BY MAIRE O’NEILL
A 4-1 vote in December by the Los Alamos Public Schools Board to endorse the Canyon Complex Townhouse Project proposed by Phil Gursky and Jeffrey Henry of Investment Group LLC and Twilight Homes of NM, has been rescinded unanimously by the Board. The dissenting vote in December was cast by Christine Bernstein.
Gursky told the Board in December that the project, which proposes to place a 32-unit townhouse or duplex at what’s known as the Canyon Complex, potentially in the area immediately to the north of the new roundabout on an area that was once open ground for the Canyon School and is now adjacent to the LANL Canyon Complex location. He called it “a fairly exciting project potential for the school district to create long-term revenue” as well as help to address some of the local issues with housing.
When the proposal was brought forth by Gursky, the Board was awaiting an inventory of the District’s available land and planned to address potential usage, however no solicitation for proposed development had been issued for any District property at that time. The Los Alamos Reporter expressed concern in December that there was no action item on the agenda when the vote to endorse the project was made. See full story at https://losalamosreporter.com/2022/01/02/school-board-endorses-proposed-canyon-complex-townhouse-project/ The motion was made by former Board member Steve Boerigter who when asked by Bernstein what he meant by “endorse”, responded, “That we have a record as a school board that we would like to see this project proceed”.
At the April 19 meeting, Board President Melanie Colgan said after the original motion had been approved, the Board received a lot of feedback and questions about what exactly it meant.
“We looked into the Open Meetings Act and state procurement laws, we spoke to our attorneys to see if this we even a legitimate thing that we could have done, and we got a resounding ‘no’. We needed to do a slight re-do of this. So in my opinion what we meant to do, and what I meant to do was support the possibility of a development there at the Canyon Complex but not an exclusive deal with Mr. Phil Gursky and I just want to open it up to the board for comment and discussion and maybe a revision of the motion if we see fit,” Colgan said.
Board Secretary Antonio Jaurigue said having witnessed that meeting he was under the impression that when the motion was first introduced there was discussion that happened that led him as a viewer to believe that that was not the motion that the Board wanted to move forward with, specifically endorsing that specific idea.
“I can’t remember the specifics but I do recall there being discussion about utilizing the land in some way. There seemed to be at least agreement among the board of that idea but then it went back to the idea of endorsing that plan as presented. I think that might have been a mistake that the motion just wasn’t amended but that was the sense that I got from the discussion after the initial motion,” he said.
Board member Ellen Specter said she feels “like issues around the word endorse, and it being kind of a squiggly word”.
“In fact there was some discussion about what we mean by endorse and it devolved from there a little bit. My personal stance was and still is, and I felt like it was of the majority – we need a motion to be able to move forward so that it doesn’t remain an empty underutilized plot of land that actually needs a lot of remediation work because of road construction and that it would be a shame to put a lot of remediation work into it as a green space if we were meaning to develop it somehow,” Specter said. “And so it seemed like there was consensus that we should be exploring how to utilize this prime property in a more useful way to the community especially given the housing crisis, but maybe that’s not the only thing it could be useful for. So it was to me an endorsement to move forward with explorations, one of which, was Mr. Gursky’s and the only one that we had but that it wasn’t an exclusive ‘oh yeah we’re going to do that’ plan. For a whole host of reasons that was my sense of things.”
Board Vice President Christine Bernstein said she would like to hear or see a whole bunch of different ideas.
“I have my own idea of using that land to serve our community best. At the same time aligning with our strategic plan, how do we put that towards education and our students, making sure that what we do do with our land is going to benefit the school system first? Then I think the secondary issue is helping to deal with the housing problem in our community and I would like to see a lot of different options and not just one option,” Bernstein said. “Although I loved your houses, it would be good to see some other alternatives as well. I think it needs to be opened up not just to one individual but to anyone who has these ideas and I think it’s definitely a conversation worth revisiting and having presentations brought to the board.”
Board member Erin Green said she echoed the prior comments.
“At the end of the discussion it was not a green light for those specific plans but that we were interested in more research and information and the ability to have a discussion as a board about what sustainable housing means if that’s what the project becomes or what other possibilities. I remember making a comment about it could be a circus, because that part of the discussion that needs to happen needs to happen among the board and we don’t even have stakeholder input. We don’t even have that yet so I know the motion itself really misrepresented the way I felt, which is we need a whole lot more information and to be able to do similar to what we’re doing with our rebuilding process where we put our an RFP and we have different options to review and discuss,” Green said.
Specter addressed the need to have a holistic view of what developable properties the school district owns, what options the board has and how they fit into the board’s strategic plans and goals.
“Do we need a separate strategic plan just for property development so that we’re not looking at things in isolation – North Mesa is over here, Canyon School is over here, we’ve got that little tract of land there and a kind of medium sized here – and so having it in the context of overall what do we own. We do have a presentation and we saw it on paper and have plans to actually walk it, which will be great, but I think we need to make those decisions in a holistic context of that with the expert guidance that we need to make those decisions,” she said.
Jaurigue said he thinks there is value in green space but some of the lots he has seen are not even green space.
“They seem like barely usable by anyone walking a dog. Some of them have piles of rubble. I think we could use some of this land to benefit our district and I do recognize the housing crisis but I also recognize the purpose of our board is to promote the health of our district so I’m open to any options,” he said.
Offered the chance to comment, Gursky said he doesn’t have any real disagreement I don’t have any real disagreement with the understanding the Board had at the time of the first motion.
“We have not pressed the idea that you guys had given us the exclusive right to negotiate. I do want to just put this in the context of what our town is in need of and also what the changing economy and circumstances are is making the acuteness of our housing issues in Los Alamos just that much more difficult,” Gursky said. “Just an example, I get somebody that comes up to me every week and says, ‘When are you going to build those houses?’ I understand the board’s concern but we’d like to see if maybe possibly a couple of things may be a way of proceeding forward.”
He said for example, the cost of an average mortgage on the proposed houses since December 14 has increased by about $400 a month.
“That’s how much the increase of interest rates is costing for an average mortgage for each of those properties. So what we’d like to see happening if possible is as opposed to leaving it as a very open-ended proposition, we would hope, and would have hoped even before, that if they’re not doing a single project, that you go ahead with a solicitation of ideas for use of the property with the idea that you would accept one of them in some period of time and do so with a fair alacrity because it turns out that as the economy goes south towards us, that the hiring is going north on the Lab and that is just continuing to push,” Gursky said
He said there are lots of reasons for a lot of different parcels being used by the schools but he thinks that it’s a fair argument that if the Board solicits answers to every potential use somebody might have for the property, that the Board is going to have an opportunity to review how that might fit with its goals.
“But I think the real problem that we face is we need a way forward in Los Alamos to successfully figure out how the schools can work with the community in both meeting the schools’ economic goals, their staff goals, and really community goals, and our desire is that we look at all of those ones, set a time certainly for soliciting those ones and go forward on the review process. As chairman of the North Mesa Housing Project, and however conflicted that is, there is a real concern that the North Mesa Project is not likely to generate large scale development interest if we haven’t been able to demonstrate that we can close the sale of houses of a similar kind of financing before that,” Gursky said. “We’re talking 10s of millions of dollars and if we haven’t been able to demonstrate that we can close long-term leaseholder sales on school property, both from a mortgage agreement, which we have. We have financing agreements, we have everything done, because we would do those kinds of things anyway.”
He said the rest of the program is to successfully develop North Mesa.
“We’re going to have to be able to show that large numbers of people would be willing to buy houses on long-term leases and this would be I think our only really effective option considering the property that the district owns,”Gursky said.
Move that board rescinds motion for December 14 motion. Directed Delfin to bring back options, to research the District’s available property and seek community input.