The Hilltop House Hotel, foreground, and Mari Mac, center area, are under contract. Courtesy/Google Earth
By CAROL A. CLARK
Los Alamos Daily Post
After many years sitting dormant, the former Hilltop House Hotel and Smith’s building, along with the rest of Mari Mac Village Shopping Center are under contract in downtown Los Alamos.
Larry Hawker, a principal with New Mexico Innovation Triangle, the company looking at redeveloping the properties, spoke Friday with the Los Alamos Daily Post. He explained that the projects are in the very preliminary stages.
“We are just barely getting started with the due diligence process, which typically takes about four months,” Hawker said. “Once the due diligence process is completed, we will move into the entitlement process with the County and that part of the process includes public input. The meetings will be publicized beforehand, and we look forward to hearing from the community at that time.”
Los Alamos County Council Chair Sara Scott recently shared the news with the community that these properties are under contract.
“This was a courtesy of the developer who has no obligation to share information about business negotiations with us … and they gave me the latitude to share this news with the community as soon as possible,” Scott said. “While I can’t speak to specifics regarding the plans for redevelopment other than that they are focusing on housing and some commercial space – and understanding that the final purchase agreement is still being negotiated – I wanted to get that word out to the community as soon as possible.”
Scott also said that the County has let the developer know it will be undertaking a Los Alamos and White Rock downtown planning process (a contract for the planning process and code updates was approved May 26 by Council).
“Once initiated, this planning will take advantage of the current level of commercial and housing development interest in town and build on the Comprehensive Plan to get to the next level of detail of how we’d like our downtown areas to look and function in the future,” she said. “The potential developer of the Smith’s property is looking forward to engaging with the community in that process to address community wants and needs. I’ll be sure to keep folks posted as we hear more regarding the Smith’s redevelopment efforts.”
Scott said that she has heard a lot from folks in the community about what they want and housing is a top issue she has heard about from almost everyone she has spoken with.
“Long-term vacancies also were a notable frustration at the top of the list,” Scott said. “And being able to support and expand local businesses by having more and better-quality commercial space that doesn’t require significant renovation as part of startup efforts was another area cited as important. These community needs and concerns (along with others), grounded by the Comprehensive Plan developed through broad public engagement, were translated into a set of strategic priorities that the Council committed to focus on and make progress on.”
Vacant space is one of the areas that Council and the County staff have addressed, she said, adding that focus was on three sites: Longview, the Hilltop House, and the old Smith’s property.
“Because these are all privately owned properties this is challenging – but it is important – not only are these eyesores for our community but they are wasted space that could be used for things our community has noted as priorities,” Scott said. “Demolition of Longview was completed in 2019 and will facilitate redevelopment. Purchase of the Hilltop House has now been finalized. However, as many of us know, the old Smith’s property has been particularly hard over the past years because of its size and condition but also because of the challenges of dealing with Kroger.”
Scott explained that for more than five years there has been some on and off interest in the property by investors, but none of the potential deals came to fruition. In 2019, after some months of County staff continuing to try to motivate Kroger to work seriously with potential buyers, it seemed that the best way to help move this forward was to meet with them personally to share the community’s frustrations and needs, she said. Last fall Scott met with Kroger and relayed the community’s concerns.
“Using a map, I showed them how large and central this property is in the context of the limited space of our downtown,” Scott said. “In the meantime, there also was interest in the property from multiple developers. Developers interested in buying property or building within the County often ask to meet with County staff and Council representatives.”
Council has a Property Disposition subcommittee to consider land related questions and facilitate discussions with developers; information regarding community needs and wants, sharing the 2019 Housing Market Needs Analysis, and answering questions from potential developers are examples of what is discussed, she said.
“In the case of the Smith’s property we also noted how much the community values the current businesses located there and that we wanted to be sure that future planning for the property took this into account,” Scott said.
Los Alamos County Community Development Department Director Paul Andrus explained his department’s involvement with various types of projects.
“The role of the County in development projects and in supporting economic development in general, varies depending on the types of projects and property ownership,” Andrus said. “Obviously, when it involves County property, County Council provides staff direction on how property will be sold and for what purposes and ultimately Council has final approval on purchase and development agreements involving County land.”
He said that some project examples of these private-public partnerships include the Hill Apartment Development on the old LASO site and the two affordable housing projects underway on DP Road.
“When there is a land transaction between two private entities, however, the County is not involved in the process and in most cases will not even be aware that a property has or is about to change hands,” Andrus said. “That isn’t to say that County staff aren’t available to provide technical support to a developer should that role be requested. As the Community Development oversees the planning and building compliance functions for the County, our staff often meet with potential developers when they are considering investment in a project. Staff may provide technical support on issues such as zoning process and building issues that may impact the potential feasibility and success of their project.”
The Utilities and Public Works staff may provide technical support to developers that relate to their own departmental areas of oversight, Andrus said, adding that at the end of the day, it is whether or not the project “pencils” for the developer, and whether the two private entities in the transaction can reach an agreement in negotiations, that dictates if a project will move forward and the County has no role to play in that respect.
“The possibility of a redevelopment of the Hilltop House and Mari Mac shopping center represents a tremendous watershed opportunity for the community to realize a new vision for downtown,” Andrus said. “The interest in new development in Los Alamos is obviously in part due to the current strength of the local economy and the impact of LANL, but also in part to leadership in the community who have championed the need for growth in economic diversification and new housing options that will contribute to the overall quality of life in the County.”