BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Part 2 of a 3 part series
During Tuesday’s special Los Alamos County Council meeting, each of the seven councilors took the opportunity to speak at length about the proposed purchase by the County of the CB Fox and Reel Deal Theater buildings on Central Avenue. The meeting ended with a 5-2 vote against amending the purchase agreement, which was signed by Council in December, to extend the inspection by 30 days to April 21. Councilors Sara Scott and David Izraelevitz voted casted the dissenting votes.
A second motion to terminate the purchase agreement and direct the County Manager to provide written notice to the seller and escrow holder passed 5-2 with Councilors Scott and Izraelevitz voting against.
What was expected to be an extremely long meeting lasted a little over two hours and very few people opted to speak under public comment. A large portion of the meeting was devoted to a presentation by Public Works Department Director Anne Laurent who went through the scenario options for the two buildings and outlined the estimated costs. Her presentation may be viewed at: https://losalamos.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=4853437&GUID=F4E77D18-5827-4B8D-9562-C031C7AAE018&Options=&Search=
The Los Alamos Reporter covered Councilor Sara Scott’s comments in the first of this three part series and will cover the other six Councilors’ individual comments in the second and third part.
Councilor David Izraelevitz said he appreciated all the input received from the County’s recent online survey, emails, personal discussions with the public, local businesses and other parties as well as the discussion at the meeting.
“As we evaluate our options, we should keep in mind the many tools we have at our disposal to move the future toward what we want. We are very fortunate, unlike other communities, to have capital funds available to invest. Not only are we running a surplus this current year but we have a healthy set of additional capital funds, we have reserves – so we’re in a much better position than other communities,” he said. “But in addition we have an upcoming development code update, we have time to have further conversations. We also have creativity, again because we have not decided on a path forward.”
Can we decide later to go with Scenario A, B, C or D? Can we decide later whether we will go with a three-, four-, or five-story building? We’ve had a lot of discussion tonight about possible private-public partnerships. Should we do the development and then attract the partner or should we partner with the developer to do the construction? Can we decide later whether to dedicate the full first floor for retail as we would like to do or maybe just the properties facing Central Avenue? We haven’t decided that? Can we offer presale of residential or commercial space to reduce our risk? Another out-of-the-box idea is could we maybe retain one retail spot for an integrated visitor center for the County and national parks. And we can add to the creative tonight about micro-retail and so forth,” he said.
Izraelevitz said one consequence of this range of possibilities is that it is not easy to interpret the results of the online survey that was discussed briefly.
“Not all the information was final and available at the time the survey closed and many options have not even yet been identified and, therefore, are not really ready for public review and comment,” he said. “The survey was very useful, and we should take advantage of the comments and suggestions.”
He noted that one participant wrote a 1,000-word comment, so a lot of people spent a lot of good time on this. He said the comments were a total of 387 pages but it was clear that some comments were based on wishful thinking or unrealistic expectations because it is a very complex issue.
“Councilor Scott already mentioned about redeveloping the Marimac Shopping Center and what the hurdles are there. I also already mentioned about commercial vacancies and the limited issues we have. Both those issues were raised time and time in the survey as possible alternatives but they are really not viable,” Izraelevitz said.
He said maybe Council needs to do a better job of communication because a lot of times, the issue was that the County should not be the landlord of CB Fox. He said that was really not the plan being envisioned.
“One might say that the summary that was mentioned by public comment that the 60 percent that voted against the effort seems like a simple message. But if you study it further, the survey does not provide clear messaging at all. Yes, 60 percent voted to drop the project tonight, but 50 percent also voted for the County to invest financially toward more restaurants and shops in some way,” he said.
Izraelevitz said elsewhere in the survey, 30 percent voted that the County should never be involved in financial real estate projects at all.
“But this is exactly what brought Smith’s Marketplace to town and enabled Pet Pangaea and the Los Alamos Public Schools Credit Union, which are both local longstanding businesses, to build their own space and they both had been trying to find a spot for themselves to build on for years and years and years,” he said. “These were all projects that have or are on track to be successful. We should be open to doing more projects, not closing the door philosophically to doing this.”
Izraelevitz said just looking at stats in the survey for example, can lead to decisions that are unacceptable to Council or to him as a community leader.
“We represent all the community including minority interests. Let me give you an example. There was 20% survey support for a middle school activity center. I believe that this Council and prior councils are still in favor of finding a place for middle school children. It’s been pointed out time and time again and middle schoolers don’t fill out these surveys, so we have to represent some constituencies that maybe are not represented in our surveys,” he said.
He said the survey asked an “essay question” but only permitted “multiple choice” answers.
“Some answers are not cleanly a yes or no, but rather they are a yes-if, or a no-but. Therefore, we need to look not only at this survey, but as was summarized in the presentation, at other multi-year analysis, and the town-halls that we have conducted and systematic and statistically valid polling that we conduct on a regular basis. All those things give us a better picture of what the community really is telling us. And I believe that the message in these other surveys and conversations, as again was emphasized by Councilor Scott, surely appeals to us to make positive progress, not just hold back and let the market decide. We can see, and the numbers support it unfortunately, that the free market has not decided in Los Alamos’ favor at least lately,” Izraelevitz said.
He said because Council is not ready or able to choose a specific path this early in its process, it is premature to decide which scenario is the right one for either CB Fox or the Reel Deal building.
“However, we may not know which is the right scenario but we do know what the alternative will be if we turn this down tonight. At CB Fox at least – offices at best and definitely a Central Avenue that looks empty. There are so many ideas that we haven’t even considered yet, and there is no way to do a full economic analysis of all these options in the time we have available to decide whether we’re willing to make this decision or not,” Izraelevitz said. “ I am confident that there is at least one alternative that will beat offices hidden in a 70-year-old building that from all outward appearances might as well be empty. We don’t have to do much to end up better than this, and the upside potential is even higher and more exciting. For this reason, we should continue to investigate this opportunity and not close the door on moving this project forward.”