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‘Creative urban village’ sparks local interest

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By Arin McKenna

When the county council approved the Creative District Plan in April, Los Alamos MainStreet and the Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation (LACDC) were ready to get started.

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The organization sought out developers who could help make the concept a reality and discovered PLACE, a nonprofit organization that specializes in developing “creative urban villages.”

“This is not just something coming out of the blue, someone saying, ‘Have I got something for you.’ This is a very specific strategy expressed in the Creative District Plan. This is something MainStreet sought out. We’ve done some due diligence,” said LACDC Executive Director Kevin Holsapple.

PLACE studied the Creative District plan and the county’s other strategic plans, held focus groups in Los Alamos and came back last week with a some options for building a live/work development in downtown Los Alamos.

“This is an exciting project for us,” said PLACE President and Executive Director Chris Velasco. “First, we’re excited to expand our definition of “creative” to include scientists, inventors and technologists, since they’re doing creative work as well.

“Second, this is a chance to be a catalytic project in shaping the downtown to become what it’s going to be in the next century. This plan should fit very well into a number of the county’s objectives. It will attract a diverse group of people living and working downtown, and playing, shopping and eating downtown.”

The introduction to the 100-page proposal reads:

“The PLACE Urban Village for Los Alamos will be a 3-plus-acre campus composed of new, state-of-the-art structures including:
• Multigenerational housing (affordable and luxury living, permanent and temporary)
• Work/live space for creatives (artists, scientists, inventors & technologists)
• Hotel conference center
• Commercial/retail space for creative businesses
• Other elements as envisioned by the community

PLACE’s nonprofit mission assures that the project will be designed to the highest level of sustainability, forming a zero-energy, zero-waste neighborhood.”

One example of how PLACE tailored its proposal to Los Alamos is its plan to include “temporary” housing units for visiting scientists, faculty, students or others to meet the needs of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the University of New Mexico Los Alamos (UNMLA) and other businesses. The units could be leased for a few months to a year or more.

PLACE envisions the temporary housing and the hotel/conference center augmenting each other. The hotel/conference center would also provide performance space for local groups.

Initial response to the plan has been noncommittal but positive.

“I’m really intrigued about this. This could be a catalytic project,” Council Chair Sharon Stover said. “There were about 35 people at the public meeting, and when they asked if people thought this was a good idea, only one person did not raise their hand. I think there are real opportunities here.”

One of the “other elements” that excited Stover was the possibility of an automated parking structure that could park twice as many cars as similarly-sized conventional structures.

Economic Vitality Administrator Greg Fisher also sees potential. He liked PLACE’s track record in developing mixed-use communities.

“Some of their innovations would be very interesting for us to explore.” Fisher said. “I think parts of their development would meet a big need in the community. It’s simply a matter of scoping and scaling the project and determining what type of return on investment we could expect.”

PLACE’s initial proposal is purposively broad. Cost estimates are between $50 to $100 million for 50-100 new homes, a 75-150 room hotel with a 10,000-20,000 square foot conference center, 2,500 - 20,000 square feet of retail space and a renewable energy facility.

PLACE would assess market needs and the actual capacity of the development within 120 days of securing a site or sites.

The county’s contribution would be 10 percent of the total project cost. “It’s a great way for the county to leverage their investment,” Velasco said. “We project that it will pay for itself many times over during the lifetime of the project.”

The rest of the money is raised through private and non-local government sources. PLACE’s nonprofit stature and the nature of its projects open doors to creative financing options, such as providing tax credits in exchange for contributions.

“The nice part of selling a tax credit is that there isn’t someone who ends up owning part of the project. They already got their value in the tax credit. So it’s not like they’re investors,” Holsapple said.

PLACE would require $2.7 million in seed funding from the county, which would be part of the overall investment.
One of the protections built into the proposal is that the initial funds would be drawn in increments over the 24-month pre-construction period, with the county controlling the process.

For example, if council did not like the 120-day plan, it could choose to back out with only a fraction of that money invested.

The project could generate income through gross receipts tax on construction and new retail businesses, property taxes and increased tourism.

The live/work spaces could generate 30 or more small businesses. At a similar community called WĀV, constructed in Ventura, Calif., half the live/work spaces were filled with artists and entrepreneurs running micro-businesses who moved to Ventura because of the uniqueness of the development.

“Their willingness to work with us, to really embrace the Creative District plan, has led to a proposal that is highly aligned with our affordable housing plan, our economic strategic plan, our creative district plan — all these things that we claim we want to do and have,” Holsapple said. “So there is a very high alignment, more than any project I know of that has ever been considered here.”

Council may need to respond fairly rapidly if it wants to take advantage of PLACE’s proposal. The organization has the capacity to manage two projects at a time, and it is currently investigating eight cities.

“They said that this is the most intriguing of those to them, but, on the other hand, they can only take on really two projects at a given time,” Holsapple said. “So we can’t stand around ringing our hands.”

Council will discuss the PLACE proposal and other economic development options during its June 19 work session (7 p.m., White Rock Fire Station No. 3).