Vision For Downtown Areas Gets More In Focus

Los Alamos Daily Post

The vision of an ideal downtown in Los Alamos and White Rock is coming more and more in focus.

Thursday evening, Dekker, Perich and Sabatini (D/P/S), the contractor tasked with developing the downtown master plans, presented drafts of the plans for the public’s consideration.

The open house meeting for the master plans was held virtually and attendees were polled on their thoughts regarding the draft plans.

During an interview with the Los Alamos Daily Post Friday, Los Alamos County Planning Manager Bryce Ternet emphasized that these plans are just that – plans.

“This is a starting point,” Ternet said. “We have nice downtown areas but they could be nicer and they should be. This is a starting point to get an overall vision moving forward.”

What will put these plans into action is Chapter 16 of the County’s Code, which focuses on development, Ternet said. D/P/S also is tasked in revising Chapter 16 in the Code.

As Chapter 16 gets revised, the goal is to incorporate into it elements from the downtown master plans, he said. Additionally, the Community Development Department will need to collaborate with other County departments such as Public Works to carry out various capital improvement projects identified in the master plan as well as get County council’s approval for any future expenditures for the development of the downtown areas.

“This is a multi-tier approach,” Ternet said.

Will Gleason of D/P/S also said master plans do not magically produce ideal downtowns.

“It doesn’t magically make buildings appear, but it really is a way to address local concerns and desires and using a market-based approach that takes lessons learned from other places and applies them to these specific town centers … and applies those lessons in a way that makes sense for Los Alamos,” he said.

The general vision for both downtown areas are similar, according to the presentation. Each plan envisions a thriving hub with a mix of residential, office and retail and a network of trails and parks.

More specifically, for White Rock, the presentation proposed giving its downtown a unique signature. One of the keys to do that is to change the dynamic of the stretch of N.M. 4 that goes through White Rock.

This includes improving and enhancing infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians such as offering safer crosswalks and unified streetscapes. Possibly installing some type of gateway feature and improving signage, too.

Another proposal is to make bicycle and pedestrian improvements through the downtown and have a premiere gathering place that would define the downtown and make it recognizable. One ambitious suggestion was to turn Bonnie View Drive into a mixed-use corridor that resembles an urban downtown with housing. Improvements also were suggested along the Canada del Buey Trail and reconfiguring Longview Drive for residences.

The zoning should be updated to offer a true mix of commercial and multi-family uses in the downtown, according to the presentation. The buildings’ designs should follow development standards to encompass White Rock’s character. Plus, there should be a greater mix of housing types such as townhouses, multi-family units and mixed-use developments.

Public transit services could be extended as well as enhancing public transit stops, according to the presentation. The presentation further suggested focusing on small businesses such as micro-retail and start-up business spaces. One way to achieve this is to streamline the development process. Developments proposing 50 units or less and complying with standards could go through an administrative approval process rather than through the planning and zoning commission.

Additionally, the presentation called for leveraging the proposed metropolitan redevelopment area (MRA) and utilizing a tax increment financing to potentially fund public improvements. There could be a small business façade improvement program to combat blight. Incentives should be explored to redevelop empty lots and possibly issue fees to property owners who keep their spaces vacant. It also was suggested in the presentation to offer public spaces for dining, shopping, and outdoor events.

For Los Alamos, the presentation offered several suggestions.

One of the most effective ways to change the dynamic of Los Alamos’ downtown area is parking, according to the presentation.

Gleason pointed out that everybody pretty much drives to where they want to go and parking is central to how people access places. The general idea is to make parking more on a district wide basis, he said. Meaning, people wouldn’t necessarily park right in front of the store they plan to enter but park on a street or lot or structure that is a short distance to where they want to go.

“This just allows for the type of buildings and scale of buildings to be different,” he said.

Another key factor is the redevelopment of Mari-Mac plaza. Similar to the White Rock downtown master plan, pedestrian and bicycle amenities including lighting, benches and landscaping are suggested for Los Alamos’ downtown area, especially along Trinity Drive. Street extension could be used to break up large blocks on the south side of Trinity as well as between Central Avenue and Trinity, according to the presentation. It also suggested utilizing the public spaces in Central Park Square.

The streetscape along Central Avenue could be extended to other roadways and signage should be improved. The downtown should be branded as a family-friendly place with multi-generational programming, it was reported in the presentation. As for the buildings, it was recommended to increase the buildings’ height to more than seven stories as well as offer neighborhood protection standards including setbacks and buffers.

Just as in White Rock, it was recommended that Los Alamos implement an administrative approval process for smaller developments as well as have affordable rent prices for commercial spaces or provide lease to own options.

The draft master plans, along with proposed revisions to Chapter 16 of the County Code, will ultimately be presented to Council for approval.