Creating a village center

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Music concerts under the stars, art festivals on the plaza — these are some of the features of the Los Lunas planning department’s Transit Oriented Development project.

The location of the project is the area around the Transportation Center on N.M. 314 and Courthouse Road, one of the busiest train stations on the Rail Runner line, said Christina Ainsworth, the village of Los Lunas’ community development director.

Courtesy of the village of Los Lunas: Phase II of the Transit Oriented Development project at the Los Lunas Transportation Center on Courthouse Road and N.M. 314 is scheduled to begin next spring. The project is designed to entice investors, businesses and developers to help create a formal downtown envisioned with quaint shops, fine dining establishments, art festivals on the plaza and concerts under the stars.

The vision is of a bustling area of activity hugging the train station to the north, east and south sides.

A visitor will step off the train and see enticing shops and fine dining establishments, old-world produce markets and trendy coffee shops. Along the tracks, bicycle and walking trails among flowering desert willow and native plants will lead to more shops with condos and apartments above them.

Los Lunas has never had a downtown. It was always a little, rural village until about 20 years ago, when the village experienced an enormous growth spurt. New businesses and homes sprung up, but a central plaza where villagers could gather never materialized.

Los Lunas planners are now putting some muscle into developing an area with plazas where people can hang out, and stroll along landscaped paths.

Most people are already aware of the completed first phase of the project — landscaped bicycle and walking trails along the tracks.

“That path will also be extended all the way south to Morris Road,” said Ainsworth. “And it will go all the way to Trujillo, on the north.”

Courthouse Road will see similar improvements. There is currently enough funding for Phase II, which includes building a small plaza on the north side, and a larger plaza on the east side where concerts and other venues can be held.

The parking lot east of the building will be scooted further east to allow for the bigger plaza, and beyond that, later plans include building an outdoor amphitheater.

Residents in the outlaying area will be able to walk to the plazas to meet with friends for dinner and drinks, a concert, or an arts festival. On some days, a farmer’s market might be in swing.

“It starts to open up other possibilities for the site,” Ainsworth said.

It’s also a green initiative in that cars won’t be necessary. People can walk or travel to the area by bus or train.

The village is shifting growth from urban sprawl to higher density and mixed-use development where auto travel isn’t necessary.

“The energy, and the access to transit creates a place where you really don’t need your car,” said Ainsworth.

Village policies for land use will determine what is an appropriate use for a particular parcel of land, and what is not.

“When it looks at existing land use, it looks at the potential for development in different areas, and it looks at what we call ‘areas in transition,’ such as (the train station) area that used to be strictly residential and agricultural, and is now transitioning into mixed use,” she said.

The project might also help alleviate some of the need for travel on Main Street.

Relieving the congestion along the village’s only Interstate 25 corridor is going to take time. Construction for a second Interstate exit along the Morris Road corridor is more than 10 years off, but right-of-way land is being bought for the project.

Before the Transit Oriented Development project was sent to the architects for design, village officials hired Jim Glover of the Idea Group of Santa Fe to launch a branding campaign, and residents were crucial in the brand development.

The majority expressed a keen desire to keep the rural character of the village, but they also want a greater variety of shops, restaurants and entertainment.

The brand slogan became, “Small Community, Big Possibilities.”

The next step was to develop a plan to protect the coveted rural charm, which involves a very proactive approach in guiding residential and commercial development by the governing council and village planners.

The staff designed a master plan that guides growth in areas where high density populations can thrive, while rural lands can be maintained.

“You want to direct the way that growth occurs in a community,” Ainsworth said. “One of the biggest challenges that Los Lunas has is allowing for growth while still retaining the rural character. It sounds like an impossibility — you can have one or the other — but it’s not necessarily the case. If you find areas where density is appropriate, and you allow for high density in certain areas, then you’ll protect the rural land for a longer time because you can create housing opportunities in other areas. Whereas, if you don’t allow high density at all, what is going to happen is, people will start buying up agricultural land to develop.”

The Transit Oriented Development model is being used in other places, most successfully in Dallas where they have transit service, she said.

Santa Fe has also used the model at one of its train stations.

“It’s not as dense as you would see in Dallas, but it actually would be more applicable to a rural community like Los Lunas — you don’t see the three- and four-story apartment buildings, but you still have all the retail, the energy, the activity, the public spaces. That’s what it’s meant to do — create a place where you can have both residential and commercial uses.”

The businesses envisioned for the area would serve the neighborhood such as a small grocer or market, fashion boutiques, dry cleaners, restaurants, medical offices, maybe a couple of Bed and Breakfast operations for visitors.

“It’s a great opportunity to create a city center because of its location,” said Ralph Mims, village economic development manager.

To the south is a chunk of privately owned land with about 38 acres suitable for building condominiums, town homes and apartments. The land was previously occupied by a mobile home park, and would be an ideal housing area for commuters who work in Albuquerque or elsewhere.

Several different developers have shown a serious interest in the property, Ainsworth said.

“When you start to create these pedestrian improvements and start creating an area with some energy, you start to attract private investors, she said.

Developers love Los Lunas because the permitting process is quick, Mims said.

Los Lunas has only one person, Adolph Lopez, the code enforcement supervisor, who does all the development reviews. Larger cities such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe have several people reviewing plans.

“Adolph can do a turn-around in a plan between two and three weeks, whereas in Albuquerque it takes one to two months,” said Mims.

The village has been grabbing up all the state and federal money it can when it is available. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being ready with plans and matching funds to garner extra funding when other municipalities forfeit projects. Phase II is estimated to cost $1 million, with a village match of $270,000.

“I know when the cycles are when funding can be applied for,” Ainsworth said. “We keep an eye on the different pools that are available. The direct federal funding is actually incredibly limited right now, but we do keep our eye out for opportunity there as well.”

The project can provide much-needed housing options to current residents and potential residents, as well as generate gross receipts taxes for the village. It can also bring more energy to the area that can benefit established local businesses.

“There’s always power in numbers when it comes to commercial visits — people like variety,” she said . “You’ll have more people wanting to go to an area if you have more options.”

Construction of Phase II is scheduled to begin next spring.

“We are still waiting for the final design drawings, so we won’t be ready to solicit bids until January at the earliest,” Ainsworth said. Funding from the Department of Transportation for transportation improvements is one of the biggest sources of funding for the project, she said.

The hope is one or more of the interested investors will quickly purchase the 38 acres, and that the entire project, including pedestrian improvements, housing, retail shops and the amphitheater will be completed within seven years.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.