For some entrepreneurs, building a company isn’t enough — they want to (re)build cities. Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project in Las Vegas is the best-known example. Dan Gilbert, owner of Quicken Loans and casinos, has transformed much of downtown Detroit and, to a lesser extent, Cleveland, where he owns the Cavaliers.
Albuquerque’s downtown is the latest to get an entrepreneurial makeover. Jared Tarbell, who co-founded Etsy, and his wife, Laurie, have purchased several buildings and are slowly building an entrepreneurial community.
Here is their story:
By Carrie Murphy
When you think of Albuquerque, chances are you’re thinking of one of two things: hot air balloons or Breaking Bad. But if Jared and Laurie Tarbell have their way, the biggest city in New Mexico will soon have a new reputation: as a hub for creativity, technological innovation, and sustainable buildings.
A co-founder of the online retailer Etsy, Jared Tarbell recently opened the Levitated Toy Factory, a digital fabrication and software development facility, in a downtown building that he and his wife Laurie bought and renovated. Laurie Tarbell, an advocate for urban revitalization and green building, serves as vice president of the DowntownABQ Main Street initiative.
Both native New Mexicans, the Tarbells met while attending New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. After a stint in Austin, they moved back to Albuquerque. Jared left day-to-day operations at Etsy in 2011 but retains part ownership of the company.
Levitated — the name comes from the Pixies song “Levitate Me” — began in 2000 as Jared’s personal website, showcasing his coding projects and digital art. In 2013, the couple bought a former satellite office of the Albuquerque Journal, with plans to renovate and house an expanded, updated version of Levitated. “We love Albuquerque and we wanted to invest in Albuquerque,” Jared says.
The new company produces design and fabrication software, as well as toys and other objects made with 3D printers and laser cutters that are on site. (“Because I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I get to do what I want, I’ve decided to focus on the really fun stuff: games and toys,” Jared says.) But the Tarbells hope eventually to sell the software Levitated uses to create these products, so children and families can make their own.
“We want to make physical objects that will let children leave their computers for a while, and use their hands and imaginations with safe, eco-friendly materials,” Laurie Tarbell says. Levitated’s toys will be sold on the company’s website and in an Etsy store.
It’s not just the products and their method of manufacture that are state-of-the-art. The couple has given the old Journal building an energy-efficient overhaul, with a cool roof, low-VOC materials, and other green features. The Tarbells do have one tenant in the space — Oropopo, a modern Southwestern leather jewelry studio — but their plan is for the majority of the business in the building to be their own as the four-person company grows. They hope the building will be a flagship example of green commercial architecture in New Mexico.
Last year, the couple purchased a second building downtown: the Occidental Life building, a local landmark built in 1917 in an ornate Venetian Gothic Revival style. It’s an anomaly on a downtown grid of shiny modern office buildings and the occasional classic adobe. The Tarbells are slowly, sustainably renovating the building, whose tenants are mostly local nonprofits.
Next on Laurie Tarbell’s agenda: helping Albuquerque become a 2030 District. Architecture 2030, a Santa Fe nonprofit that urges for carbon-emission reductions in buildings and cities, coordinates a national network of 2030 Districts. To take part in the program, local business and civic leaders voluntarily commit to energy, water, and vehicle emissions targets.
Laurie, who has a master’s degree in architecture, is leading downtown Albuquerque’s bid to become a full-fledged 2030 District. (It was designated an “emerging” district in September.) She calls the program “a great framework to invite other property owners and developers to look at downtown as an opportunity.”
Hundreds of people attended the public opening of the Levitated Toy Factory in September, and many Burqueños seem as excited about what the Tarbells are bringing to the city as the Tarbells are themselves.
Chad Person, a designer and co-founder at a new Albuquerque tech startup called Seedworthy, said of Jared: “He’s ambitious and creative and it’s a great thing for the city. Unlike a lot of people, Jared’s really never left New Mexico … I love that he had had some success in life and has decided to turn it back to his local community.”
As Jared Tarbell puts it, “Technology is not limited to just Silicon Valley or Seattle. It can happen here.”
This article originally appeared in the Atlantic City Lab.
Photo by Paul Sableman