Conceptual view of Phase 1 from Central Avenue. Courtesy of Columbus Capital
Conceptual view of Phase 1 of Columbus Capital’s proposed project at the former Mari-Mac Shopping Center. Courtesy of Columbus Capital
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Jeff Branch and Greg Gonzales of Columbus Capital hope to close on the Mari-Mac building in May, which they say will give them breathing room to plan and execute the first phase of their development project. The two men recently spoke at a public meeting at UNM-LA.
Plans for the first phase will be submitted to Los Alamos County in January or early February and will then go before the Planning and Zoning Commission for approval.
Work on the site will begin with putting a new facade on the former Smith’s building, clearing the existing parking lot and updating the landscaping. Los Alamos National Laboratory will move into the Smith building which will be used for storage and will have some shops in the front. The plan is to demolish that entire building in five years when LANL exits.
The first phase of the project will include a 16,000-square-foot basement, three-story parking garage embedded in the building and about 355 apartments.
“The design will include a road through the area from Trinity to the Center and then a sort of central plaza area with restaurants below, outdoor seating. We could bring food trucks in for the holidays. We can even close the roads and put booths in front,” said Branch.
“AutoZone is a little bit of our enemy now. We thought it was Kroger but now it’s AutoZone. AutoZone has a lease with options that are slower but longer than we’d like. We approached them to move their store and they are reluctant. They have a clause in their lease that requires us to maintain this entire parking lot during their lease, which limits what we can do with this parking lot. We wrote them a letter. They are not responding well so we are moving forward to at least try to enter into a discussion to shorten the length of this parking lot. “We also work with Kroger on the empty pads at Smith’s Marketplace,” Branch said.
He said that on the side of the property where AutoZone holds them, Columbus Capital will put up some kind of pergola with some shade. “We would park food trucks that were associated with restaurants at different times of the year. This will be the first phase that we will submit to the County to continue while LANL is in the old Smith building,” said Gatsha.
The branch said it would like to move Pajarito Brew Pub to one of the two new buildings and move AutoZone to the new building, possibly even building a new building for them.
“The LANL lease will expire and we will demolish that building and work on the second phase. We are in the early stages of that,” he said.
Asked if the 355 units will be condominiums or apartments, the branch noted that Columbus Capital has never built high-rise condominiums but has built low-rise condominiums. He said they have been hearing from many people in the community that they want a “lock and leave type”.
“They don’t want a big house with a yard and they want to live in Los Alamos,” he said.
Branch and Gonzales noted some of the challenges contractors face in the Los Alamos area, including difficulty obtaining builder’s risk insurance due to the historic nature of the fire.
“It’s difficult for the contractors because the workers have to travel from Albuquerque and where do they house their people. We’re working on all those things in the background to try to get ready for this phase with having a job and a trade. We partner with Northern New Mexico College not only for our needs but to help the community. We are working on a lot more than this to support the community and support some of the things we are trying to achieve. There is no way we can do it alone,” said Gatsheni.
He said Columbus Capital will meet with the District to see what help they can get from other LEDA grants for tenants moving to Mari-Mac because they will need help with tenant development to build restaurants, etc.
“We will need help with the parking structure. Parking is expensive and inefficient. Parking is parking but it costs a lot up front. “These are all obstacles that we have to avoid in the end, but at the end of the day, we have to give the community a place to come together and enjoy themselves,” said Branch.
He said he was hoping to share the good news that Columbus Capital has an agreement to buy the former Hilltop House property.
“We don’t have a plan for it, but we know how important this piece is to the community as you drive through it to enter the community. The demolition of the houses and the concerned Council make it difficult,” said Branch.
In response to questions about what LANL will keep in the old Smith Branch building it was noted that there will be minor renovations to the LANL campus over the next four or five years. He said that if LANL were to renovate the office, for example, all the furniture would have to be removed for a while and placed in storage. He said old things like air conditioners will be stored there. Delivery to the terminal would be at the back of the building, just like when Smith’s was there. d will be three levels.
Inquiring about the China Palace restaurant, the branch said that Columbus Capital has not yet become the owner of the property and therefore cannot make agreements regarding relocation, etc.
“We are dealing with everyone who will be affected by the demolition of this building. China Palace has a lease with Kroger. When the property is purchased, Columbus Capital will take over those leases,” said Gatsha.
When asked if the programs delivered in January for Phase 1 will follow the recently updated development code, Gatsha said that the code that is in place on the date of the reduction of programs in the Province is the one they will follow. He noted that the new code is a little more lenient with parking, building heights and roadblocks.
The branch also noted that the US and the west are finally starting to model the “live, work and play” concept that is right for development.
“We don’t have land. We have to go up. And how do you do that in an environmentally friendly way? How do you make it visually sensitive? It is difficult in the west because we love our ideas. So we try to be as sensitive as possible to our artists who work on some of the buildings,” he said.
He mentioned that because of the way Central Avenue and Trinity go down to the east, the Municipal Building and the building rented by the Los Alamos Fire Department are there, those buildings started the story above where the Mari Mac buildings will start, so they won. let’s not have small buildings around them just because of the location.
“We will probably start our building 12-14 feet below where the Municipal Building starts,” said the branch, adding that the construction will be similar to the construction behind the Los Alamos Medical Center.
He said Beall’s place will be leased on a temporary basis for five years. After five years and after five years the Pajarito Brewpub will be moved to a new location.
“All this will take time but we have done it before. We have had some very difficult projects over the years so we are used to having obstacles,” said Branch.
When asked about the current Motor Vehicles Division office, he replied that MVD does not have a long lease period and many people know that they are looking for a home to move into.
“If we had our way, we would like to build them a building on the other side of the road where they will have plenty of convenient parking spaces. Those are the things that will come. It will not happen tomorrow and we have little time to make all that happen,” he said.
Asked to summarize what the project will look like moving forward, the Branch said that technically they should submit it to the District to approve the development of the site plan.
“If we do that at the end of January or the beginning of February, it will probably be heard after a month, so we won’t get the approval of the Province until March. The submissions to the County are not as detailed as the construction drawings, so at that point we hire architects to determine where the kitchen is and all that stuff. Our goal is to own the property by March. As soon as we close, we’re going to start construction – cleaning up the facade, the parking lot, and then the building where the China Palace is, as part of that cleanup we’re going to demolish that building because it’s not up to code. It’s a fire trap. I am surprised that the Council has not criticized that but it is a big problem and would we like to demolish it and clean up the entire parking lot and be prepared,” he said.
He continued, “Will it be next year? That’s the hope. Right now interest rates are close to 8%, construction costs are still ridiculous so our hope is that the economy improves on that perspective and construction costs start to come down and interest starts to come down and we’ll be in shape for a year. from now on to prepare for the world break in the spring of 2024 in this space. We can do it quickly. If the winds are behind us, let’s go”.
Regarding the “Daniel’s Café building”, the branch said there are 13 units and Columbus Capital has bought 8 of them.
“We would like to buy a condominium for everyone and that is public knowledge. No one should sell. That’s up to them. If we could fix something our plan would be to demolish these and build a third phase. We are currently looking to develop the property we purchased from Gerald Olsen. We will meet with the condom association in the next few months to come up with a plan,” he said.
Asked if Columbus Capital would use the 67 percent ownership clause to force out the remaining tenants, Branch said that’s not how the company operates.
When asked about the area called “The brown huts” under Columbus Capital and located at 3500 Trinity Drive, the branch confirmed that this area will be repaired and improved but will not be demolished. The facility will host a daycare center for the children of LANL employees and others in the community. The branch noted that there is a lot of open space and trees behind the building making it a park like layer for children.
The branch also expressed concern about the AutoZone lease because as it is, nothing can be done about the parking lot until the lease expires. He added that Columbus prefers private employers to state employers. He confirmed that priority will be given to tenants from Phase 1 to Phase 2.
“Building these things is not cheap. The ability to pay rent is a direct reflection of the value of a sale that a seller can make. We have a large community so that balances in how we work with employers. Our favorite tenants in Santa Fe are local. Landlords who can pay high rents are hurting – AutoZone, Kroger. We need them because the banks love their credit but we did not evacuate anyone during the violence. We are proud of that. We try to help people to improve, not just survive,” said Branch.
Gonzales said Los Alamos is a small town and he and Branch joked that they could pass on their mother’s phone numbers.
“So if you have a problem, call them to see what they have to say to us. I think it helps to be local because I shop at Smith’s. I will see you people there. I’m not going anywhere, so we’re doing our best. This is a difficult business, a dangerous business,” he said.
Gonzales is married to Jill Gonzales, principal of Los Alamos Middle School.