Local couple plans to renovate the building

It once was a grand hotel — a two-story building, with 5-foot deep footings, 3-foot thick terreon walls and 24 units.

The Kuhn Hotel on First Street, just north of the railroad overpass, has become dilapidated over the years, dangerous and a hot spot for crime.

As a result, Belen’s Community Preservation Department recommended the city council approve a resolution to demolish the hotel, including two other adjacent structures — one a former carriage house that belonged to the Becker family, and another a former bakery.

Joan Artiaga, who bought the hotel in 2003, has tried to clean up the property, planning to renovate it and open it up as an artist coop. But life got in the way, she said, and the project became too much for her alone, especially after her husband passed away.

“I sincerely apologize to the city for not keeping it up,” Artiaga told the council last week. “For the past 10 years, I haven’t been able to keep it up.”

Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo
Joan Artiaga is ready to let go of the Kuhn Hotel after owning the building for 20 years. She says the potential buyers of the building have plans to renovate it.

Vidal Torres, the director of the Community Preservation Department, said he has been working on this case since April 2020.

“I’ve been in contact with Miss Artiaga, and my department has tried to work with her on numerous occasions and numerous agreements,” Torres said. “The current condition of the hotel includes a bowing of the roof, and the conditions of the outer rooms are not good.”

Torres said there have been 19 calls to the police department since January, with several others from the fire department for medical issues for people breaking in the building.

“It is eating up city resources, and it’s a safety risk for the city and its citizens,” Torres said. “Miss Artiaga has done a lot of work on this place, but the conditions of the hotel is deteriorating and continuing more rapidly.”

Torres did say there was a recent break in at the former bakery, directly west of the hotel, and the front door and wood frame have been shattered. He said the roof on the bakery is exposed to the elements.

The director also told the council graffiti is sprayed on the buildings on a weekly basis, and the conditions of the building are a danger, saying it’s become a bigger risk over the years.

“My department has brought the concerns to you and to Miss Artiaga,” Torres said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people who want to preserve it, but the action hasn’t been there. It’s a very expensive endeavor.”

Artiaga said she has a “wonderful buyer,” who has the financing, the youth and the energy to get it done. She did tell the council she was concerned that the resolution included the adjacent buildings.

“They were not part of the original complaint,” Artiaga said.

According to the resolutions, some of the problems with the structures are:

  • The roof and ceilings are collapsing;
  • The walls are falling;
  • The property lacks adequate site security or protection from entry or intrusion;
  • The property has been infected by mold or mildew;
  • The property has become infested by mice, rats and other vermin which may carry disease dangerous to human life; and
  • The property has loose, flammable materials.

David Parton, the potential buyer, told the council while Artiaga has handed him the deed to the property, he has yet to officially purchase the hotel.

“My wife, Julia, and I are here to invest in Belen, but we are not here to sign a purchase agreement of the Kuhn Hotel because of its historical significance,” Parton said. “We do not intend to sign a purchase agreement because of emotional ties to the property. We do not intend to sign a purchase agreement because of our own hopes and dreams.

“We’ll sign a purchase agreement because it will be good business sense. It will be because we can return money to our investors … because we believe this hotel can be profitable and we’ll be able to continue our philanthropic work.”

Parton said before they make the decision to sign the purchase agreement, they’ll need 90 days to do their due diligence, including to research the property, and see how much money it will take to renovate the building. He said they currently have multiple bids out.

“I would like to establish rapport with you all,” Parton told the council. “I would like to start an open dialogue with the city, and start a partnership with the city.”

While Parton wasn’t specific about his plans for the Kuhn Hotel, he did tell the council he has renovated several other buildings in the area, and has brought “high quality” tenants to the properties.

“We are excited to collaborate with the city of Belen, and I trust you’ll work with us as we work to improve your city.”

Hotel Kuhn postcard, c. 1920

During the public comment portion of the city council meeting last week, several people spoke in favor of saving the Kuhn Hotel, asking the governing body not to demolish the building.

Historian and author Richard Melzer, who, along with the late Jim Sloan, wrote an article in the News-Bulletin in December 2020 about the history of the Kuhn Hotel.

“On behalf of our community, I sincerely want to thank Joan Artiaga for her great work at the hotel. Her grandfather owned the hotel, and she worked there in 1968,” Melzer said. “She has worked so hard and has put so much effort to getting that place going.

“It’s been a landmark since 1940. It’s been sold many times, and it’s become a victim of the infrastructure. The street used to go right in front of it, and it was in an ideal location until they built the bridge right in front of it. All the businesses around it suffered.”

Melzer said Artiaga has taken a lot of time to care for the hotel, and asked for patience and time for the Partons to save the Kuhn Hotel.

Before the council voted to approve the resolution, Councilor Steve Holdman said he’s concerned about the condition of the building, but wanted to give the potential purchaser some time.

“This is a tough one, because we’re trying to address a damaged and dilapidated building,” Holdman said. “I’d like to be prudent to give them an opportunity. I’m not sure what the best course is here.”

Belen City Manager Roseann Peralta told the council if the they approved the resolution, the property owner could request a hearing within 30 days. At that time, she said, the prospective buyer could share his plan and ask for a 90-day extension.

If that plan fell through, Peralta said, the city will move forward to demolish the structures. The city would then put a lien on the property for the cost of demolition.

Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo
Two other structures on Artiaga’s property might soon be domolished along with the Kuhn Hotel. Artiaga said the brown building once was a carriage house belonging to the Becker family, and the other was once a bakery. Both are now used as storage facilities.

“I would like to see the building renovated, but it’s been too long,” said Councilor Tracy Armijo. “They’ll get their 90 days, and come back. We don’t want to drag it on for another year.”

“It’s been three years,” said Councilor Danny Bernal Jr. “I understand the concerns from Joan and the community. It’s a building with a lot of history, and when we can, we need to protect that history. But there’s not enough money to go around. We need to deal with the issue.

“I’d like to see the efforts with the new owners … If we pass this resolution now, I’m OK with it. They’re allowed to come back with plans. When I ran for council, I made certain goals, including vacant properties. I won’t go back on my word — it’s the worst thing a politician can do.”

Councilor Frank Ortega said the citizens pushed for an abandoned property ordinance because these buildings were “making Belen look horrible.”

“The condition (of the Kuhn Hotel) is very bad,” Ortega said. “If the roof falls in; if there’s a fire. There’s a lot of variables. I’m sad because I remember when the Kuhn Hotel was a nice building, but there are safety issues, and we have to clean up Belen.”

Belen Police Chief James Harris said there have been multiple incidents of vagrancy, vandalism and people with serious mental health issues breaking into the property, including someone jumping off the train, going to the property and assaulting police officers.

“If you’re going to allow them to build a plan to renovate the location, it has to be secured by fencing,” Harris said. “That place is an extraordinary place where criminal activity happens on a daily basis.”

After the council unanimously voted to approve the resolution, Mayor Robert Noblin said, “However it works out, I just find it refreshing that we have someone looking at taking the initiative in making an investment in Belen.”

A few days after the council meeting, Artiaga told the News-Bulletin that while she’s disappointed in the city’s decision, she’s hopeful the Partons will come through.

“I’m sad and excited at the same time,” she said. “I feel really wronged and disappointed in the city’s handling of this. I don’t want to be mad anymore.”

She knows the building has become a problem, saying there have been at least 100 break-ins in the past two months — not all have been reported to the police.

“I’m just tired of being a victim and being disrespected,” Artiaga said. “I’ve tried to sell it three times last year, but all three didn’t make it to closing.

“But (several weeks ago) I got a call from Dave (Parton) and asked if I could meet them there. As I showed them around, all they could say was, ‘Wow.’ They were excited and positive, and instead of feeling sad, all I could see was the possibilities.”

Artiaga said the nearly 7,000-square-foot Kuhn Hotel  can be saved despite the dilapidated roof, which she says will cost at least $50,000 to replace. About 65 windows on the building were broken in one day by vandals, and the 4-foot front door was smashed.

“I gave up a year ago,” Artiaga said about her own efforts to renovate the building. “I started this 20 years ago. I fell in love with this building, and had plans for an artist studio.”

Artiaga said she has spent countless hours and thousands of dollars trying to save the hotel, but health issues have prevented her to continue.

“I just hope they can save it,” she said. “I paid it off five years ago. It’s a mixed bag of feelings. I’ll be really sad if they knock it down.”

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.