The Downtown Master Planning process for Los Alamos and White Rock will lead to arguably one of the most important pieces of public policy for our community, with repercussions that will potentially play out for decades. Unfortunately, we are undertaking this process at precisely the wrong moment in history.
Our county, the nation, and the world are in a middle of a major paradigm shift resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing has led to fundamental changes to shopping habits and attitudes that likely will last far into the future. Sadly, businesses have suffered and struggled throughout the course of the pandemic, and locally we have seen the tragic demise of several beloved community business institutions as a result. The COVID paradigm shift has forced corporations and businesses to examine how employees do their work; just this week, Los Alamos National Laboratory announced that it is undertaking a pilot project on teleworking for its employees.
These are just some of the palpable changes we have seen during the past nine months. We can only speculate what other behavioral and physical changes will take hold as we weather the pandemic during the months ahead.
So why is the County charging full-speed-ahead right now into a vitally important planning process that can’t possibly take into account the end-state of our national, regional, and local economies or eventual habits related to social interaction and commerce?
The importance and gravity of the Downtown Master Planning process is summed up well by the County’s website:
“Downtown areas are critical to a community, often considered the geographic heart of a place. With their success, the overall quality of life is improved and residents benefit in multiple ways. Downtowns fulfill a plethora of functions; they provide employment opportunities, a mix of uses, they act as civic, historic and government core, they draw tourists, residents and neighbors to interact and socialize, and for entertainment, and finally they provide a sense of place and identity for the community.”
While we like to pretend that we can conduct business as usual through virtual methods such as webinars and surveys, it is extremely doubtful that virtual meetings can match the level of public participation and creativity that results from in-person forums—where neighbors and friends from across the community gather to interact face-to-face and share in the creative energy that comes as a natural consequence when people gather to determine their own shared fate.
We saw the beauty of an extremely robust public process during the 2000 Comprehensive Planning Process. That process resulted after a kind of “runaway jury” moment when community members began to feel as if they had been led into a process where the consultant would only offer alternatives that would lead to a pre-determined outcome. In other words, many felt the plan was already a “done deal” and that the process was merely a formality to give the illusion of public participation.
Fortunately, because the citizens demanded something better, the process was re-jiggered into something that resulted in more freewheeling discussions, more “blue-skying,” more choice, and more satisfaction. The outcome was an excellent vision and plan that was followed…albeit briefly.
Despite the downsides of the pandemic right now, postponing the Downtown Master Planning process may help us capitalize on opportunities that might result from the cultural changes and paradigm shift we are experiencing.
For example, if telework becomes much more common, high-density apartment-type living spaces with incorporated shared working areas for tenants could be added above downtown office and retail space. Satellite kitchen areas for restauranteurs near delivery pick-up areas (think Grub Hub, etc.) and communal outdoor dining spaces—a sort of new-era community mercado area—mixed with Farmer’s Market spaces where chefs and residents could avail themselves of regional produce might add to the social and commercial fabric of our community.
The possibilities are exciting and are only limited by the amount of effort our community members take to brainstorm once we have a better idea of where we are and where we want to be in a post-COVID world.
One of my core philosophies is that expediency should never be an excuse for circumventing difficult issues. The COVID paradigm shift presents some of the most difficult issues our society likely will face for a long time. Instead of rushing headlong into decisions that may end up hamstringing us for decades, let’s make the smart move and postpone the current Downtown Master Planning process until we can get robust, public, in-person input related to real-world conditions.