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A Place for Idea People

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Imagine a place in our downtown designed to address housing and other needs of our early career “idea people” ... scientists, technologists, artists and innovators of all type ... and entrepreneurs.  What would it look like?  Where might be a good location?  What related amenities would benefit both the residents and the larger community?  The Los Alamos Creative District Steering Committee facilitated by Los Alamos MainStreet has been putting thought and effort into these and other questions.  An early outcome from this work will be a visit to Los Alamos in early March by representatives of PLACE, a non-profit niche developer based in Minneapolis.
PLACE (welcometoplace.com)  is one of the developers targeted in the Los Alamos Creative District plan completed by the Steering Committee last year.
Following completion of the plan last year, MainStreet started contacting developers who specialize in the niche of affordable housing development that connects with the cultural assets of a community.  
Based on those contacts, PLACE expressed an interest in visiting Los Alamos to assess the feasability of a project here.  “The Creative District vision that the steering committee put together is impressive,” says PLACE CEO Chris Velasco. “It is intriguing to us because not only is it about the arts, but also brings together the idea of including science, technology, and history in presenting the story of a very unique place in the world.  We are really excited about our team’s visit to Los Alamos in early March.”  During their visit, the PLACE team will be conducting focus groups, touring the downtown to familiarize with potential sites, and will hold an open community forum for all interested people to learn about PLACE and contribute their ideas, questions, and concerns.  The Community Forum will take place on Thursday, March 8th from 6-8pm at Fuller Lodge.
The PLACE approach to development is quite different from most developers and emphasizes early community invlovement, sustainability, and social justice.
 To learn more about how PLACE approaches development, I traveled to Ventura, Calif., recently together with LACDC Board President David Horpedahl to visit one of PLACE’s most recent projects, Working Artists Ventura (WAV).  Opened in 2009, WAV is a 4 story, 130,000 square foot project on 1.7 acres in the downtown of Ventura. It is mixed use in that about 6000 s.quare feet of the space is built for store front use.  There are 82 housing units, many of them designed for work-live use.  There is also an indoor/outdoor theater/ampitheater/exhibition space created for community use.  The housing was geared to affordability needs in the Ventura market with 20 percent aimed at market rate, 60 percent priced to serve middle income, and 20 percent lower income ranges.  WAV is only the second LEED certified affordable housing project in California. Seventeen sources of project financing were stitched together to turn WAV into a reality.  The housing is 100% occupied although the storefront space has yet to lease up in a local market with quite a few storefront vacancies.
Walking the Ventura business community and talking to locals about WAV elicited positive reviews for the project and development approach.  Jim Luttjohann was head of the Arts Council in Ventura during the time the project was being conceived.  He is now the Executive Director of the Visitors and Convention Bureau.  “The developer [PLACE] did a great job of reaching out across a whole range of constituencies in our community.  Early career and lesser known artists were leaving or not coming here anymore because there was no affordable place for them. WAV has taken a big bite out of that.”  
Sid White was the key City of Ventura economic development official involved in the project.  “I give very high marks to PLACE and to the process they used to ‘walk their talk’ about community involvement, sustainability, and social justice ... they sustained this through the tough economic changes that started in 2008 and have implemented a sound, stable project that our community is proud of.”  Said Eric Wallner, City of Ventura Manager of Creative Partnerships, “I couldn’t recommend another developer any more highly based on our experience with PLACE.”  
We also spoke with several of the residents and visited their spaces.  Based on input from the community, about half of the units were designated for lease by locals. A good number of residents came from outside of the community attracted by the development.  
While WAV is not in any way an exact example of what the Creative District Steering Committee has in mind here, it provides many useful lessons and it gives a glimpse into the talents and capabilities that PLACE can bring to the table.  Every community member is invited to participate in the community forum on March 8th.  For those who want to provide written comment and ideas, please do so at www.losalamos.icanmakeitbetter.
Kevin Holsapple is the executive director of the Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corporation (LACDC).