Conceptual view of Phase 1 from Central Ave. Courtesy of Columbus Capital
Conceptual overview of the first phase of the proposed Columbus Capital project at the former Mari-Mac shopping center. Courtesy of Columbus Capital
By Maire O’Neill
Jeff Branch and Greg Gonzalez of Columbus Capital hope to close on the Mari-Mac property in May, which they say will give them breathing room to plan and execute the first phase of their redevelopment project. The two men recently spoke at a UNM-LA community meeting.
Plans for the first phase will be submitted to Los Alamos County in January or early February and then presented to the Planning and Zoning Commission for approval.
Work on the property will begin with the addition of a new facade to the former Smith Building, cleaning up 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 several shops in the front. The plan is to demolish the entire building in five years when LANL moves out.
The first phase of the project will include 16,000 square feet of ground floor retail, a three-story parking garage built into the building and approximately 355 residential units.
“The design included a street through the property from Trinity to Central and then a sort of central plaza with restaurants down below, with outdoor seating. For a more festive situation, we could bring in food trucks. We could also block the streets and set up booths out front,” Branch said.
“AutoZone is a little bit of our adversary right now. We thought it was Kroger, but now it’s AutoZone. AutoZone has leases with options that come out a little bit longer than we’d like. We have approached them about moving the store and they are holding back a bit. They have a clause in their lease that requires us to maintain this entire parking lot for the duration of their lease, which limits what we can do with that parking lot. We wrote them a letter. They’re not very responsive, so we’re going ahead to try to at least enter into the conversation to shorten the length of this parking lot. We are also working with Kroger on vacant pads at Smith’s Marketplace,” Branch said.
On the side of the property where the AutoZone is located, Columbus Capital will install some sort of pergola with some shade, he said. “We could park a food truck that would fill some of the restaurants at different times of the year. This will be the first phase we will present to the county that will continue while LANL is in the old Smith building,” Branch said.
Branch said they would love to move Pajarito Brew Pub into one of the two new buildings and then move AutoZone into the new building, possibly even build them a new building.
“The lease on LANL was about to expire and then we will demolish this building and work on the second phase. We are only in pre-arrangement for this,” he said.
When asked if the 355 units would be condominiums or apartments, Branch noted that Columbus Capital has never built high-density condominiums, but has built on the ground floor. He said they’ve heard from many people in the community that they want a “lock up and leave type of situation.”
“They don’t want a big house with a yard and they want to stay in Los Alamos,” he said.
Branch and Gonzales noted some of the challenges facing contractors in the Los Alamos area, including the difficulty of obtaining builder’s risk insurance due to the historic fire situation.
“It’s hard for contractors because the workers have to travel from Albuquerque and where they put their people. We’re working on all of these things in the background to try to be ready for that stage through labor and trade. We work with Northern New Mexico College not only to meet our needs, but to help the community. Other than that, we’re working on a lot of other things to support the community and some of the things we’re trying to achieve. There is no way we can do this alone,” Branch said.
He said Columbus Capital will also meet with the county to see what support they can get for LEDA grants for tenants moving to Mari-Mac because they will need help with tenant improvements to build restaurants, etc.
“We’re going to need some help with the parking structure. Parking is expensive and does not bring any revenue. Parking is parking, but it costs a significant amount up front. Those are all hurdles we have to overcome in the background, in addition to offering a place for the community to gather and enjoy at the end of the day,” Branch said.
He said he was hoping to share the good news that Columbus Capital has a purchase agreement for the former Hilltop House property.
“We don’t have a plan for that, but we know how important that part is to the community when you’re moving. This is entering the community. “The fact that there’s a demolition and the county is involved makes it difficult,” Branch said.
In response to a question about what LANL has in store for the old Smith Building branch, LANL noted that the campus will undergo quite a lot of renovations over the next four or five years. He said that if LANL is going to renovate an office, for example, all the furniture should be temporarily removed and put into storage. Long-term items such as air conditioners will also be stored there, he said. The storage area will be delivered to the rear of the building, just as it was when Smith was there. d will be three levels.
When asked about the China Palace restaurant, the branch said that Columbus Capital does not own the property yet, so they cannot make arrangements to move, 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 assume that lease,” Branch said.
When asked if the plans submitted in January for Phase 1 follow the newly revised development code, Branch said the code in effect the day the plans are allowed in the county is the code they will follow. He noted that the new code is slightly more lenient on parking, building heights and street setbacks.
Branch also noted that the US and the West are finally starting to model a more vertical ‘live, work and play’ concept for development.
“We just don’t have land. We have to go higher. And how do you do that in a way that reflects it in the environment? How do you do this in a way that is sensitive to views? It’s hard in the West because we love our views. So we’re trying to be as sensitive as possible with our architects working on some of the layouts,” he said.
He noted that because of Central Avenue and Trinity Slope to the east, the municipal building and the building leased by the Los Alamos Fire Department, those buildings began the story above where the Marie Mack buildings would begin, so they won. Don’t dwarf buildings around them just because of the topography.
“We will start our building 12-14 feet below where the municipal building starts,” Branch said, adding that the construction will be of the same type as behind the Los Alamos Medical Center.
The former Beall’s space is being leased for a short five-year term, he said. Five years and five years later, Pajarito Brewpub will be moving to a new location.
“It will all take time, but we’ve done it before. We’ve had some pretty tough projects over the years, so we’re used to obstacles,” Branch said.
Asked about the current motor vehicle division office, he said MVD doesn’t have very long leases and that most people know they’re looking for a home to live in.
“If we had our way, we wanted to build them across the street from the building where they would have plenty of good parking. This is what will come. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, and we have a little time to make it happen,” he said.
Asked to summarize what the project will look like going forward, Branch said technically they have to submit their site development plan to the county for approval.
“If we do it in late January or early February, it will probably be heard a month after that, so we won’t have approval from the county until March. What is submitted to the county is not as detailed as the construction drawings, so at that point we hire architects to determine where the kitchen is and everything. Our goal is to own the property in March. Once we close, we’ll start construction — cleaning up the facade, the parking lot, and then the building where the Chinese Palace is, as part of that cleanup we’re going to demolish that building because it’s not up to code. This is a fire trap. I’m surprised the county hasn’t penalized this yet, but it’s a big problem and do we want to tear it down and clear the entire parking lot and prepare ourselves?
He continued: “Will it be next year? This is hope. Right now, interest rates are close to 8 percent, construction costs are still ridiculous, so our hope is that the economy will improve in that sense and construction costs will start to come down and interest rates will come down and we’ll be in position for the year. From now on, prepare for this space in the spring of 2024. We can do it sooner. If the winds are behind us, let’s go.”
As for the “Danielis Cafe” building, the branch says that there are 13 apartments there and Columbus Capital bought 8 of them.
“We want to buy everyone’s camaraderie and that’s public knowledge. No one should sell. It depends on them. If we could work something out, our plan would be to demolish them and build a third phase. We are now looking to renovate the building we purchased from Gerald Olsen. In the coming months, we will meet with the condominium association and develop a plan,” he said.
Asked if Columbus Capital planned to use the 67 percent ownership clause to oust the remaining tenants, Branch said that’s not the way the company operates.
When asked about the “brown shacks” property, owned by Columbus Capital and located at 3500 Trinity Drive, Branch confirmed that the property will be renovated and upgraded, but there will be no demolition. The property will host a daycare center set up for the children of LANL employees and other members of the community. Branch noted that the rear of the property has lots of open space and trees, making it park-like for children.
Branch again expressed concern about AutoZone’s lease because, as it stands, nothing can be done to the parking lot until the lease expires. He added that Columbus prefers private tenants to national tenants. He confirmed that priority will be given to Phase 1 tenants in Phase 2.
“This thing is not cheap to build. Ability to pay rent is a direct reflection of the amount of sales a retailer can make. We have a large community, so it’s a balance in how we work with tenants. Our favorite tenants in Santa Fe are local. National residents who can afford to pay high rents are a pain – AutoZone, Kroger. We need them because the banks like their credit, but we won’t let anyone go during a pandemic. We are proud of it. We’re trying to help people thrive, not just survive,” Branch said.
Gonzalez said Los Alamos is a small town, and he and Branch joke that they could give out their mothers’ phone numbers.
“So if you have a problem, give us a call to see what they have to say. I think it helps to be local because I shop at Smith’s. I’m going to meet you. I will not go anywhere, so we do everything. It’s a tough business, a risky business,” he said.
Gonzalez is married to Los Alamos High School principal Jill Gonzalez.