Letter to the Editor: Explaining Position on Pending Rezoning of UNM-LA Apartments

Los Alamos

We believe it is appropriate to explain our position on the pending rezoning of the apartments owned by UNM-LA on 9th Street.

There are 64 units in two buildings located on a parcel of land that is 1.88 acres. This land is zoned R3H, which allows for residential housing at a density of 21.8 du per acre, 20 feet front and 15 feet rear setbacks, and a maximum height of 35 feet.  There are more units than allowed in this zone: it was built in 1949 (along with most of the other apartment buildings in the area) and the zone was imposed on it long after the government built it. 

UNM-LA has owned these apartments for about 20 years. They have never done any serious maintenance or renovation and the buildings have been allowed to deteriorate until they have closed one of them completely, only about 17 units in the other are occupied.  UNM-LA says it wants to have student housing, and it must replace these apartments to provide student housing. It says it has an assessment, which we cannot see, saying that the buildings cannot be renovated.  Several of the businesses in the area who have buildings of the same type either have already renovated or are planning to renovate them, and one of them has walked the UNM-LA apartments, and prepared a written plan and estimates for renovating them, but UNM-LA refuses to talk to him.

UNM-LA and the county are working on a memorandum of understanding under which the county and UNM-LA will split the cost of demolition and waste abatement, around $700,000. UNM-LA has chosen a Denver developer to design, build and manage the proposed new apartments. They are to be a mix of student housing and “workforce housing,” the new euphemism for affordable housing (there is now some doubt about the affordable part, the developer having stated at a meeting the other day that there would be no HUD financing of the “workforce housing”.)

Because current rules don’t allow the owner to rebuild a new apartment at the old over-density, a new project would have to meet the zone density requirement, only 41 units could be built.  Apparently to avoid this inconvenience, and to make the project more economically attractive to the developer, the county has facilitated the process to rezone the property to R3H-40:  the highest density available in Los Alamos – density of 43.6 du per acre, maximum height of 50 feet, 20 feet front and 15 feet rear setbacks, allowing the construction of 81 or 82 units. Unfortunately the zone also carries a minimum lot size of 2.0 acres, but no fear, the county is also facilitating a waiver for their partner, whose lot is sadly somewhat less than the minimum.

There are five single-family dwellings and a four-unit condominium on the East side of ninth street directly facing the apartments. There is another privately owned apartment building on the West side, and three single-family houses on Myrtle directly facing the apartments. We own one of the houses on 9th Street and the front of our house is about 87 feet from the face of the existing apartment building. The first thing we noticed was that the R3H-40 zone would allow the developer to build a 50 foot wall about 82  feet from our front door. Our neighbors noticed the same thing, not to mention the effect of 80 or so new housing units on traffic and parking in our neighborhood, so with some help from the county we encouraged UNM-LA to hold a neighborhood meeting so we could advise them of our concerns. 

We mentioned the 50 foot wall, the traffic, the parking, the density, and a dozen or so other possible problems. Dr. Page said he would pass on our concerns to the developer, and UNM-LA withdrew the application. That was last December. They have now filed a new application for the same rezoning, and a couple of weeks ago convened a new neighborhood meeting to show us how the developer had responded to our concerns. The first thing the developer put up was one of those fancy computer 3-D drawings of a 50 foot wall 82 feet from our front door. 

After we expressed outrage at his failure to acknowledge even the most basic concerns of the neighborhood, Dr. Page agreed to ask the developer to do something a little more in line with what the neighbors had said. Last week at another neighborhood meeting the developer showed us a new drawing with two buildings: one 35 feet high on the Northern ¾ of the property, and a 50 feet high building on the South – away from the single-family houses, and on the end where the condos are set back 30 or so feet from 9th Street so the sight line is not so intimidating. They also showed they could make it so vehicle access is only from Iris Street to minimize traffic on 9th Street and Myrtle – in sum, a major improvement over the first iterations. 

There are still major problems with this project. First off, it is a very-high-density development on the low-density fringe of an area that has been designated in the comprehensive plan as a transition zone from heavy commercial and high density residential to low density single-family residential. There are at least three other similar properties in the area that will almost certainly be asking to be rezoned to R3H-40 – transforming this neighborhood into a high density urban zone, contrary to the comprehensive plan and to basic precepts of land use planning. The minimum lot size is not just a bureaucratic barrier: the minimum lot size protects against super-high effective densities. Thought experiment: watch the effect on structure and du size as you shrink the lot size: because a significant fraction of the ground area is consumed in fixed allocations that are independent of or only weakly dependent on the number of dwelling units – setbacks, access road, sidewalks, common areas, the fraction of the lot available for du’s shrinks faster than the lot size. The minimum lot size represents the planning community’s best estimate of the level at which something has to give undesirably (think singularity!): either the building has to go up or the floor area of dwelling units has to shrink. Finally, the sight lines and snow melt for residents on Myrtle Street are significantly impacted by the new plan. 

We believe there are a number of solutions available, if UNM-LA and the county would listen rather than just plow ahead with the developer’s plan. We have proposed these in private meetings with county planners and in the neighborhood meetings with UNM-LA. The easiest is to pay attention to local experienced building owners who have renovated their own buildings. The next would be to create a new zone (let’s call it R3H-30) that would just recognize the current density, lot size, setbacks and height. 32 du per acre, 35 feet, 20 foot setbacks. They could tear down the old buildings and replace them with the same number of units, problem solved. It’s very easy to create a new zone but it seems to violate the planners’ sense of propriety and they reject the idea out of hand.

Nobody wants fixed the mess that UNM-LA has allowed to develop across the street from our Blue Heaven more than we do. We do not enjoy the irony that UNM-LA is claiming the right to destroy our neighborhood by citing a situation that they created by their negligence. We have offered any number of solutions including those above and are patronized by the county and ignored by UNM-LA. They want us to just sit here and believe what they say as they cram this project down our throats. Not gonna happen.