BY MAIRE O’NEILL
As the proposed County ordinance implementing a Pedestrian Retail Overlay Zone for Downtown districts is ready to come back to Los Alamos County Council for discussion at their Aug. 10 meeting, a memo from the County’s consultant Dekker Perich Sabatini with input on the proposed overlay has surfaced that was addressed to the Community Development Department the day after Council’s last discussion of the issue, which was May 4.
DPS is the consultant firm hired by the County to revise Chapters 16 and 18 of the County Code and put together downtown master plans for Los Alamos and White Rock. The firm is also involved in the North Mesa Housing Project.
The purpose of the proposed overlay, as noted in the DPS memo, is to create a mechanism by which to limit ground-floor office uses within specific areas of the Downtown districts. The County Planning & Zoning Commission voted 5-2 in mid-June to recommend that Council approve the overlay ordinance.
William Gleason of DPS notes in the May 5 memo that the proposed ordinance is very restrictive and could create unintended consequences that inhibit downtown development/ redevelopment, thus creating more vacancies.
“Prohibiting residential uses goes against national best practices and may impact the ability of high density, residential uses to develop downtown. Given that the County has very limited land resources and is experiencing a severe shortage of housing, the downtown districts are the prime location to encourage the absorption of multi-unit, multi-story apartments and mixed-use residential buildings,” Gleason said. “Prohibiting housing on the ground-floor within the downtown areas may hinder housing development within these areas. In addition, the proposed ordinance would restrict home occupations and businesses on the ground-floor of downtown areas, appropriate uses that can help to activate the frontage. There are many good examples of residential or live/work uses that still achieve the desired level of street activation as shown below.”
He notes that Downtown Los Alamos faces many of the same challenges as similar sized downtowns elsewhere.
“Online retail sales and the aggregation of ‘big box’ retail nodes have created headwinds for the small-scale nature of most downtown spaces. In order to compete with the changing nature of the retail industry, civic leaders are inventing creative revitalization strategies that recast downtowns as alternative shopping destinations filled with experiences that can’t be found elsewhere,” Gleason said.
Most successful strategies revolve around diversifying the economic base for the downtown to include a variety of uses that complement the desired commercial activities paired with a marketing campaign to attract customers and support businesses, he said.
“Another strategy is to increase the number of residents within a downtown area. Many downtowns have had success in attracting more residents to the urban core, thereby creating a reliable customer base for local businesses,” Gleason said.
He noted that DPS at the time of writing was in the midst of the Los Alamos County Downtown Master Plan & Code Update project and was close to final drafts of the Downtown Master Plans and well into updates to the Development Code.
“We believe that there are more holistic approaches to achieving the goal that everyone wants: a lively street level environment full of thriving businesses. One option would be to create incentives to enable the desired uses to occupy the ground floors. These incentives could include having permit fees waived or perhaps offer a credit on their utility bill or property tax bill,” Gleason said. “We recommend that the County pursue incentive alternatives over complete prohibitions to achieve the desired end goal for the downtown districts.”
He said an alternative to complete prohibitions would be to create regulations that limit the amount of office uses that can occur along a frontage, for example, 25 percent of ground floor area or a percentage of the linear street frontage.
“Such regulations should be considered with caution, however, as prohibiting these types of uses would also strip away a variety of uses that are currently allowed within the downtown zones and would therefore ‘downzone’ existing property entitlements. ‘Downzoning’ is a change in zoning regulations where allowance of more intense use of land is reduced to a less intense land use,” Gleason said. “As downzoning restricts property owners of currently entitled uses and can lead to legal challenges by property owners. At a minimum, the County needs to ensure that due process procedures are followed and that property owners of affected properties have adequate notice.”
He said if such prohibitions are pursued, DPS also recommends that they are more holistically integrated into the proposed updated structure of the Chapter 16 Development Code update currently underway.
“One of the major goals of the code update phase of the Los Alamos County Downtown Master Plan & Code Update project is to simplify the existing code structure. The proposal to establish a new Pedestrian Retail Overlay Zone negates this goal and adds additional complexity into a system that is currently in the process of being updated and streamlined. While the downtown master plans and code update as still in progress, the current recommendation is to establish one separate Downtown base district for Los Alamos and White Rock respectively and regulate their development standards through district standards,” Gleason said.
He added that if there is community consensus to prohibit office uses on the ground-floor of the downtown districts, it is DPS’s recommendation that such prohibitions get incorporated through Downtown District Standards
“In conclusion, we appreciate the desire to create a more lively downtown area that attracts more people to enjoy the urban amenities of Los Alamos and White Rock. From our experience and research of other downtown strategies, we recommend that the County focus more on creating the conditions that will make that outcome a reality,” Gleason said.
CDD Manager Paul Andrus said the DPS memo was only distributed to members of the committee selected by CDD to work on the revision of the Chapter 16 Development Code. According to P&Z Chair Terry Priestley, he has never seen the DPS memo. Four County Councilors contacted by the Reporter have indicated that they knew nothing about the DPS memo, including Councilor Sean Williams who initially brought the proposed pedestrian overlay ordinance to Council.
“The memo itself is nothing more than an ideological opinion piece, and in that sense there’s nothing substantive to respond to,” Williams told the Reporter Monday in response to a request for comment. “I do, however, bristle at the suggestion that the overlay should be ‘holistically integrated into the proposed update structure of the Chapter 16 Development Code.’ That rewrite is being led by a committee that was not appointed by the Council, and that meets behind closed doors. Reading between the lines, DPS is suggesting that the overlay be taken out of public view, and subject only to the consideration of an unelected, unappointed few.”