Anticipating Post-COVID Life And Obtaining Public Input Likely To Be A Challenge In Developing Downtown Master Plans By Year’s End

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If everything goes according to schedule, Los Alamos and White Rock will have master plans for their downtown areas by January 2020. The issues of how to engage public engagement in the process and how to know what life will be like in a post-COVID world in the two communities will likely be the most challenging Los Alamos County Council heard from representatives of Dekker, Perich, Sabatini at Tuesday’s virtual Council workshop.

The firm has been hired by the County to develop the master plans and assist in revamping the County’s Development Code. The Albuquerque company is also working with the County to create a master concept plan for workforce housing on a 30-acre  tract of land on the North Mesa close to the Los Alamos Middle School that is currently owned by Los Alamos Public Schools.

Council chair Sara Scott opened the workshop saying there is a lot of interest in commercial and housing development that could be taking place in the downtown areas now.

“We have an opportunity to make sure that these are developed in a smart and responsible way and serve our communities’ needs. So this master planning effort and any associated code updates are being undertaken for both White Rock and Los Alamos to take advantage of current opportunities in a contract for these planning services and any needed code update,” she said.

Scott noted that the process will start with goals laid out in a comprehensive plan and other community based methods but that the real goal is to get to the next level of detail of what the people would  like these areas to look like in the future.

“So, it’s important that we develop a good vision for these areas, look at new options in addition for mobility, transportation and parking. I think the timing of this is good not only again because of current development interests but also because it’s going to be taken in context of a County-wide initiative partnering with the (Los Alamos National) Lab to develop an updated and integrated trail and transportation strategy,” she said. “Public engagement is going to be critical. Folks in our community will have important ideas regarding what we want as well as creative ways of getting there and we look forward to this engagement as a very important part of the process.”

Dekker, Perich, Sabatini principal Will Gleason said they were excited to hear what Council has to say in terms of what’s important on the downtown master plans and the zoning updates. He said the company is currently working on the existing condition report which will be followed by a pretty extensive outreach effort where goals and the visions for the downtowns will be identified and used to create a master plan document. While working on the master plan changes to Chapter 16 of the County Code  will be collected for an update to that chapter.

Gleason noted some of the issues the company already sees.

“White Rock is an interesting place and I think it has really good opportunities now. The County has really set the stage well in terms of the investments in the library, the senior, and the visitor center. There are some really good components there and it’s going to be challenging to attract new commercial to a downtown area where there’s only a population of 6,000 people there, but we do think there are some good opportunities there and given that there’s a number of antiquated areas there, that really have good potential for redevelopment,” he said.

He noted the challenges of crossing State Road 4 that are being dealt with now with the Mirador development, saying he thinks the new mixed development that’s proposed on the north side of the road  help to bring more bodies to White Rock, balance out the development on both sides of SR 4, and make it feel more like a main street.

Gleason said in Los Alamos, the downtown boundary is a combination of the zoning and the historic activities in the downtown area but open to suggestions for modification.

“We see some really great catalytic opportunities here – that block between 20th and 15th and south of Central – have some really interesting opportunities as well as the obvious one – the hotel and the old Smith’s site right at the junction of Trinity and Central,” he said.

Gleason thinks this really requires a shift in thinking because it’s not just about zoning and it’s not just about getting the right streetscape in place.

“It’s really figuring out what are the market forces that we need to engage in – what do we need to do to incentivize those market forces to create the products that you all want in terms of housing and in terms of new commercial activity,” he said. “So our approach is about creating that vision and letting people see what that would look like. I think we can really help do that once we’ve really heard from the community and have the input. I think we can really help provide that vision going forward.”

The firm’s project manager Katrina – Arndt said the downtown plans will be adopted as an addendum to the comprehensive plan and then with the development code, regulations will be created to get to that vision.

“The comprehensive plan has already identified goals for the downtown area and we will be using these as a starting point when we start the outreach effort and work with you and the community to pick out what the right goals and the right vision is to establish the framework for downtown,” she said.

Jessica Lawlis, who handles the firm’s technical standards and zoning, said the Los Alamos downtown zoning currently utilizes an overlay structure within the Chapter 16 code that has four sub-districts which are intended to allow mixed use developments at varying intensities. That has not been applied to White Rock which really hampers the development for the White Rock district, she said.

“This is something the master plan really needs to consider and make recommendations for in order to get Phase 2 moving. There may be too many sub-districts for a community the size of Los Alamos and they could be consolidated eventually into two or maybe one district.” Lawlis said.

She noted the standards within the downtown don’t provide enough detail and guidance in terms of the site design for what should be built in the downtown areas – site layout, parking layout, building form -and that the update really needs to focus more on understanding that vision and combine it in the Phase 2 update.

“The master plan really needs to contemplate and potentially make recommendations for the appropriate code structure so I do see there’s a couple of different options in terms of the zoning realm of what could be done. We could do something like incentive zoning that really allows projects to exceed the standard requirements if they provide some kind of public benefit like accessible public open space. You can move in the direction of a form-based code that really emphasizes form and design of the building rather than intended use of the interiors or you could do a hybrid approach that utilizes components of all of these pieces,” Lawlis said.

She said one of the major pieces to keep in mind is the structure and organization of the code, that the current code, while it adopted the downtown overlay and the associated standards, it really took the visual components and essentially stapled them to the end of the code.

“They’re not very practical and user friendly. So the update should improve the overall structure and organization of the code and integrate illustrations and diagrams alongside complex development standards to clarify the written content for the user,” Lawlis said. “We’ve found that if you use this type of code structure, that visuals are one way to allow for all of the users of the code, whether it’s a property owner, a developer, a land use attorney, city staff or members of local government bodies, to be on the same page of what the regulations are doing. It interprets them. It gives you a higher degree of comprehensibility among all of the users and it really reduces the need for zooming interpretations that happen at the staff or the governing level which overall creates more predictable development outcomes for the community as a whole which is a key portion of this effort.”

Lawlis said the next piece is that primarily the downtown districts really need to update and streamline the development process in the procedures. She said they need to have predictable flexibility for the development community but they also need to have predictable development outcomes for the citizens of Los Alamos as a whole.

“We’ve been taking a look at the many adopted goals and policies the County has in place, many of which identify the appropriate places to promote and encourage more intense development, particularly residential, and given the limited resources of the County and the severe housing shortage, we do feel that these downtown districts are the prime location to encourage a variety of housing types whether that is what you classify as the ‘missing middle’ or multi-unit, multi-story apartment buildings,” she said. “The role of the downtown master plans is really going to be to provide recommendations for the types of housing products and the form of these housing products that are envisioned for the downtown districts so the code can ensure standards that implement them.”

Lawlis said all stable residential neighborhoods are worried about zoning and they want zoning to protect their neighborhoods from out of scale, out of context development.

“We see that this is true in Los Alamos in the public comments and in the goals and policies you already have in place and one of the best ways to protect neighborhood stability is to make it easier for the market to absorb high-density housing and development within downtown districts and to provide standards that automatically apply when non-residential higher density mixed use development happens next to low residential developments,” she said.

Lead designer Dale Dekker noted that there are a lot of questions and chatter out there about the effects COVID will have on how cities are built and the way the public realm is organized. People are moving to less densely populated areas in the wake of the pandemic as they assess their lifestyles.

“It could be a great opportunity for Los Alamos not only for attracting new residents but also for attracting the workforce to the Labs, because you were in contest with a lot of potential employers that lived in those big exciting places that the next generation of engineer and entrepreneur was attracted to but maybe that has changed and is something we should be thinking about as we move forward with this plan,” Dekker said.

He noted the possible impacts of increased ecommerce which in five months has accelerated to where it was thought it would be in three years. He said the question is how that influences the mix of retail that would be proposed for downtown.

“I think we’re going to get a lot of great input from your residents. We know that tourism is going to be slow to come back but Los Alamos is unique. There’s two ways in pretty much and two ways out. It appeals to tourists and your commuters every day that are coming up from the Valley to work at the Lab, and the contractors that are there, and the other businesses,” Dekker said. “It also appeals to a variety of visitors and VIPs, your residents, your workforce that’s connected to the Lab, retirees – quite a few who are former Lab employees and that requires special consideration as far as parking and access to commercial activities in the downtown area.”

He said a mix of affordable housing and market rate housing  will be needed to support teachers, firefighters and those who are connected to the community that “you want to have living there 24/7 365 and not having to leave to go live in less expensive places”. He said that as the master plans are designed creating a unique experience, it is important not to “spread the icing so thinly that you really don’t end up with anything of consequence”.

“Don’t compromise on quality. If it has to be done in phases, do it in phases that really elevate the quality of the product in the public realm so that it creates a memorable experience,” he said.

Many residents see the public outreach and engagement portion of the project to be an issue under the current COVID restrictions given the time line for the project. Arndt said the outreach approach was mainly planned to be in person pre-COVID but the firm has had to move largely to an online platform in order to accommodate social distancing.

“We are anticipating having virtual meetings like workshops and webinars where will translate the in person engagement workshop environment into the online platform and develop those goals and vision and framework for the downtown area with the community and with you,” she said. “We will engage social media to push out information  and get people’s attention and engage them into the process and we will have a website –  of which has evolved and will serve as a two-way stream where we distribute information and more importantly try to engage the community.”

Arndt said there will be very limited opportunities for in person engagement but the firm is looking to have kiosks at key locations such as Ashley Pond or the Smith’s store in White Rock.

Although the project started later than anticipated, Gleason said it is hoped that the existing conditions assessment will be completed by the end of July at which time notices of public workshops will be put out.  He hopes to have draft concepts by fall and a draft master plan by November with the final master plan to be ready by the end of the year.