Trinity Site: An idea whose time has passed

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By Robert Gibson

Redevelopment of the “Trinity Site” into a shopping center has been pursued since 2005.  

Times, circumstances, and the proposed development have all changed since then.  

It is time to abandon this approach. 

Two principal motives drove the original concept.  Lease and property tax revenues would pay the debt service for new county and schools shops and yards, now built at Pajarito Cliffs.  

The shopping center would provide a retail anchor and ancillary businesses to revitalize our sagging retail sector by making more goods available locally.  

Lack of any large land parcel under single ownership had frustrated previous efforts to attract an anchor retailer.  

The community has consistently rejected the concept of a plain “big box” surrounded by an asphalt sea for parking, so Trinity Site was conceived as a “lifestyle center,” an attractive mix of shopping, dining, and entertainment venues.

There have been three game-changing events since 2005.

First, in 2006, the county’s gross receipts tax (GRT) base increased dramatically when LANL became a tax-paying for-profit business.  The county also raised its GRT rate by a half-percent.  GRT revenues soared.  

Still, the county sought to borrow $75 million for capital projects, primarily the new shops and yards.   

“Ordinance 529” was forced to referendum in early 2007.  The county and developer campaigned hard, promoting an attractive lifestyle center where we could soon gather, shop and even live if bonding was approved.  

Voters went along.  The county government is awash in cash; it needs less, not more.

Second, in 2009, Kroger Co. (Smith’s corporate parent) bought Mari-Mac Shopping Center.  

Now, a single large downtown parcel is owned by one entity, itself fully capable of redeveloping Mari-Mac with a retail anchor.  

Instead, all plans for Trinity Site – just across the street – include a Smith’s Marketplace anchor.  

Kroger/Smith’s has declined to say what they would do with Mari-Mac but they have been clear that no competition with their new Marketplace store would be allowed.

Third, the current development proposal for Trinity Site is not for a lifestyle center. It is for a vanilla big box grocery and general merchandise store fronting more than five acres of parking.  

The parking lot may have a number of smaller retail establishments around it.  

No entertainment venues or condominiums are planned.  Some call the layout a “circular strip mall.”

This sprawling “big box” and sea of asphalt moves us in exactly the opposite direction from our desired compact, pedestrian-friendly downtown. 

Today’s main argument for this development is the revenue it would provide the Los Alamos Public Schools, who now own most of the land.  

Projected lease revenue is only $511,000 per year.  But the schools would start paying half that back to the county in rent for their facilities at Pajarito Basin.  

The lease rate is essentially fixed for 25 years and then escalates no more than 1.9 percent per year. Inflation will erode the lease’s value to peanuts.  This is not a good deal for the schools.

Meanwhile, by controlling two very large parcels of prime land, Kroger/Smith’s would effectively have monopoly control of retail in Los Alamos.  

We should take charge of our own downtown, not make ourselves hostage to a remote corporate monolith.  

If Kroger/Smith’s wants to expand its presence here, they can – at Mari-Mac. If their real agenda is monopoly control of us, we are far better off without them.

This deal was conceived when we had few options to expand shopping and finance new shops and yards.  

It seemed like a win-win, in spite of the downtown sprawl created.  Many county and school officials and advisors, both local volunteers and paid consultants, have worked hard to bring this 2005 concept to fruition.  

But our needs, ownership of Mari-Mac, and the proposed development have all changed.  We should move forward, not cling to fragments of a long-ago plan. 

Hopefully, Kroger/Smith’s will work with us to anchor one end of the traditional downtown. Among other options, either Central Avenue or an improved walking/bike route between Ashley Pond and the anchor could make a fine focus of a truly compact, attractive, pedestrian-friendly downtown.

Trinity Site is valuable.  Professional, research, and academic institutions, a conference center, etc, possibly mixed with some retail, could ultimately produce more income to citizens and the schools and more new foot traffic to downtown retailers.

We’ve given this a good try. But for the currently proposed retail redevelopment of Trinity Site, “failure” is now our best option.


Robert B. Gibson

 Former councilor