BY SEAN WILLIAMS
Democratic Candidate for
Los Alamos County Council
This folksy expression is how one of the consultants hired to draft our downtown master plan described our county. My parents have a prolific walnut tree; in reality, nuts aren’t very hard to crack—you just need the right tools. So let’s talk about the tools proposed by the consultants, Dekker/Perich/Sabatini (DPS), and why they won’t work without another, more important tool the county can create right now: a ban on ground-floor offices downtown.
At their visioning workshops, DPS presented what we might call the Santa Fe Railyard plan. You start with an area that’s ugly and run-down, where property values are low. The municipality creates a district and imposes strict design standards on (re)development in the area. It then begins a public investment program: redo the streets and sidewalks, landscape it, add public art, build some public facilities. It also sells the plan to investors, who buy dirt-cheap property and build it up to the municipality’s standards. The public investment and advertising draw people to the district, while the investors can charge rents appropriate for a budding-to-hip-to-thriving commercial area.
The terms DPS use are “place-making” (branding and advertising) and “catalyzing projects” (major public investments). Trouble is, the county has already tried both. Long before they hired DPS, the county widened and adjusted the sidewalks on Central Avenue, added cute lampposts with flower hangers, put up signs with pithy quotes and maps of downtown, branded the county a place “where discoveries are made,” commissioned a logo and paved it into an intersection, completely redid Ashley Pond, and built an extravagant municipal building.
So where’s our vibrant downtown? But they missed a key ingredient when implementing the SF Railyard plan in Los Alamos: the Railyard had low property values, so redevelopment made financial sense. In Los Alamos, commercial property values stay high because commercial valuation is driven by rental income, and the Lab and its subcontractors will pay whatever they’re asked. No amount of place-making and catalyzing projects will fix our downtowns unless we address the economics. Inflated commercial property values are literally holding the downtowns hostage.
This is why we need a downtown ground-floor office ban. Los Alamos is a place where business can’t afford to stay in the county, while planners throw around buzzwords like “walkability.” Council is left wondering why the catalyzing projects fizzled out, but the reason is simple: that approach strengthens depressed markets, but has little impact on inflated markets. Our downtowns can change, the nut can be cracked, but we have to take action that’s laser-focused on cost—after all, business doesn’t run on good intentions.