Tess Houle

Tess Houle, an architecture student from Albuquerque, created a proposal to redevelop the El Llano landfill into a public space that recognizes how the Valley’s past affects its present.

    When Tess Houle stepped onto the El Llano landfill on the eastern edge of the city last month, she started thinking about the role that land has played in Española Valley’s past and present.

    The landfill has been closed since 1993 and was sealed 14 years ago. Now, Houle is part of a group of design students working on plans for a multi-use trails park and recreational facility, which would be called El Llano Park.

    Houle, of Albuquerque, and other students from the Design Planning Assistance Center at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning, visited the landfill, March 27, and then presented their ideas to a small crowd, during an open house on April 19, in the Española Public Library.

    Houle’s design is centered on the idea of creating a public space to recognize how the cultural and economic conflicts in the Valley’s past affect its present.

    She focused on the loss of land grants after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the use of eminent domain by the federal government to open Los Alamos National Laboratory nearly a century later.

    “The loss of the land grants resulted in a lot of changes to life in the Española Valley and is related to difficulties faced today,“ Houle said. “I felt that this history needed to be acknowledged in some way, because the land is such an important part of the past, present and future of this site.”

    Her plan calls for adding native plants to some parts of the park and building a gathering space for events, a recreation area and a memorial area called a healing space.

    Sam Fantaye, of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, created a plan, called, “Connecting Communities,” about the cultural diversity of the Valley. He compared the proximity of Española with native pueblos to his own country.

    “I was very fascinated by how many different community groups are living adjacent to (the landfill),” Fantaye said. “Coming from Ethiopia, we have 86 ethnic groups and more than 75 languages spoken in our country, so I know the importance of how people can exist in that kind of situation, and you can see the beauty of diversity and tolerance.”

    Fantaye’s plan calls for an art installation, an ecology education area full of native plants, a camp site, an area for spiritual reflection and an open field for sports. His design connects each part through a network of walking trails.

    Alf Simon, head of the Landscape Architecture Program at the University, said the students’ presentations were preliminary and they will take feedback from the open house and incorporate it into their final designs.

    Once the students get their work graded, they will donate the designs to the city, he said. The Design Planning Assistance Center has done similar partnerships with other local governments in low-income communities throughout the state since 1969, including Santa Rosa, Belen, Raton and Silver City.

    Española Senior Planner Eli Isaacson approached Simon last year about partnering to make designs for the landfill. Isaacson is a graduate of the school.

    “I think a world-class, regional-class recreation facility that the students are proposing is an incredible opportunity to change the perception of this community,” Isaacson said.

    Planning Director Patrick Nicholson will still need to hire a landscape architect or civil engineer to produce designs that could be used for construction.

    Bishal Raj, of Kathmandu, Nepal, made his presentation, “Youth Engagement,” about getting children and young adults involved in athletics by building bike and hiking trails and climbing walls. His presentation included a slideshow, illustrating that the city has only four parks.

    Raj’s plans call for a horse riding program, pavilions, a ceremonial space, a rock garden and training camps for scout troops that would be tasked with maintaining the park.

    New uses for the El Llano landfill are being discussed, as state environmental regulators are lifting some requirements for maintaining the site.

    The landfill contains a mixture of residential, commercial and industrial waste and  city officials must monitor the area four times a year, until June 2033, for any possible ground water contamination, methane gas leaks or erosion of the protective cap that separates the waste from the surface.

    Planning Commissioner Amrit Khalsa asked, April 6, whether there have been studies into the toxicity of the landfill site and Nicholson said yes, but he did not elaborate on what they found.

    “Remediation and protective measures are in place, and have to be respected at all times,” Nicholson said. “We were approved for a reduced monitoring regime because it’s not such a hazardous site as others.”

    When a member of the audience asked how long it will be before the project construction gets underway, Nicholson said it could start in two to three years, depending on how much funding city officials can secure.

    “We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars to get this going,” he said.

    Steve Borbas, an adjunct professor in the Landscape Architecture Program, said previous projects designed by students have been built in phases.

    Nicholson said he is forming a working group that will continue to provide input and seek funding for the plan. He can be reached at 747-6080 or Pnicholson@espanolanm.gov. Anyone interested in joining the group can also reach Isaacson at 747-6082 or Eisaacson@espanolanm.gov.

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