By SEAN WILLIAMS
Los Alamos County Council
The county has a double-edged relationship with the lab: on one hand, it is our principal employer, and a significant institution for scientific research; on the other, it puts tremendous pressure on the meager land available to the residents, businesses, and government of Los Alamos County.
Everyone is aware of the housing crunch, and the bidding wars and price inflation that have followed, but these cost pressures have been at least as damaging to the business community.
Kelly Beierschmitt, LANL deputy director for operations, recently said of commercial space, “The Laboratory pays what we’re asked to pay, but we’ve got deeper pockets than the small business community”. The way this plays out is, rents to the lab have to be supported by appraisal, but since appraisals always support a range of prices, they can be ratcheted up over time. So “what [the lab] is asked to pay” is always a moving target, and the deep pockets of the lab distort the commercial market to the point that most businesses are priced out.
It’s a helpful comment from Beierschmitt, but the lab itself is only half the problem: its contractors have equally deep pockets, since they pass their costs on to the lab. This is obvious from even a cursory glance at downtown Los Alamos, which we could also call Research Park East.
There are two reasons a policy shift at the lab isn’t enough. First, because policy could be shifted back without any public review, and second, because the lab would be hard-pressed to enforce that policy on its contractors. Questions might arise like, if Aspen Copies does printing for the lab, would they be forced to move out?
The actual problem is non-customer-facing offices occupying retail spaces. Since the problem is the use of property, its solution lies in zoning. We could strip away almost all of the federal distortion of the commercial property market by simply changing the downtown zone overlays to ban non-customer-facing offices on ground floors.
This change would make rents reflective of the actual state of commerce in Los Alamos, and force landlords to be responsive to the needs of the business community. As for the lab, as Beierschmitt said, it has deep pockets – where there’s a blank check, there’s a way.