Please tell us about yourself

Her boss calls her tenacious. Adversaries call her exasperating. She says she’s just trying to do the best job she can.

If there wasn’t a Manjeet Tangri, there wouldn’t be an ICE Plan, or at the very least the plan would probably still be searching for approval.

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The plan’s project manager, Tangri, 57, worked out financial arrangements with capital improvements, got federal funding through the New Mexico Department of Transportation and the Middle Rio Grande Council of Goverments, and labored over every detail.

“She’s a tireless and persistent advocate for good urban design,” says Joel Wooldridge, the city’s manager of advanced planning. “She’s dogged, so there have been times when I think that determination to see this through has irritated some people.”
“I know I am outspoken,” says Tangri, “but I truly believe in what this project can do for Albuquerque.”

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Oddly, the driving force behind the ICE Plan did not drive a car until she immigrated to the United States to attend graduate school.

Originally from Chandigarh, India, Tangri came to this country 34 years ago to enroll at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. After receiving a master’s degree in architecture, with a major in urban design, she worked as a planner in Minneapolis and then Boston.

Fourteen years ago, she moved to Albuquerque. She settled here, she says, becauseAlbuquerque was about the size of Chandigarh and reminded her of her hometown, with far fewer trees.

“But I saw this city needed a lot of work.”

Tell us about your work

The redoing of the Big I, which began when the ICE Plan was being formulated, has served as an edifying lesson for Tangri and the ICE Plan creators.

The beautification of the Big I will take $4.5 million. The state has already installed the plumbing there for irrigation, but Tangri says that, for landscaping to be done, someone needs to take charge and show some leadership.

The previous governor did not want the Big I to be landscaped by the state.

Even the City Council expressed reluctance. Former City Councilor Alan Armijo wondered, “Why do we need to invest so much on something we just drive by when we could be putting money into affordable housing and programs for kids?”

As of now, no one is sure when the landscaping will be done.That outlook bothers Tangri.
“Our expectations in this city about the Big I were low as usual. When the Big I was finished, I heard someone say, ‘Well, it’s better than it was before.’ ”

The “Go Slow” signs along the ICE Plan’s route are, deep down, not about money, Tangri says, but about commitment. It’s about getting Department of Transportation engineers, city councilors, the arts board and landscapers to work as one.

Freeway experts in Phoenix know what Tangri means. “We’ve found a way to bridge aesthetics and engineering in our department,” says Mark Schalliol. “We all get along. There’s a partnership.”

Tangri says that, if people here “step up” and form a partnership, good things will happen, as they have in Phoenix.

“This is a gorgeous city,” says Tangri about Albuquerque. “I’ve traveled around the world, and, next to Heidelberg, Germany, no city I have seen compares to what Albuquerque offers— volcanoes, mountains, a river. And yet, we think to ourselves when we see the run-down landscape, ‘Well, that’s what we deserve.’ ”

Installing the ICE Plan is more than a face-lift, Tangri says.

“It’s about the future,” she says. “This city’s children will benefit from the improved landscape. If you want more jobs here, if you want new companies to come here, if you want to develop better technology here, to keep talent here, that will happen if companies like what they see.”

In Phoenix and elsewhere, it’s known as a good first impression.

What were the challenges?

Her own work, she admits, can be an obsession. Early in the ICE Plan’s conceptualization, Tangri flew to Phoenix to study how that city’s freeways, which had gained national attention, had been improved.

“When she talked about Albuquerque, and how change was slow to come there,” says Leroy Brady, of the Arizona Department of Transportation, “she seemed like she was beating her head against the wall. I felt sorry for her.”

The ADOT’s Mark Schalliol applauds Tangri and her work on the ICE Plan, particularly her courage to do something new and different. Schalliol says Phoenix took brave steps of its own in adorning its freeways. Some of those steps— 15 large synthetic balls that rest atop blocks near an underpass there, for example— caused some snide public comments, which eventually died down.

On the other hand, an artist’s creation of rows of cups along a Phoenix highway wall became something of a “national joke,” says Schalliol.

All in all, Phoenix seems to have had an easier time getting things done than Albuquerque, and Tangri has a reason for that.

“Arizona is a donor state. People fund things there. New Mexico is a recipient state. Getting money here is more difficult. We do not value ourselves here enough. We have a poor self-image. The thinking is, ‘Oh, we’re a poor state, we’ll take anything,’ and we accept that. But that attitude only serves to perpetuate the bad image here. We must change our thinking.”

Victor Chavez, Albuquerque’s director of planning, has issued this rallying cry: “Good enough is not good enough anymore for Albuquerque.”

How does your work benefit the community?

A great state deserves great streets, and Albuquerque is hoping to lead the way in New Mexico. The city will hold a hearing today on its “Great Streets” plan to give the Duke City’s roadways a unique sense of place, with an emphasis on modes of transportation other than driving, such as walking and biking.

Manjeet Tangri, urban design planner for Albuquerque’s planning department, says the plan will help make Albuquerque safer and create a unique sense of place.

“People forget that even the people who drive have to walk. You have to walk from your car and to your car. Walking is a basic, fundamental need of everyone, yet our streets don’t accommodate walkers.”

Tangri explains the plan would help make walkways and sidewalks safer and more accessible, with improvements like more shade to help make the city’s hot climate bearable.

With a diverse population that does more than just drive, Tangri believes it’s important that streets be designed to serve all citizens, from children to baby boomers.

“We walk, we take a bus, we bicycle, and we drive, so it’s really important that our streets accommodate everyone.”

Tangri says the plan still needs approval from the city council, and if all goes well, Central Avenue in the Nob Hill neighborhood could become one of the first “Great Street” prototypes in the state.