Cautious Optimism In The Face Of Land Barons And Warehouses

Columbus Capital owns or intends to own all of the properties between the Hilltop and the Los Alamos County Fire Department. Courtesy James Wernicke

Libertarian Candidate for
Los Alamos County Council

Los Alamos has a $5B industry, a local government budget of $15k per person, and a median household income of $120k. You would think it could sustain a local pizza parlor. Being the healthiest county in the US, you would think it could support a medical facility that can treat a dislocated pinky on a Saturday. (Ask me how I know.) Yet, we struggle with these essential services as well as our fire, transit, recreation, and virtually all other services for the same reason: people don’t want to work here because there’s nowhere to live and nothing to do. Local property ownership creates the ideal conditions to empower equity in housing and inclusivity of local businesses in economic development, but in the real world, we often have to make it work in less-than-ideal conditions.

The Brown Huts on Trinity where Columbus Capital wanted to build an office complex. Courtesy James Wernicke

In 2020, the Santa Fe-based real estate investment firm Columbus Capital bought the Brown Huts on Trinity. They had planned to build a modern office building, but they backed out when work-from-home happened. They’re pending purchase of 17 acres on North Mesa to build single-family homes. They also intend to buy the old Smith’s and surrounding properties. Their idea is to use it for warehousing LANL equipment until they can build retail and housing. That plan sounds great, but after Smith’sHilltopMarriottLa Mesa Community, and other big developers, we have trust issues.

The 17-acre Sam Donaldson estate on North Mesa where Columbus Capital plans to be 85 single-family homes. Courtesy James Wernicke

It’s hard to be assuaged by phrases like “ensuring the maximum return to shareholders“. I could appeal to your emotion and tell you how their leadership has connections to New Mexico and their vision is “that properties will expedite success and convenience for the people that work and reside in these communities”, but objectively, they’re batting zero so far on Los Alamos development. To their credit, they manage a number of properties in Santa Fe including TargetWhole Foodsoffice buildings, and apartments, but we’re not Santa Fe. We have a tough choice: oppose them and hope a better plan comes along, or support them and hope they won’t be just another land baron keeping rents at “government rate” and doing the bare minimum for small business and residential tenants.

One way you can get informed and involved is to attend the Sep 28 meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission when they will review the application for a Special Use Permit to use the Smith’s as a storage facility. Columbus Capital will have to show their plan “substantially conforms to the Comprehensive Plan“. The Comprehensive Plan is our County’s guiding document for things like encouraging economic development, providing more choices in housing, and improving the appearance of the community. If the permit is approved, Columbus Capital will probably buy the old Smith’s, the Mari Mac Shopping Center, and the remaining shop owners at 800 Trinity. You can also share your concerns and ideas with the Planning & Zoning Commission, Economic Development Administrator Dan Ungerleider, Senior Planner Sobia Sayeda, and County Council before then.

The Special Use Permit proposes to use the highlighted areas for storage with three 1200 sq. ft. retail spaces in front. Courtesy James Wernicke

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not about a Special Use Permit, but the quality of life for our community. We don’t want a warehouse there forever, but this might be the best opportunity to develop housing and retail there. A warehouse doesn’t meet the requirements for a Special Use Permit, but we can concede to give them a Special Use Permit if they give us some assurances in return. For example, we could impose penalty fines if they don’t meet milestone deadlines to develop housing and retail according to clearly-defined community requirements. We need to find ways to help Columbus Capital develop things to do and mixed-income housing so we can have cashiers, pizza cooks, X-ray techs, doctors, firemen, bus drivers, and lifeguards, and we don’t have to wait 7-10 years for it. I hope you’ll attend the P&Z meeting on Wed Sep 28 @ 5:30p and engage in the conversation.