On The Proposed Pedestrian Retail Overlay

Dear Editor,

Our downtowns are dying. We hear stories of a vibrant small business community 20, 30 years ago, but that community is gone.  Despite efforts to stop the decline, our downtowns show no signs of revitalizing. The pedestrian retail overlay proposed by Los Alamos County Councilor Sean Williams could be a valuable tool for change.

There have been a number of interesting arguments for and against the pedestrian retail overlay.  Some of those are clearly ideological, or personal, and therefore don’t warrant much rebuttal, but there are a few of these arguments that I believe need to be addressed head on.

It’s been argued that the proposed overlay was not well thought out. The supposed evidence for this is that the location, extent, timing, etc. of the implementation was not included in the original proposal. 

This is a strange argument to make given that a two-step process is common, if not the norm.  Council can vote to create the overlay, then, in a separate action, vote where, how, and under what circumstances to apply it, or whether to even apply it at all (see link below).  In both actions, deliberation, dialogue, public input, and amendments are part of the process.


Somehow, to some, trying something new, following established roadmaps to success, as Mr. Williams has proposed instead of clinging to a failed approach is amateurish, or even radical. To give Council a tool that it might use in as part of achieving strategic goals is hardly either of those things.

It’s been argued that dialogue should continue through the various mechanisms (LACDC, Main Street, Dekker Perich Sabatini, etc.) that have consolidated over many years around the issue at hand. 

While the effectiveness and the results of the dialogue so far could be discussed at length, Council having another tool in hand, along with the MRA and LEDA, can only add a new dimension to that dialogue.  Nothing about the creation of the overlay would preclude robust civil dialogue with all the stakeholders, nor does it preclude the possibility of finding alternative or hybrid solutions. The retail overlay simply puts another tool in the toolbox.

Another detractor argument surrounds the possibility of litigation should the overlay be created, and eventually applied. 

If fear of litigation is an argument for inaction, Council should never take any action, no matter how desperately it’s needed. All government actions carry with them potentials for litigation, and the responsible body assesses these potentials, as well as mitigation strategies. When the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action, concerns over litigation should not paralyze the government.

At the town hall, representatives from all sides of this issue reaffirmed their positions – nothing new. And that, perhaps, provides the key to substantive change.

There was a common thread between a number of the participants, business owners and landlords, that the effectiveness and viability of the proposed overlay hasn’t been properly studied. While we can look at other cities who’ve successfully implemented similar overlays, our County has not commissioned a proper study by an expert in this very particular area of planning and zoning. That would be something new. In a science town that appreciates expertise, such input would be a valuable part of the process.

If opposition to this tool that has been effective elsewhere is based on a lack of research, we can do the research.  What we can’t do is hope that our failed attempts to revitalize downtown will suddenly start working.  We need more tools and new ideas.  The pedestrian retail overlay provides both.

Grant Harding
Los Alamos