BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory may be considering giving up some of the 27 facilities it leases in Los Alamos County and the transfer of additional land by the Department of Energy/NNSA to the County may not be as straight forward as County officials would like it to be. Los Alamos County Council complained in its FY24 Federal Priorities document that the last time new land transfer legislation had been put in place was more than 25 years ago. The document notes that the County is asking Congress to create a new land transfer law to convey land to the County so that the County in turn could make land available to developers.
“The NNSA has refused to act on land transfer requests despite the support of the Congressional Delegation,” the County’s Federal Priorities document states. The County has asked that Congress extend the Land Transfer Law to 2032 to allow for complete remediation and transfer of parcels NNSA had agreed to turn over to the County.
In March, DOE/NNSA Los Alamos Site Manager Ted Wyka told Council he is committed to continuing to work with the County to find mutually agreeable conditions upon which to convey Rendija Canyon and other tracts for transfer. He said he recognizes the County’s desire to receive more land from NNSA to build housing.
“Unfortunately, we do not have any that is free of possible environmental challenges, Native American cultural sites or is within our programmatic buffer zones,” Wyka said, adding that even with that reality he believes it is important to examine the Lab’s land uses regularly and communicate NNSA’s decisions to the County. He indicated his commitment to continue to work with Council and County staff on the land transfer issue.
In response to questions from employees during an all-hands meeting earlier this month. LANL Director Thom Mason addressed both the leasing situation and the land transfer issue. He mentioned that LANL has leased facilities all over Los Alamos County.
“There are 27 of them, I think. In some cases we’ve been leasing them for over 30 years, and yet Los Alamos County is kind of screaming, ‘We need more space for development’. And actually they’re agitating to get more land transfers which is challenging for NNSA, challenging for us, because the so-called easy land transfers, some of which turned out to be not so easy once people started digging holes, have been done,” Mason said. “So with potential future land transfers you’re grappling with issues of unexploded ordnance – that’s never a word you want to hear if you’re a developer – potentially subsurface contamination – that was what happened with the DP Road thing, cultural artifacts that are very precious and must not be disturbed. And we need stand-off space because you know we blow things up and it shakes the windows and so we don’t want to get too much encroachment on that.”
Mason said LANL has limited ability to respond to that yet LANL is occupying a bunch of space in Los Alamos County that potentially could be used for “better and higher purposes”.
“So it’s an interesting thing to think about – is there some way we could consolidate some of what we’re doing so that we’d have a little more gravity about the off-site activities – a little I probably should not say ‘critical mass’ because that has the wrong sort of connotations but, a little more activity in a way that people felt like they were part of a campus rather than having them distributed. We’re still sort of in the early stages of thinking about that but if we do something additional and we still have needs for space that are not met, it might take that sort of a form,” Mason said. “But in terms of the space in Los Alamos, we need the space we’re in right now for sure, but on the other hand, boy it would be great if there was more housing development, more retail, more restaurants – that makes it a more attractive place to recruit people to. I’d like us to be more thoughtful about how we do it so that we don’t, you know, crowd it out. We’re occupying a bunch of former school buildings that are in residential neighborhoods. Maybe it would be smarter for us to have office space somewhere else and have some houses there.”
An employee mentioned the recent approval of the Columbus Capital, LLC plan for an eight-story structure at the former Mari Mac property that includes three levels of parking garage and five stories of apartments and asked if LANL plans to address the office space crunch by developing upward. Mason responded that LANL is indeed planning to develop upward. He explained that when the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB), one of the newest LANL buildings, was developed, there was a limit on how much could be spent on it, so LANL got a two-story building.
“NNSA has increased that limit and so now what we can do is within the limit we can build a four-story building, which given our geographic constraint is bit of a win, because if we look at the office needs we have, if we were restrained to cookie-cuttering those two-story buildings, we’d be building them all the way out to Bandelier. By going higher, even though we’ve got 48 square miles, that’s a little misleading because on some of those 48 square miles as I said, we do explosives’ work, some of it’s kind of steep for putting buildings on. If you actually look at the buildable space, we don’t have that much space, so building up is definitely part of the plan, absolutely,” Mason said.
Asked what LANL can do to encourage builders to build homes that employees can own instead of rent. Mason noted that LANL has employees who are looking for more apartment buildings – particularly early-career staff – but that there are also employees who are looking for single-family, 2.500 square foot houses.
“We have this range of needs and we need developments across that whole range,” he said.
During the meeting Mason noted that here’s lots of development going on in Santa Fe as well and that it looks like there may be some opportunities in Rio Arriba County for additional housing developments “if they can crack the code on some of the horizontal infrastructure that they need – roads and sewers and so forth to make that land available”.
“There is progress on that front although you know new houses get built, we continue to hire new people and they all want somewhere to live so there’s more work to do,” Mason said.
Mason was asked why in light of the large LANL budget, isn’t the Lab able to pay for more housing, transportation, etc. that would benefit employees.
“I think what I told you is we can’t by ourselves. There are limitations. We’re not going to build Quonset huts and we can’t build a nursery. How we hope we will help is we just published the data from surveys from new employees we hired over the last five years. We did a survey and we got a good response in terms of where you are currently housed, what you would like to have, what you are looking for in terms of size of housing, how much are you prepared to pay, how far you are prepared to commute,” Mason said. “We took that data and we made it available to the developers’ community because that’s what they need to go and get financing to build the apartments in Los Alamos that are going up on the Mari Mac property for example. They have to be able to go to the bank and say, ‘Look, there’s all these people who can pay rent, and here’s how much rent they can pay and how many bedrooms they’re going to need,’ so they can use that in the design. So we’re trying to find ways to help alleviate those problems but the only way we can pay for housing is we can pay you and you can pay for housing and then hopefully, we can kind of stimulate the development community to respond to the needs that are there.”
Mason was asked about the Lab renting the old Smith’s supermarket in the Mari Mac complex to use for storage, and what guarantee the Lab can give that this period will not extend past the five years that were noted in local media.
“There’s also a question here asking if LANL plans to add workspace in Bernalillo, Rio Rancho and Albuquerque so maybe I’ll just answer the bigger question about space rather than commenting on a particular procurement action. I would say, from my point of view the space that we leased in Santa Fe was a kind of new thing; we weren’t sure exactly how that would work out in terms of having a reasonably large number of people based 40 miles away. From my point of view I would say that has worked pretty well and it’s a nice space – it’s helped us I think in some of the housing and transportation issues,” he said. “Coming all the way up to Los Alamos from Albuquerque can get tiring. We have about 8 percent of our staff that live in Bernalillo County – that’s a long way. On the other hand if you’re just coming up to Pacheco just off I-25, that’s 40 minutes, which is much more viable and I think it helps us on that front. It’s good space for the folks that are using it. So I would say that experiment has been successful. We are thinking about what more could we do to distribute ourselves a little bit in a smart way. That’s why we have for example this distribution facility in Espanola that is a little bit newer so we’ll see how that goes over time.”