By JAMES ROBINSON
Los Alamos County Councilor
Happy fall Los Alamos,
As many may have seen, the Los Alamos School Board and County Council will be holding a joint session on the 29th of October to discuss the draft North Mesa Housing Feasibility Study.
The purpose of this discussion is to review the finding of the draft study, evaluate possible alternatives, address previous public comments, and to lastly to continue obtaining additional public comment.
To conduct this study, the Council hired Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, who are also conducting our Downtown Master Planning effort. The goal of this study was to determine if the 30 acre site on North Mesa, below the Los Alamos Middle School, would be appropriate workforce for housing. This draft study is just only one step in long decision process.
So, why are we looking at this site for workforce housing?
First, state funding for our public schools is getting smaller. The one asset the schools have to help supply additional funding sources is the land and buildings they own in the community. We see many of the old schools occupied by organizations that pay rent and provide income to the public schools. One aspect of this study is to make recommendations for how the schools could utilize this land for long-term revenue and continual support for high quality education for our students.
Second, it should come as no surprise that Los Alamos is in a housing crisis. The Housing Market Needs Analysis commissioned by the Council in 2019 states there is an immediate need for 1,700 units. This s in addition to the 600 units already in process, the need is only expected to grow as Los Alamos National Laboratory is expected to continue to hire additional employees to meet their needs. Of particular concern is the is a growing need for “missing middle” and attainable housing for those who make less than the $115,000 area median income.
What has been done so far?
At the start of this project, a steering committee was formed of members from Los Alamos County, Los Alamos Public Schools, and the community at large. Myself, and Dr. Stephen Boerigter were appointed as representatives from the County Council and Los Alamos Public Schools to serve on the committee.
Several meetings were held with the steering committee, as well the County Council, Los Alamos School Board, and residents on North Mesa. To help gather additional input, a project website was also created. In the end, approximately 500 community members attended these various meetings.
As a result of these efforts, it was determined that it is feasible to develop workforce housing on the North Mesa site. In addition, the study provides identified issues where additional information, study, and public engagement is needed to inform the ongoing making process.
The report also noted three critical legs that Los Alamos Public Schools and Los Alamos County need to undertake to make any development (if it determined to proceed with a housing project) successful. Those legs, as stated in the report, are:
- Los Alamos Public Schools: Los Alamos Public Schools controls the property and needs to make the strategic decision regarding whether to developed this land for housing. It can help guide the process with the goal of creating quality housing that is accessible to its teachers and staff, while creating a neighborhood that is compatible with the operations of the adjacent middle school.
- Los Alamos County: With technical expertise in planning and infrastructure development, the County can help by working with LAPS to facilitate gathering the information needed to make a decision regarding development of this scale. It has experience in land disposition, soliciting requests for proposals, development agreements, and tools for financing and sustaining affordable housing.
- The Development Community: A development of this scale requires a nuanced understanding of the real estate/housing market and the ability to deliver housing products and ownership models that match community needs and consumer preference and budget. It requires the financial backing and capacity to invest considerable sums of money well in advance of potential returns.
Los Alamos and the region in general, have a limited number of development entities with the design, planning, engineering, and construction expertise to successfully create a new neighborhood on the North Mesa site. The selection of the right development partners, for both the decision-making phase and the construction phase, if it is decided to continue, to complete the three legged stool is critical to the implementation of this project.
So, where do we go from here?
Los Alamos is in a bind. With a lack of developable land, there are very few options the county has to provide more housing opportunities. The County will continue to identify ways to support re-development and options for additional land transfers from the Department of Energy, but these avenues have their own challengers.
The North Mesa site provides an unique opportunity to help address the growing housing need, especially for those who need “missing middle” type housing, while also becoming a model development that that supports a sustainable community.
This decision will have long-term implications for the School District and for the County as a whole. A new neighborhood with provisions for housing accessible to more in our community, including school district employees could be an enduring success story for the entire community.
To discuss the draft report, needed next steps, and how to continue the engagement process to gather additional ideas and information, leading to a decision regarding the use of the North Mesa property, Los Alamos Public School Board and Los Alamos County Council will host a join session on October 29th, 2020. I highly encourage everyone to attend.
Due to the continuing public health emergency, this meeting will be conducted virtually, and the link can be found on the county website or by clicking here: