A conceptual view of Phase 1 from Central Avenue. Courtesy Columbus Capital
A conceptual overview of Phase 1 of the proposed Columbus Capital project at the former Mari-Mac Shopping Center. Courtesy Columbus Capital
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Jeff Branch and Greg Gonzales of Columbus Capital hope to close on the Mari-Mac property in May, which they say will give them some breathing room to plan and execute the first phase of their redevelopment project. The two men recently spoke at a community meeting held at UNM-LA.
The first phase plans will be submitted to Los Alamos County in January or early February and will then go before the Planning & Zoning Commission for approval.
Work on the property will begin with putting a new façade on the former Smith’s building, cleaning up the existing parking lot and updating the landscaping. Los Alamos National Laboratory will move into the Smith’s building which will be used for storage purposes and will have some shops up front. The plan is to demolish that entire building in five years when LANL moves out.
The first phase of the project will involve placing 16,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor, a three-story parking garage that’s embedded in the building and some 355 housing units
“The design would include a street through the property from Trinity to Central and then a kind of central plaza area with restaurants down below, outdoor seating. We could bring in food trucks for a more festive situation. We could also block off the streets and put booths in front,” Branch said.
“AutoZone is a little bit of our nemesis right now. We thought it was Kroger but now it’s AutoZone. AutoZone has a lease with options that go out a little but longer than we would like. We’ve approached them to relocate their store and they’re a bit reluctant. They have a provision in their lease that requires us to maintain this entire parking lot for the duration of their lease, which limits what we can do with this parking lot. We’ve written them a letter. They’re not quite responsive so we’re pushing forward to try to at least enter into the conversation to shorten the length of this parking lot. We’re also working with Kroger on the vacant pads at Smith’s Marketplace,” Branch said.
He said on the side of the property where AutoZone is hold them up, Columbus Capital would put some kind of pergola with some shade. “We could park some food trucks that would complement some of the restaurants at different times of the year. This would be the first phase that we would submit to the County that we would get going on while LANL is in the old Smith’s building,” Branch said.
Branch said they would love to move Pajarito Brew Pub into one of the two new buildings and then move AutoZone to a new building, possibly even build a new building for them.
“The lease to LANL would expire and then we would tear that building down and work on the second phase. We are just in the preliminary lay-outs for that,” he said.
Asked if the 355 units will be condominiums or apartments, Branch noted that Columbus Capital has never built high density condominiums but has built ground floor condominiums. He said they have been hearing from a lot of folks in the community that they want a “lock and leave type of situation”.
“They don’t want a big home with a yard and they want to stay in Los Alamos,” he said.
Branch and Gonzales noted some of the challenges facing contractors in the Los Alamos area, including the difficulty of getting builder’s risk insurance due to the historic fire situation.
“It’s hard for contractors because workers have to travel from Albuquerque and where do they house their people. We’re working on all that stuff in the background to try to be ready for this phase by having the labor and the trades. We’re working with Northern New Mexico College not only for our needs but to help the community. There’s a lot more that we’re working on besides this to support the community and to support some of the things we’re trying to achieve. There’s no way that we can do it alone,” Branch said.
He said Columbus Capital will be meeting with the County as well to see what support they can get for some LEDA grants for tenants that relocate to Mari-Mac because they’re going to need help with tenant improvements to build out restaurants, etc.
“We’re going to need some help with the parking structure. Parking is expensive and it doesn’t produce any revenue. Parking is parking but it costs a significant amount on the front end. These are all the hurdles that we have to jump through in the background besides at the end of the day offering a place for the community to gather and enjoy,” Branch said.
He said he had been hoping to share some good news that Columbus Capital has a purchase agreement for the former Hilltop House property.
“We don’t have a plan for it but we know how important this piece is to the community as you drive in. It’s the entry into the community. The fact that there has been a demolition and the County has been involved makes it complicated,” Branch said.
In response to questions about what LANL would be storing in the old Smith’s building Branch noted that there will be quite a bit of renovation on the LANL campus over the next four or five years. He said if LANL was going to renovate an office, for example, all the furniture would have to be removed temporarily and placed in storage. He said long-lead items like air conditioners would also be stored there. Delivery to the storage area would be at the back of the building, similar to when Smith’s was there. d will be three levels.
Asking about the China Palace restaurant, Branch said Columbus Capital doesn’t own the property yet so they can’t make agreements about relocation, etc.
“We are dealing with everyone that’s going to be impacted by that the demolition of that building. China Palace has a lease with Kroger. When the property is purchased, Columbus Capital will take on those leases,” Branch said.
Asked if the plans being submitted in January for Phase 1 will follow the newly-revised development code, Branch said that the code that’s in place the day the plans are dropped off at the County is the one they will follow. He noted that the new code is a little more lenient with parking, building heights and setbacks on streets.
Branch also noted that the U.S. and the west is finally beginning to model a more vertical “live, work and play” concept for developments.
“We just don’t have land. We have to go up. And how do you do that in a way that sets it into the surroundings? How do you do that so that it’s sensitive to views? It’s hard in the west because we love our views. So we try to be as sensitive as we can with our architects who are working on some of the layouts,” he said
He noted that due to the way Central Avenue and Trinity slope to the east, the Municipal Building and the building leased by the Los Alamos Fire Department are located, those buildings started a story above where the buildings at Mari Mac will start, so they won’t be dwarfing the buildings around them just because of the topography.
‘We will probably be starting our building 12-14 feet below where the Municipal Building starts,” Branch said, adding that the construction will be the same type as that going in behind the Los Alamos Medical Center.
He said the former Beall’s premises will be leased out short-term for the five-year period. After five years and after the five years Pajarito Brewpub will be moved to a new location.
“All this is going to take time but we’ve done it before. We’ve had some pretty complicated projects over the years so we’re used to hurdles,” Branch said.
Asked about the current Motor Vehicles Division office, he responded that MVD doesn’t have a very long lease and that most people know they’re looking for a home to relocate to.
“If we had our way we would like to build a building across the street for them where they would have a lot of good parking. Those are things that will come. It’s not going to happen tomorrow and we have a little time to make all that happen,” he said.
Asked to summarize how the project will look going forward, Branch said technically they have to submit to the County for their site plan development approval.
“If we do that at the end of January or the beginning of February, it would probably be heard a month after that so we will not have approval from the County until March. What gets submitted to the County is not as detailed as construction drawings, so at that point we hire architects who will determine where the kitchen is and all that stuff. Our goal is to own the property in March. As soon as we close, we will start construction – cleaning up the façade, the parking lot, and then the building where China Palace is, as part of that cleanup we would tear that building down because it doesn’t meet code. It’s a fire trap. I’m surprised the County hasn’t condemned that one yet but it’s a big problem and do we’d like to demolish that and clean up all that parking lot and prepare ourselves,” he said
He continued, “Will it be next year? That’s the hope. Right now interests are close to 8 percent, construction costs are still ridiculous so our hope is that the economy improves from that standpoint and the construction costs start to come down and interest rates start to come down and we’ll be in a position a year from now to prepare for a break of ground in spring of 2024 for this space. We can do it sooner. If the winds are behind us, let’s go”.
With regard to the “Daniel’s Café building”, Branch said there are 13 condos there and Columbus Capital has purchased 8 of them.
“We’d love to buy everyone’s condominium and that’s public knowledge. Nobody has to sell. That’s up to them. If we could work something out our plan would be to tear these down and build a third phase. We’re looking right now to upgrade the building which we bought from Gerald Olsen. We’ll be meeting with the condominium association in the next few months and we will come up with a plan,” he said.
Asked if Columbus Capital was going to use the 67 percent ownership clause to force the remaining tenants out, Branch said that is not the way the company operates.
Asked about the “The brown huts” property which is owned by Columbus Capital and is located at 3500 Trinity Drive, Branch confirmed that the property will be renovated and upgraded but there would be no demolition. The property will host the daycare facility being created for the children of LANL employees and others in the community. Branch noted that there is a lot of open space and trees at the back of the property which make it a park like setting for children.
Branch again expressed concern about the AutoZone lease because as it stands nothing can be done to the parking lot until that lease expires. He added that Columbus prefers private tenants to national tenants. He confirmed that priority will be given to tenants from Phase 1 in Phase 2.
“To build this stuff is not cheap. The ability to pay rent is a direct reflection on the amount of sales a retailer can make. We’ve got a big community so it’s that balance in how we work with tenants. Our favorite tenants in Santa Fe are local. The national tenants that can pay the high rent are a pain in the butt – AutoZone, Kroger. We need them because the banks like their credit but we didn’t throw anybody out during the pandemic. We pride ourselves on that. We try to help people thrive, not just survive,” Branch said.
Gonzales said Los Alamos is a small town and that he and Branch joke that they could pass out their mothers’ phone numbers.
“So if you have a problem, call them to see what they’ll say to us. I think it does help to be local because I shop at Smith’s. I’m going to see you folks there. I’m not going anywhere, so we do our best. This is a tough business, a risky business,” he said.
Gonzales is married to Jill Gonzales, the Los Alamos Middle School principal.