Planning & Zoning Commission Gives OK To Columbus Capital For Storage Facility At Former Smith’s Store

Conceptual drawings of the Mari Mac Center shown by Columbus Capital during Wednesday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting. Screenshot/


Los Alamos Planning & Zoning Commission members approved an application Wednesday evening from Columbus Capital for a special use permit to operate a storage facility in the 58,000 sq. ft. former Smith’s supermarket in the Mari-Mac Center. The  only major concern mentioned by commissioners was whether or not the 5 ½ years granted to the company would be the end of the storage operation at Mari-Mac or whether approval would be sought to keep the facility open.

Columbus Capital partners Jeff Branch and Greg Gonzales explained to the commission that they have been involved with construction projects in the area for 40 years and how they had been invited to Los Alamos a few years ago by former County economic development manager Joanie Ahlers.  Branch described their venture at San Ysidro Plaza in Santa Fe which they developed about 15 years ago and involved apartments, condominiums, single-family homes.  Branch said the company has done a little of everything and is excited and honored to be able to present the Mari Mac Center project to the Commission.

Branch said Columbus Capital has purchase the 991 Central Avenue building where the Motor Vehicles Department office is located from Gerald Ohlsen as well as the 820 Trinity building that is leased to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. They also purchased eight condominiums in the 800 Trinity building where Daniel’s Café is located. Branch said they have entered into a contract with Kroger after several months of them vetting them out to learn about their background and financial abilities and their “historical precedent in the market. He said they entered into a contract in May and have until next May to close on the property. He said unfortunately the national and world economic changes in the last six months have made things a lot different than they were when they had begun negotiating back in February and April. Interests have almost tripled and inflation is almost anywhere from 8 percent to 12 percent, he said, noting that unfortunately even nationally it’s going to get worse.  He said the company is used to this and it is not something they are afraid of.

Through this process, a request for proposals for LANL came out for some warehouse space and Columbus responded to it for the Smith’s location and had received a final best offer request and that’s where it currently stands. At that point, Branch said they were hoping to request from the commission to be allowed to use it as storage which under the County’s ordinance requires a special use permit. A portion of the Smith’s building and a portion of the rear of the Beall’s and Auto Zone locations would be used. Branch said this part of the project would be phase zero but it gives them hopes that they would be able to close on the property and get it out of Kroger hands which he said is a very significant step for the community. Over the last couple of months Branch and Gonzales said they have had a series of community meetings based on that suggestion and they will be coming to P&Z with overall concepts that will be coming to P&Z for the overall master plan of the project. They still have to come back for a preliminary development plan and then a final development plan which will create an opportunity to live, work and play.

Branch said he knew the community has had a real challenge and that existing tenants had trouble getting roofs maintained and the parking lot. He said one of the things that came out of the neighborhood meetings was to put retail space in front of the Smith’s store and put the storage are in the rear. This would be limited for five years and would not go beyond that. The request that LANL has is for a five-year lease, Branch said.  At the end of the five-year lease the building will be torn down completely. AutoZone has a longer lease and is being inherited.

The first phase would be developing part of the parking lot with about 360 apartments, 40,000 sq.ft. of retail, parking, community uses and then the lease expires on the storage space, they would commence the second phase would begin with tearing down the storage space once the lease expires.

Greg Gonzales said the special use permit would be Phase Zero and during the time the proposed storage space is occupied, Columbus Capital would be coming to the commission for a development plan for the larger project. He explained that they have found that the building that currently houses Pyramid Café has some significant code issues and would be torn down as part of the master plan. Gonzales said Columbus has taken a two prong approach to the application for the special use permit – meeting the criteria and looking at what the community is looking for. There was some discussion during the neighborhood meetings about something would need to be done to the existing Smith’s building if the storage was to be put in place for the five year period. Within six to eight months of obtaining the special use permit, Gonzales said some retail space would be incorporated in the front of the Smith’s space to serve the community not immediately but in the near future. This could also be done at the front of the former Beall’s store. Gonzales said Columbus Capital feels that making these modifications would be a condition of the approval of the special use permit that they would take and that would  bring some short-term space to the market.

Gonzales noted that nothing has been done to the Smith’s building since Smith’s moved out in 2014. He said Columbus Capital would take the slowly degrading building and make it into something that would be aesthetically pleasing. He said that was not part of the P&Z’s purview but it is something the community could benefit from in the short-term.

Their attorney Carl Sommer clarified that Columbus has purchased the pieces belonging to Gerald Ohlsen and has invested almost $5 million in those. He said the project is very exciting for the town because the County’s Comprehensive Plan cries out for redevelopment, reinvestment, revitalization and diversification of the economy so that it is both supportive of the Lab but also moves away from it in an independent way and serves the community in a broader sense. He said the storage plan is a stepping stone to allowing the property to be redeveloped with a broader vision that fits what the community is looking for.

Sommer went through the criterion to be considered by the P&Z Commission for the special use permit. He explained that if the special use permit was approved, the company needs a permit after the decision becomes final to get the permit for demolition, the tenant improvements that are going to be made and the business license necessary for the use. He asked that the P&Z Commission count in its approval the five years from 180 days from the approval because in that time the company would do everything it needs to do to get the proposed use up and running. He felt that all the things that need to be done could be accomplished in 180 days and the five years could start from then.

Commissioners voiced concerns that Columbus would be able to reapply for another special use permit for a storage facility after the five years requested is up. There was hope expressed that that concern would disappear because there would be a development moving forward quickly with plans for a much greater project than a self-storage facility. A business license will be required for this facility to operate even after the special use permit is granted. Business licenses are renewed on an annual basis. When the self-storage special use permit would expire, the initial business license would no longer be valid. There was also concern that LANL, the primary user would push for a longer lease.

The Commission voted unanimously to approve the special use permit for a period not to exceed 5 ½ years from the date of approval. Under that approval, Columbus Capital has to apply for a business license and submit a new application for any proposed new use prior to renewal of the business license. Columbus also has to sign the special use permit.