Chapter 16: To Revitalize Our Town, Update The Code

Planning & Zoning Commissioner
Los Alamos County

This week the Los Alamos County Council and the Los Alamos County Planning & Zoning Commission have had the amazing opportunity to give our input into the long-anticipated update of the Los Alamos County Chapter 16 Development Code. Does it sound boring? It’s not. These decisions have a direct impact on questions like “What the heck is going on with the old Smith’s” and “What the heck will go up where the Hilltop House is coming down” and “Why the heck don’t we have anyone to staff anything around here” and “Where the heck can I find a house I can afford?”

Through three joint public Zoom meetings, the last one of which is this afternoon, we’ve done a deep dive into the 255-page proposed final document. So far, we’ve identified a number of items that have generated enough healthy disagreement that they’ve been moved to the side and labeled as “parking lot items” for further discussion. (Is it ironic or the opposite of ironic that one of these actually has to do with parking lots?) As I, a Planning & Zoning Commissioner, won’t be able to attend all of the afternoon discussion on Friday, I said I would submit my opinions in writing. (P&Z is only offering opinions on these matters, as we don’t have a quorum and aren’t allowed to vote.) Since I am submitting my opinions in writing anyway, and they will be part of the public record, I thought I would share them through the media. 

Accessory Dwelling Units: We were given a rundown on three options for rules regulating accessory dwelling units (ADUs). These would be, for example, a little mother-in-law’s casita built next to a house. In towns where the rules regulating these are made more permissive, these kinds of units tend to flourish, significantly alleviating local housing crunches. I am in favor, therefore, of the least restrictive of the three options we were presented. Why? Our founding policy guide is the Comprehensive Plan, which has named the lack of housing as one of the county’s biggest challenges, and has deemed the creation of housing to be one of its top priorities. 

Another guiding document, the 2019 Housing Market Needs Analysis commissioned by the county, specifically favors increasing ADUs: “Accessory dwelling units, higher density development, and expedited approval processes are examples of features that could be encouraged through the code rewrite. Accessory dwelling units are allowed in the North Community zoning district on single family lots of 6,500 square feet or more. Accessory dwelling units are an infill strategy that can accommodate needs in Los Alamos County, including student housing and multi-generational households. The development code should allow these units in more locations with clear requirements and conditions under which accessory units are allowed.” [All emphases in this doc are mine.] 

With that in mind, whatever option we are given that best increases the housing stock, while staying in line with national best practices for planning and zoning, is the obvious solution. We should not make it harder than “national best practices” to add housing options. Yet, as one of the public comments on this module states, “Despite being asked several times to consider, as many municipalities and states with housing shortages have, to create a regulatory scheme that would make use of Accessory Dwelling Units consistent, simplified and affordable, the County Planning Manager, Contractor and/or Steering Committee recommend definitions and regulations that will have the effect, if not the outright intention, to make ADU’s an elite and expensive option.” It’s worth considering that the steering committee is largely composed of developers, who have an interest in minimizing ADUs, as those would compete with the kind of housing a developer would create. 

Reduced parking requirements: As stated, the Comp Plan makes it clear that housing is a priority. It does not say that parking is a priority—quite the opposite. Pages 67 and 85 of the Comp Plan suggest reducing parking in residential and downtown districts, respectively. The 2019 Housing Study states, “The plan recognizes the code incentives that are in the development code, including accessory dwellings allowed in some residential districts. high-density mixed-use projects allowed in downtown overlay districts, and reduced parking requirements for mixed-use projects.” 

Later in that study: “New mixed-use projects that are meeting the intent of County policy have bumped up against building height and parking limits. Parking requirements for multifamily development in mixed use and multifamily districts should be reviewed. The zoning code allows for shared parking in mixed use districts. Additional reductions could be allowed on sites adjacent to transit service. Other incentives that would enable higher densities include smaller lot sizes in more locations and structured parking in town centers to reduce the land area devoted to surface parking.”

Given a limited amount of land, you can either put parking on that land, or housing, but you can’t increase both (without going up). One of those has to give, and the Comp Plan clearly states housing is the priority.  

A concern was raised about parking and low-income residents. While this concern makes sense at first glance, a closer look reveals that mandating parking raises rents. Some cities have eliminated parking requirements entirely for developers building affordable housing units, and this approach has worked to incentivize more affordable housing. We can’t, as a county, keep saying we want more affordable housing while refusing to consider code changes that will incentivize it. 

I’ve never thought it made sense to turn the precious little land we have into hot asphalt for cars. The American Planning Association agrees with me, as does this writer for The Atlantic. It’s understandable that people worry about parking when thinking about a city’s growth. But mandating parking is not the solution. While we’re not looking at eliminating mandated parking at this time, we do have an opportunity to reduce the number of mandated spaces. Housing must take precedence over parking. People must take precedence over cars. 

Building height limits: One of the biggest changes we have the opportunity to adopt is allowing buildings downtown to go up to 86 feet, or seven stories, in the Los Alamos downtown area, and a four-story max in the White Rock Town Center. (Note that next to a low-density residential area, the 86’ max drops to 35’.) This expansion would greatly increase the infill opportunities downtown, which is a stated goal of the Comprehensive Plan. The 2019 Housing Study also states the county should “Encourage infill through zoning incentives: Potential tactics include zoning ordinance changes to expand districts where accessory dwellings are allowed, modify height restrictions in some areas, and take transit access and project characteristics into account in multi-family and mixed-use districts.”

The term “high rise” is often used disparagingly, almost as a scare-word. Seven stories is not a high rise. It’s three more stories that what we allow now: look at Enterprise Bank, but add a few floors and then imagine it filled with people. People who will staff your restaurants, who will teach your kids, fight your fires. These people will also be shoppers who can help support new businesses, and they will be the entrepreneurs who will create those businesses. 

I think it’s important to understand that allowing a max of seven stories in the code doesn’t mean the town will suddenly be full of them: such buildings are quite expensive for developers and they’d need to feel assured the investment would pay off. This will naturally limit how many tall buildings go up. Another concern is views. View corridors are preserved by streets to some degree, and the downtown is a small area—most of the views in town will be unaffected. But this is a question we have to pit against the upsides of having a more densely populated downtown. What are those upsides? 

Dense downtowns are colorful and energetic. Our downtown is many things, but right now it’s not “colorful and energetic.” Taller buildings greatly increase density, and “Increasing the density and vitality of the downtown is a goal of the Comprehensive Plan and the Economic Vitality Strategic Plan and supported as a high priority in the Strategic Leadership Plan.” That’s another quote from the 2019 Housing Study, which goes on to say, “A compact, dense downtown has multiple advantages. Concentrated activity supports a vibrant, walkable place and an environment where businesses can thrive. Increasing density is possible on vacant properties, through redevelopment of vacant and deteriorated buildings, and over time, redevelopment of older, single story buildings with surface parking lots. Vacant buildings on sites suitable for mixed-use include the Hilltop Hotel building and the Kroger building.” Now that those latter two building sites look to be in play, imagine a few taller buildings in their place that house a great number of people affordably, and that ideally have cute little retail spaces on their lower floors. This is a vision we can enable with a code update. 

These are not the only “parking lot items,” but they’re three of the most contentious. What do they have in common? Fundamentally, housing. It’s a perverse system when the people with the most power in the housing debate are the people who are already here, in a home: this is more than skewed, when you think about it. The people who most need the housing aren’t here yet to advocate for themselves. This is profoundly unfair and supports longstanding housing policies that harm the marginalized. 

People want to move to this town, and according to the Comp Plan, the 2019 Housing Study, and community surveys, we want them to move here, too. At least theoretically. The argument seems to be over where. There are advocates for sprawl, who want to add housing at our edges, in the urban-wildland interface. This idea that has many problems—commute times, wildfire risk, affordability, inefficiency, and the fact that DOE holds that land and isn’t interested in turning it over. 

If you don’t sprawl out, you go up. Higher density housing is more affordable, greener, and a more practical land use than sprawling single-family houses. We have the opportunity right now with this code update to solve many of the town’s long-standing problems: housing, blight, staffing, retail. By reducing parking, expanding ADUs, and allowing taller buildings downtown, we’re taking bold steps forward—steps that accord with all these studies and plans we keep paying for. 

These aren’t the only changes that need to happen, and none are without knock-on problems and challenges, but adopting these three code changes is a step in the right direction. It’s progressive and future-facing. Very few people want the town to shrink, and very few people like the look or function of downtown as it is. I understand the hesitation about big buildings in particular, but I think it’s a reflex we can and must work past, as any other path is contrary to the goals the community has agreed on. The solution starts with adding higher-density housing where we need it the most. Our town’s founding policy guides, which ought to solve any lingering debates between us (why else do we have them?), are in accord.