Jeff Branch, left, and Greg Gonzales of Columbus Capital, LLC. Courtesy photo
BY MAIRE O’NEILL,
Jeff Branch and Greg Gonzales of Columbus Capital, LLC are hoping their new venture at the Mari Mac Center will give it some new life, and more importantly get it out from under Kroger and enable the development of the new housing, offices and retail spaces the community has long been seeking.
The two men, who are no strangers to the Los Alamos community, have opened up to local media about their plans since the Los Alamos Reporter first broke the news of their application to Los Alamos County for a special use permit to operate a storage facility at the location of the old Smith’s store at Mari Mac. They have already held what they call “neighborhood meetings” with about 30 people in the community to seek input and idea and plan to continue that practice as they move through the development process. The special use permit will be on the agenda for the Sept. 28 meeting of the Los Alamos Planning & Zoning Commission.
Branch is originally from Santa Fe. He and Gonzales met in the 9th grade at St. Michael’s High School and have been friends ever since. They started working together more than 20 years ago when Branch invited Gonzales to move back from California and get involved in the construction side of the house.
“He was newly married with a new baby on the way. I was the same, so our lives ran a parallel and he came back and we’ve been developing for the last 20 years in Santa Fe, Espanola, Albuquerque, Phoenix and El Paso, so we’ve been able to grow our business which is based in Santa Fe,” Branch said. “About 10 years ago, we were asked by Los Alamos Public Schools to submit a proposal for the area where Smith’s Marketplace is. We didn’t win. We had a really cool plan back then.”
Then about three years ago before the pandemic Branch said they were invited up to Los Alamos by former County Economic Development Director Joni Ahlers who told them housing, offices, retail stores were desperately needed in the County.
“She was a great ambassador. She really sold us on the community. She was really helpful; we walked out of the meeting and the tour and Greg and I knew we needed to help and do more. Immediately we bought 3500 Trinity Drive and we were going to do something there,” Branch said. ”During the pandemic, we reached out to Sam Donaldson who since passed away and we have purchased that property on North Mesa. We are moving along with that project, which is called Arbolada and consists of 85 new homes.”
Branch and Gonzales have developed shopping centers, apartment complexes, subdivision and more over the years. Branch said they have always been interested in the Mari Mac property and knew that John Rizzo and New Mexico Innovation Triangle, current owners of the Hilltop House property were trying to acquire it. When that transaction fell apart, Columbus Capital stepped in.
“During the early part of this year, Kroger did a really good due diligence on Greg and me and the company to make sure we were reputable and had the resources. We didn’t take it lightly; it’s a big project and so we entered into a contract to purchase it in May and we’ve been doing our due diligence with soils, environmental, meeting with the tenants that were there and understanding the (Sirphey) law suit that’s pending, which we didn’t know about until about three weeks ago,” Branch said.
He said working with the existing Mari Mac tenants and other neighbors is very important.
“We helped create the early neighborhood notification ordinance in Santa Fe and we believe in that, and even though we don’t have to here, we are learning a lot, we’re understanding needs, we’re understanding concerns,” Branch said.
He said working with Kroger has been “a little bit challenging” but he is glad they agreed to work with Columbus. Branch and Gonzales knew Los Alamos National Laboratory had issued a request for proposals for storage in the area. They had won an RFP two years ago for two buildings in Santa Fe for LANL.
“So we do have a relationship with the Lab and we’re proving ourselves to be good developers and landlords. With that need that they have for storage and the need the County has for that property to be developed, it’s all integrated, and we want to do what we can to help,” Branch said.
He noted that literally since April, interest rates have gone up by 300 basis points. Construction costs have gone up probably 15-20 percent in just those few months making it difficult to develop anything in this day and age, he said.
“So with that RFP coming out, Greg and I talked and realized we should try to submit a proposal for the old Smith’s, because if they need storage space, maybe that’s an opportunity in the interim to help us finance the project,” Branch said. “If we can win the RFP it will allow us to get financing to buy it and get it out of Kroger’s hands. Therefore that buys us time. We’re not going to make much money on it, we’ll break even but that buys us time to get through the approval process with the County.”
Earlier this month, Columbus Capital, LLC bought 800 Trinity, 820 Trinity and the building west of Mari Mac that houses the Motor Vehicle Department and some small businesses from Gerald Ohlsen. Branch said they bought those properties to show commitment on their part. They now own eight of the 13 condominiums in 820 Trinity.
“We have been talking to some of the owners and they need to find a place to move to. That’s part of our challenge – to figure things out in the community so that we can start to move people temporarily to other locations and then back to Mari Mac,” Branch said. “We’re not under the rush to have to do it immediately; we have a little bit of time to set our strategy, to get approvals, to relocate tenants, all of that fun stuff.”
The hope is to eventually tear down the two buildings on Trinity and develop two more significant buildings there. Pajarito Brew Pub still has a lease and an option and Auto Zone still has a lease, Branch said. China Palace is looking for another place and Pyramid Café has already made arrangements to leave.
“We’re not throwing them out and would love them to come back once we’ve developed the property,” he said.
So it appears the first phase of the Mari Mac project will be to acquire the special use permit for five years for the storage area, which will be box-shaped on the old supermarket location with the entrance at the back of the building. The hope is to put some small shop units on the front of the building to hide the frontage. There will also be a big parking structure that’s hidden and a drive-through from Trinity to Central Avenue and some more shop space at the former Beall’s location.
The second phase will involve 300-400 apartments and some more office space. Branch said he would like to see some start-up labs also. He plans brought to the County at this point are not set in stone.
“At least we will now be the landlord. We would own it. LANL is obviously going to fund rent, they will help us finance it and we now get Kroger out of the way. LANL asked us for our best and final offer so we submitted that and they are waiting to see how the application for the special use permit is going to turn out,” Branch said. “It will take some time, but we see a place where people can live, work and play. That’s our plan.”