Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Nattering Nabobs 101: Does Rain Really Follow the Plow? Or, can we expect better than failed expectation from Trinity Site?

One of the first books I read on environmentalism was Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner. There is a discussion of the old belief that if you tilled the soil, it led to more rain, i.e., "rain follows the plow" per folks like Cyrus Thomas and Charles Dana Wilber.  That would be a nice bit of positive feedback on the environment, except it didn't work. A bit of false causation, due to some of the plowing being done during wet climate periods.  One could almost paraphrase that belief in the context of the Trinity Site economic development discussion. 

God speed the developer.... By this wonderful provision, which is only man's mastery over the economy, the malls are dispensing copious commerce ... [the mall ] is the instrument which separates poverty from plenty; and converts a desert into an economically sustainable community.... To be more concise, Money follows the Mall.[1] 
I have a few misgivings about the Trinity Discussion, other than the sarcastic comment above.

1. A casual look around Los Alamos and White Rock shows considerable urban blight, i.e., empty, underutilized, or butt-ugly storefronts and poor land use planning potentially leading to dispersion rather than smart growth. Take a look up and down Central, which has more parking lot asphalt than storefront and several blocks of storefront that make you want to avert your eyes. Can we demonstrate that we can get that right first before we build more buildings farther out on the edge of town?

2. One of the assumptions of the site development is that we need a "critical mass" of shopping to keep people on The Hill with their dollars. Once we have that mass, retail will be more profitable because people will have sufficient choices and spend their money here rather than going elsewhere with their checkbooks. But shopping is not like Uranium. How does one measure a critical amount of shopping? Are the capitalist investors who have been historically unwilling to build here suddenly rushing in? 

People live here to be close to work and to enjoy the beautiful mountains and canyons and frankly, make enough money (on average) to live far from shopping. They can afford to flee town on weekends to the richer shopping in the far bigger market centers of Santa Fe and elsewhere, where big stores choose to locate in order to maximize their cost/benefit. Short of gas rising to ten bucks a gallon, how will Trinity Site change such habits? What stores and behaviors will keep us on the Hill on Saturday?

3. Do we really want the government making retail choices for us? Nothing against Smith's/Kroegers (hey, their wine and beer selection has gotten pretty good), but do we want a government-assisted Smith's/Kroeger's monopoly on both sides of Trinity Drive, as former Councillor Robert Gibson pointed out in a recent Op-Ed in the Monitor? That is looking increasingly likely.
GUM Store ("Main Universal Store")
from Soviet times, facing Red Square
What will that do to small businesses not receiving Trinity largesse? What will become of Mari-Mac?  Will it be abandoned, leaving residents another eyesore that can't generate tax revenue for the county or provide shopping diversity for our residents?

4. We can't even agree on how to build Trinity Drive. Now we want to build a glorified shopping/strip mall across the street from Mari-Mac. Will this be good land use planning or more random planning? Urban sprawl on the other side of a high speed highway outa town rather than people-friendly growth? Show me a comprehensive planning process that integrates land use and transportation and I'll consider buying into this.

Indeed, the ongoing argument over the proposed paradigm shift behind what Trinity Drive represents, a community oriented street, a fast way out of Bomb Town, or some compromise, bears somewhat on the viability of shopping on The Hill. For the last few decades, we have seen a transportation model that emphasizes fast, efficient, four lane highways and superhighways connecting urban America to suburbia, our rural areas, and other urban centers. In our case, these highways connect Los Alamos to the shopping centers in Santa Fe, Espanola, Albuquerque, and elsewhere. While this new found mobility is great for previously Hill-bound residents, it is not so great for local businesses that previously captured much of the town's consumer shopping during the era of primitive roads and cars. Its simply too easy for people to drive to these other locations and visit a plethora of specialty shops, big-box stores, and eateries, and it is likewise easy for those commodity providers to wait for us to go to them. Not to forget to mention, the plethora of online vendors who now compete for consumer dollars drive yet another stake in the heart of local-based shopping (i.e., Bike Nashbar, Colorado Cyclist, REI, Performance Cycling, and Excel Sports, just to name some relevant to cycling.) 

I therefore think it would be difficult to reverse this trend of fleeing dollars simply by building a mall  in Los Alamos unless we also build a moat. It will take longer range paradigm shifts, probably related to eventual rising costs of individual transportation due to the passing of Peak Oil, to reverse this trend, if it can be done at all in an era of the virtual shopping mall.  We can't have our cake and eat it too. We need to concentrate on stores that are viable in the community, such as the Co-Op, hardware stores, low-key bike and auto repair shops, groceries, and other stores where convenient location trumps size in providing a rationale to remain profitable. One doesn't want to have to drive sixty miles to fix the toilet or a flat tire.

5. Los Alamos has a one horse economy, LANL. Further, this is a time of Federal austerity, which could result in fewer rather than more paychecks on the Hill on which to bank retail assumptions.After all, LANL doesn't lure employees in with nearby shopping. It lures them in with high paying jobs in science and engineering. If the Federal money tree is pruned back, as many of us fear it will, there will be fewer jobs. Supporting yet more retail depends on having an adequate income stream. Are we sure we can count on Uncle Sam to fund this? If not, who will support more retail?

6. If LANL might be contracting, does it not make more sense to use County land to develop income generators rather than income sinks? Why not zone for high tech industry or education and get someone or something up here to bring in more revenue and real, high tech jobs rather than retail, which depends on capturing existing money and which pays low wages to employees, who will, frankly, not be able to afford to live here? Why not a New Mexico Tech North? Adding retail before adding demand is putting the cart before the horse.

7. The underlying premise of Trinity Site is to generate revenue (from leasing or renting this space and from sales taxes, presumably) and use it to pay for government services, i.e., the schools. But as Mr. Robert Gibson and others have noted, the amount of money to be generated will be small and decrease through time to insignificance. Is it not better to use land in a way that generates a more robust underlying tax base in order to pay for legitimate, critical government services?

8. Finally, what does this have to do with bicycling? Ok, will we FINALLY have a viable bike shop in Los Alamos? A bike shop/coffee house?  I've seen several of these die miserable deaths in ten years. But that wasn't tax dollars and county land at stake. Basic government services, such as sweeping and paving roads, hiring civil servants, keeping the public library lights on, and teaching our kids in our schools means government can't be broke. I'd hate to see Trinity Site turn into a money-losing albatross around our necks. Let's think this one through.

Just some negative thoughts from another Nattering Nabob of Negativism, as William Safire might say. Maybe this is a good idea. Maybe not. I'm not sold on it yet.

Note added later. Be sure to read Greg Kendall's comment in the comments section.


Steve A said...

Sounds a lot like North Texas except we're not so dependent on a very big employer. Lots of empty retail here and it's been that way since 2003 when I arrived.

Tarik Saleh said...

A bigger pet store? Is this to serve the demographic of really fat pet owners? Otherwise I think we are in good stead with the Pangea. I think I mostly agree with the rest.

Khal said...

We love Pangaea and do as much business there as possible. Question is, would Pet Pangaea be one of the chosen ones who could move into Trinity Site? Or, would a MegaSmiths get County help in running such small businesses into the ground. Enquiring minds want to know, as they say...

Greg Kendall said...

If Smith's is going to sell pet stuff in their new store then, no, Pangaea will not be allowed into Trinity Site. No one who competes with Smith's will be allowed in.

Once Kroger bought Mari-Mac, this whole exercise became about one thing. Maintaining a very profitable monopoly by doing a "same old, same old" no frills rectangular strip mall circa the 60's.

It has nothing to do with retaining shoppers on the hill with a cool gleaming shopping experience, as was the originally stated plan.

This plan is just as likely to keep new retailers out of our town as it will serve to attract them with a cool new modern shopping area that won't exist. It's also likely to kill off some of our long established home town local GRT paying retailers.

The goal of keeping dollars in Los Alamos seems to have been jettisoned as this new mall doesn't have the elements that would make people want to shop there rather than taking their usual trip to Santa Fe/Espanola/Alb for variety, atmosphere and food selection.

So the central question we must answer before moving forward is: Will this proposed NADG mall design retain a significant amount of shoppers and GRT dollars in Los Alamos?

I don't see how it does. All it does is upgrade/expand Smith's and take some business away from other retailers in town.

This latest design is a simple rectangular strip mall with nothing outstanding or unique about it. We already have that. It's not the shopping magnet we envisioned.

This is not what the town voted for.

It seemed originally that the schools were helping out the town by providing land for development of a unique shopping experience. Now the tables are turned and the town is stuck bailing out the schools by making this suboptimal deal with NADG so that the schools can start getting some lease money for their land.

Plus, this is probably the very worst possible moment in history to be making a shopping mall deal. The market for shopping malls is decimated. No one wants to invest in them now. Even NADG is dragging this one out as long as humanly possible.

If we waited a few years for the market to recover we would stand a much better chance of getting a halfway decent design that isn't plain yogurt.

Heck we've waited 30 years or so, a few more won't kill us. Meanwhile, the County should pay the schools for leasing their land while we wait for the market to recover.

We need to start thinking outside the box instead of getting ourselves boxed in!