, until the likes of Buffalo Bill and General Custer put them down permanently during the wild westward expansion of the U.S. They succeeded in doing so, not so much by killing the Indians—and many, many were killed—but by virtually eliminating their principal source of food, clothing and trade—the American Bison. Over 55-million head of buffalo were killed over those years, until the bison was nearly made extinct.
Thankfully, in the early 1900’s President Theodore Roosevelt and a group of concerned wildlife conservationists and hunters began to move and cultivate the herds, finally increasing what had been only a handful of the animals to a population now of several thousand in protected herds around the country—from Yellowstone to even our own front yard, right up along Tramway near the Sandia Pueblo lands.
Meanwhile, back at the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the area north of Mexico, in order to reward the conquistadores and their families, the King of Spain granted them ownership of what was not his to give—enormous plots of land, some of the most valuable real estate in the New World.
These rewards were called “Land Grants”, and you’ve probably heard about them if you’ve lived in New Mexico for even a short time. Some of you have probably gone up the next roadway north to picnic or hike in the area known as Elena Gallegos Open Space, which is just one of the many ways in which we modern-day inhabitants of this city are connected with history and with NM’s Native American, Spanish and Mexican past.
Yes, a great portion of Albuquerque was once a great land grant, the Elena Gallegos Land Grant (which is also sometimes called the Ranchos de Albuquerque Grant.) One of the beneficiaries of the Spanish king’s generosity was the woman, Elena Gallegos. She may have been given the land, or she may have purchased it, as back then Spain was one of the few countries that permitted women to own property. So, she was the original owner, although later on, there were many individuals and family members each owning their own tracts within the grant, but also part of a commune-type commons used for grazing livestock. As the U.S. expansion moved ever westward, a federal court of Land Claims had to be formed to deal with occupants and owners of these lands in the late 19th century.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a prominent New Mexican, Albert G. Simms, enters the picture. Simms was a lawyer, an accountant, a businessman, a banker, a farmer and a rancher. But historically, he is most well known as one of the early Congressmen from the fairly new state of New Mexico in the twenties. He was married to a woman named Ruth Hanna McCormick who was also a U.S. Representative (from Illinois.) They were very prominent residents of Albuquerque after leaving Washington, and over several years in the ‘30’s, purchased an enormous swath of land—some of it where you’re now living. In fact, that swath of land, all owned by Albert Simms, stretched from the Sandia Pueblo, north of here, all the way down to about where Glenwood Hills is now, and believe it or not, from the very top of the Sandia Mountains all the way down to the Rio Grande. That was in the 1930’s.
Now, Al Simms was one of the founders of the Albuquerque Boys Academy in 1955 in the basement of a small church down in town. It soon outgrew that and moved to a building that is now the Sandia Prep School down on Osuna, then later to its present location we’re all familiar with, on Wyoming and Academy. When I was in high school, Academy was a pathway, and Wyoming was a dirt road, and the only way to drive out to the Academy where some of my Academy friends and I had started a small-but-ordinary rock band!
The present Academy campus is in the middle of that great swath of land from the Elena Gallegos Land Grant that was purchased by Albert Simms and given to the Academy by the Simms Family to start its school and to build the first endowment to finance the school into the future. In fact, The Albuquerque Boys’ Academy quickly became and remains today one of the mostly richly-endowed private day schools in the country. Eventually, most all of the Simms land became the property of the Academy, from the top of the mountain to the river, including the 675 acres that are now High Desert, our own neighborhood.
In 1982, in a very complex purchase and land swap between the Academy, the U.S. Forest Service and the City of ABQ, most of the Simms/ Elena Gallegos land was sold off. Thankfully, the Forest Service was finally able to fence off and restrict the foothills land to the east of us, which many of us happily and responsibly enter through the Michel Emery Trail Head (he was a past board member of the Academy who had much to do with the planning and concepting of High Desert.)
The City acquired and kept some of the land as well, such as the area where Sandia Heights and Glenwood Hills were developed, and still owns land all the way down to Copper Avenue.
The Academy held onto the area we know as the Elena Gallegos Open Space, hiking and picnic grounds, from which the school still receives income.
But, the big gem for the Academy was the 675 acres that is now the community of High Desert. The Academy wanted this land developed and transformed into a very special residential and public use area—not just another Sandia Heights or Tanoan or Glenwood Hills or Four Hills Country Club neighborhood. So, the decision was made by the Academy Board of Directors in 1991 to form a for-profit entity, our original owner/developer, the High Desert Investment Corporation, to be run by a member of the Academy board and a small staff. (Their office was the little temporary building that used to be at the corner of High Desert Park, right off Academy Road.)
The decision was made to plan, construct and market what would be one of the first so-called sustainable master-planned developments, not just in the U.S., but in the world.
And, in fact, planners and builders and government officials from around the world visited by the hundreds in the early days of the project to see what was being done here.
Namely, this community was designed and planned so that, once all the construction was done, it would appear to anyone possibly visiting from another planet, that the structures all just sort of mushroomed out of the mesa and the rocks. One basic southwestern style of architecture was approved and permitted. The footprint of the entire neighborhood was dictated by the four major arroyos that run through here—that’s one reason you see the perpetually preserved open spaces. Additional open spaces, dictated by the topography of the land, were added to balance out what was lost to the buildings and special use areas. All native growth was maintained and either replaced or improved upon. Wildlife was disturbed, but again the land was planned to encourage the repopulation of the critters. In fact, every year or two, the Forest Service, the Fish & Wildlife Dept. and the environmental contractor come in to count the wildlife. Incredibly, year after year, there is a larger population of wildlife since we moved in, than there was before the first home was built!
Other new concepts, such as building in all the underground utilities, the infrastructure, the dams (for “The 100-Year Flood”)—including special filtering systems in Pino and the other water settlement pool areas so the silt from rain runoff would not be carried through the drain system and down to the river.
And, in fact, when it does rain, as much of that runoff as possible is captured in two enormous water harvesting tanks which, although they’re underground and entirely invisible, are located beneath the open space at Tramway and Academy. Water from those tanks is used to irrigate the common areas where all the open spaces, parklands and wildlife areas are located. Hence, the “sustainability” of that aspect of the development.
All of this and much more, was very visionary and original back thirty-some years ago; but since, the concept of sustainable development—with our own High Desert as an essential model—serves as something of a prototype and inspiration for such communities and neighborhoods around the world.
Being first, however, being an innovator is never easy. Such was the case of High Desert, because the companies and builders who came in to construct the homes in these villages were, at least at first, unclear on the concept—sometimes stubbornly so. They didn’t understand or appreciate the unique and demanding building codes and requirements, the architectural standards— which were often as inflexible as they could possibly be made—so that the entire neighborhood would be as one, not just in the beginning, but even now, and for posterity, decades into the future.
We who are privileged to live here are not just homeowners. We’re not just residing in another “nice neighborhood." Rather, we are residents of, and in my opinion and in the vision of those who designed and developed HD, stewards of the land, the neighborhoods, the trails, the foothills—all of it.
So, please, enjoy. And take care to preserve the concept, as well as our property values. And the next time you see someone’s dog messing up the pathways, trails or sidewalks, hand him or her a doggie bag from one of the “Potty Posts” (for which we pay a fortune every year, BTW). And maybe a copy of the High Desert CC&R’s—especially Exhibit D!
Welcome to the 'hood. A very special ‘hood, indeed…
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