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Trinity Project showing signs of unraveling

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By Jennifer Garcia

Instead of the sprawling, retail-filled plans for Trinity Place, Los Alamos residents could end up with a big-box store and a parking lot; and that seems to be all right with at least one county councilor.

Wade Williams, a partner in The Boyer Company, along with Assistant County Administrator Anthony Mortillaro, Seth Kirshenberg of the Kutak Rock law firm and Kevin Wager of Jones Long LaSalle, were all in council chambers Thursday night for the special session, which revolved around discussion of Trinity Place.

Mortillaro began the discussion by talking about how retail development for the site has been in the works for the past 44 years. “Only in the last four years has any progress been made,” he said.

He went on to say that Los Alamos County has not been impacted by the recession and has a good income base. He also pointed out that construction for Trinity Place cannot begin until June 2010, after the county and school district buildings have been vacated and relocated to the Airport Basin Site.

Williams said working on the project has been an interesting journey. “The last few months have been quite a journey,” he said.

The biggest challenges in finalizing the deal and securing an anchor have been escalating costs, according to Williams.

“We think we have a site plan that’s executable. We’ve done all we could to work within the parameters of the county and school board. It’s very expensive. We got word Tuesday that the anchor doesn’t feel they can make the commitment needed. We thought this community was so unique that we could make the deal work. We need to work with the county, schools and anchor on a new model that will work,” Williams said.

He told council that he thinks there’s a possibility that something can be worked out between the three. He also said that he’s thought at least three times during the last two years, that he’s had a deal solidified, however the anchors have had issues with the deal being presented and have ultimately backed out. He now thinks he has the appropriate candidates with which to work a deal. The two candidates Williams is referring to are Wal-Mart and Kroger Marketplace.

Kirshenberg pointed out that there have definitely been obstacles in securing an anchor. “We talked about having the whole project developed in two years, but that’s changed now. The county has met with the anchor and talked about their needs. They needed two things and we’ve worked that out. They came back with a monetary change and we’re looking at that. Boyer’s set deadlines about five times. We’ve met changes about eight times,” he said.

The public was invited to speak during the meeting, however only a handful of those who packed chambers took the opportunity to do so. The consensus among those who spoke out seems to be that retail is desperately needed in Los Alamos.

Min Park said that Boyer’s current economic conditions need to be reevaluated. “I would like council to consider postponing making a decision. When property values are going down, you don’t want to sell your property,” he said.

Kristen Henderson pointed shared with council the difficulty she’s experienced in trying to buy shoes in Los Alamos for her children who play sports.

Ellen Walton said that she shops in town whenever possible, however since she works out of town, she does a lot of shopping off the Hill. “There isn’t a choice but to move forward with this to pay off the bond issue,” she said. “We need to look at creating a comprehensive plan for Los Alamos and White Rock. We’re losing our center.”

Andrea Cunningham also shared her thoughts with council. “Families are frustrated. They don’t want to keep fighting for retail. Using this land for anything but retail would be a waste. I urge council to stay the course.”

Greg Kendall said, “We don’t have to go to Boyer to get a Mari-Mac South,” he said. “I thought our plan was to get a new urbanist plaza.”

Richard Hanneman proposed moving the banks along Trinity Drive to the other side of the street and using that space for smaller retail stores. “We need to think away from the big box,” he said.

Michael Di Rosa said it might be wise to find out why the space the county currently has isn’t filled. “Have patience, because a deal brokered now might be something regrettable in the future,” he said.

After the public comment period, Mortillaro said he needed to clarify something. “We found out around July 9 that Mari-Mac has been sold to Smith’s. That change in ownership has added additional complexity for adding an anchor,” he said.

Three options were presented during the discussion, however it was made clear that these options were for discussion only. The first option is negotiating with Boyer without executing a development agreement and begin testing the market for other opportunities. The second option was to sign a development agreement with Boyer and the third option is to discontinue negotiations with Boyer and issue a new RFP document to select a new developer.

Councilor Ralph Phelps said he’s had the opportunity to review the Boyer project with new eyes, being that he’s the newest member of the council. “Two years ago, Boyer was willing to make things happen, but things have not happened. I have several concerns, but I’ll share three with you tonight. The first is there’s been no firm commitment for an anchor tenant. The second is that Boyer has not provided updated business case financial analyses. The third is that for a complex project like Trinity Place to succeed, it required the county, schools and Boyer to work as a strong partnership. A lease commitment has not been achieved. The relationship between Boyer and the county seems to be becoming more adversarial. We have no anchor store after three years. This is something to consider before proceeding.”

Councilor Sharon Stover did not mince words when she asked about the project. “What would be your answer to someone asking why you can’t bring this to the finish line?’ she asked Williams.

“We had to wait for the referendum, then the biggest problem for us was getting a business model for the tenant. National tenants have really pulled back their capital plans,” he explained. We thought we had a deal three times.”

“We all want retail here. When I look at what people voted for on (bond issue) 529, I don’t think that’s what we’re getting here,” Stover said.

Councilor Robert Gibson said council has already started to hear from residents, however he also said that what would really help is for residents to tell council what they’d like councilors to support. “Do you want mixed use retail or a big box store with surface parking? Many people think that when they voted (for 529), they voted for shopping, but it was a bond ordinance,” he said. “The bond issue was to pay for county facilities and clearing Trinity Site for development. What we’re moving toward perhaps is different than what we started with.”

Council Vice Chair Mike Wismer did not seem convinced by Williams’ optimism about the project and suggested rebranding Los Alamos and turning it into more of a university town. “This description of phasing seems like chopping and cutting and I’m not sure this is the vision we originally had. If the economics cannot work, what makes us think we can go to another developer, add water, RFPs and come up with a new plan? Can we rethink what goes on Trinity Site to recapture the demographic and rebrand us as a university town?”

Councilor Nona Bowman wanted to know what’s hindering Boyer from attracting some of the smaller retailers to the proposed development that residents would like to see.

“When we look at the hierarchy of leasing, smaller tenants don’t commit until they see buildings going up,” Williams explained. “Our energy has been focused on getting an anchor tenant.”

Bowman said the schools need to be kept stable. “We need to attract younger people. I encourage you to work with our staff,” she told Williams.

Councilor Vincent Chiravalle said that putting anything other than retail on that spot would be slap in the face of those who voted for 529. He also said that Los Alamos needs a big box store. In reference to Gibson’s comments earlier, he said that the residents did not need council to tell them what they voted for. “All three options will lead to termination of negotiations with Boyer. The sense of urgency in completing a deal with Boyer is artificial. We can continue to negotiate without a premature deadline,” he said. “I urge council to reject the three options before us.”

Council Chair Michael Wheeler spoke briefly before the meeting adjourned. He pointed out that the three options presented are not the only options. “Kroger is not going to allow any other store to move in,” he said. “When we selected Boyer, the other developers who submitted offers said if the deal fell through to let them know. We’re very close to that. I can’t support a Mari-Mac South. The more we proceeded with Boyer the more it looked like a Mari-Mac South,” he said. Before concluding his comments, he invited the public to make their concerns known to council before the Aug. 13 council meeting.

Council will take comments from the public up until the Aug. 13 meeting, at which time they will make a decision on whether to continue negotiations with Boyer.