BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of three articles on the decision facing Los Alamos County Councilors at their Mar. 16 on whether or not to follow through with the purchase of the CB Fox and Reel Deal Theater properties.
With about a week left for the community to respond to a survey being conducted by Los Alamos County to get input from the public on the proposed purchase of the former CB Fox and Reel Deal Theater properties on Central Avenue, it seems about 50 percent of those who have responded are not supportive of the project, while some 28 percent are in favor.
The Los Alamos Reporter discussed the purchase agreement, which was approved in December, with Councilor David Izraelevitz who is hoping Council will approve the acquisition of the two properties and thereby move past some of the obstacles he has observed over the years to vitalizing the downtown area and mitigating empty commercial buildings.
The purchase and sales agreement (PSA) for the two properties lists a price of $4 million. Council approved the PSA which included a 90 day due diligence period and a decision is expected at the Mar. 16 Council meeting on whether or not to move forward with the purchase.
In his interview with the Reporter Monday, Izraelevitz said the proposed purchase of the two properties is consistent with strategies and objectives developed by the County based on discussions with community members and local business owners over the past several years.
“There has been some concern that development of the property would be driven by the economic concerns of an out-of-state developer and used for offices or storage,” he said. “The worst case scenario would be that the property would not be developed at all for a while and would continue to sit empty.”
Izraelevitz, who spent five years on the Planning & Zoning Commission and two years on the County’s Charter Review Committee before being appointed to the County Council 10 years ago, says the lack of retail and closures of existing businesses have been an issue during all that time. He said some positive steps have been taken to improve the situation but that the possibilities have been very limited.
“When the Reel Deal Theater closed last year, I remembered what it was like previously when there was no movie theater here. It was troubling to see kids having to drive out of town to other communities just to see a first run movie. Time and again, people complained that there was a lack of safe local options for young people for their free time,” he said.
In addition, he said every Council he has been on has been told by the public over and over that there is a serious need for more housing of various kinds, more opportunities for small businesses in the downtown area, and overall, a more “walkable” active downtown area.
“Also, Council has had several letters from small businesses expressing the desire to own property in the more active parts of our downtown areas. The owners of commercial properties all over town see that it is in theirs and everyone else’s interest to maintain more business, more tourism and more attractive amenities,” Izraelevitz said.
He said there has been a lot of progress over time due to the investment by the County in parks, trails, the Los Alamos Nature Center, the Teen Center and landscaping throughout the community. Council hears from folks that have not lived in the community for a long time how much they enjoy all these improvements, he said, particularly young families and those who want to remain in the community through retirement.
“The Los Alamos National Laboratory is our economic engine and in order to attract the best and brightest and maintain the Lab’s competitiveness in recruiting people to move here, we have to provide the amenities and housing that allow us to compete with larger communities that have other resources,” Izraelevitz said.
He noted the importance of maintaining what the community loves about Los Alamos – the small town feel, the proximity to nature, the safe neighborhoods, and the excellent schools that rely on the renewal of bringing in new families.
He conceded that it is often difficult for local government entities to get involved in real estate, especially if there are current tenants who would need a place to move to. Such a purchase would not be consistent with the overall goals of the Council. In the current situation, the two opportunities presented are locations where current tenants are not an issue and it just happened that option of purchasing the two buildings was presented simultaneously.
“I am both excited and scared by the opportunity that has presented itself. I could see the chance that the community would lose the movie theater building to other uses. I looked at the CB Fox building and I could see that because of its age, it would not be economically feasible for a small business to do major or complete renovations. The community could be left with an old building with marginal uses or worst case scenario a building in the center of our downtown area that could be left empty,” Izraelevitz said.
He said he doesn’t hold the current owner in any negative light about his plans for the two buildings.
“He has investors to respond to and those interests in this case are clearly not aligned with the public interest,” he said. “When the opportunity presented itself to purchase and he was amenable to resale, it was clear that there were potential uses for both properties that would have a strong public interest. The County has funds available and it became compelling that we investigate this opportunity.”
Izraelevitz said he has been encouraged by the words of support expressed by those in the community who see the potential for both buildings, including the possibility for at least one movie theater or performing space and other civic uses at the Reel Deal property.
“They also see the possibilities for the CB Fox building which is a true anchor location downtown and for the County to facilitate private redevelopment. One possibility being discussed is the possibility of business condominiums where multiple businesses could have ownership of their own property in the downtown area,” he said. “People in the community have also said they like the idea of attractive housing for those who want to downsize from their current homes, leaving family-friendly housing throughout the community. The success of such a public-private partnership could be a model for future projects in both White Rock and Los Alamos.”
Izraelevitz said Council has limited tools to bring the types of changes to Los Alamos that it has heard time and time again from personal conversations, scientific surveys and letters received over many years.
“The public wants us to fulfill our roles as leaders and facilitators of positive change in our community. Change comes to every community whether we want it or not, but how do we make that change in the direction that is good for Los Alamos and White Rock. Sitting back and waiting has not served us well and that’s something we have seen over the last 15 years,” he said. “We don’t have the land to effect change. New Mexico law gives us very few tools to use but we are fortunate we have funds we can use to invest in ourselves. This is another opportunity to use those funds to bring much-needed economic and quality of life vitality to our community.”
Councilor Sara Scott also weighed in on the proposed purchase. She recalled having walked every street in the community when she ran for Council, listening to what the community wanted from Councilors, which included support for local business and the need for vibrant downtown areas with more feet on the ground. She noted that people like a nice downtown and hate vacant space but that there is only so much Council can do. A vacancy tax, property tax incentives or disincentives have been suggested, but they are all against state law, she said.
Scott discussed other options that have been suggested such as banning first floor office space which could have positive impacts or unintended consequences. She noted that even if that step was beneficial it might not inspire near-term investment.
“The question is how to incentivize the development we want for the kind of downtown we want,” she said.
Asked about the elephant in the room which is the parking issue associated with the CB Fox property, Scott said that issue is one of those being looked at. She said there are some options for how to address the Central Parking Lot Association concerns and the legal issues raised by the County Attorney. She said the CPLC board to a person understands the importance of not having a big building vacant.
“It’s possible that there are challenges but technically they are not insurmountable,” Scott said.
She said Council will have the cost numbers for the various scenarios previously presented for consideration at the Mar. 16 Council meeting.
A Powerpoint presentation by County staff and FBT Architects at the Feb. 16 Council meeting on options for renovation of the two buildings may be viewed at https://www.losalamosnm.us/news/survey_on_c_b_fox_reel_deal_purchase
The County survey is posted on the Open Forum page of the County’s website and will be closed at 5 p.m., Wednesday, Mar. 10. The survey may be viewed here https://stories.opengov.com/losalamoscountynm/published/PcJVdQpex