On June 4th, City Council discussed redevelopment options for the former Boulder Community Hospital at Broadway and Balsam and the surrounding area including, Ideal Plaza and Community Plaza shopping centers.  All the options proposed considerably greater development and density over what currently exists.

City staff conducted a survey in order to understand community priorities, asking questions similar in nature to “do you prefer spam, spam and spam, or do you prefer spam eggs and spam”, from which they concluded there is a high preference for spam.  In the absence of the City conducting a credible survey, a group of citizens (ThinkBoulder.org) conducted their own, which focused on the people most affected, those living in the area. 

Unlike the City’s survey, the ThinkBoulder.org survey asked contextualized questions that examined tradeoffs and did not presume certain outcomes with leading questions.  There was an approximately 5 times higher response rate (than the City’s survey), providing a much better sampling about area residents’ vision for the area.  The results were largely consistent with the community-wide survey conducted as part of the recent Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan Update.  That is, citizens are deeply concerned about preserving the characteristics of their neighborhood, including scale, mass, foothill views and zoning, and are concerned about the impacts from increasing development, tall buildings, and ever increasing population, including traffic congestion, parking, degraded open space and unsatisfactorily met demands on City provided services and facilities.  Further, respondents expressed deep skepticism about the City’s relentless promotion of growth and development. 

Why is Council so compelled to upzone neighborhoods? Are we suffering from too little traffic, too much parking, under-utilized open space, uncrowded City facilities, and bothersome unobstructed views of the foothills?  Or is Council more concerned with serving the needs of corporations that have identified Boulder as the place to be, over the concerns of the people already here who made it the desirable community that it is.   The 2017 City Council election reflected voter rejection of the City’s development agenda and many of the current City Council were elected, in part, because of their professed support for neighborhoods’ and citizens’ concerns about growth and development. 

The question Council should be asking is – WHAT LEVEL OF DEVELOPMENT PRESERVES THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE CITY AND NEIGHBORHOODS THAT RESIDENTS VALUE?  The ThinkBoulder.org and the Comprehensive Plan surveys establish that – there is support for preserving single family neighborhoods as single family neighborhoods and in the multifamily parts of the area, maintaining the existing 2-3 story typology.  The surrounding community values the mix of business and residential uses, and their scale, and isn’t terribly interested in scaling up.

Real estate interests promote growth/density as the solution to affordable housing which is like the coal industry promoting clean coal to solve climate change.  City staff and now seemingly Council, indulge this fairy tale.  While the community has voiced strong support for addressing permanent affordable housing, it HAS NOT supported high levels of densification or large amounts of high-end housing development (the City’s affordable housing program relies on the development of nominally 80% unaffordable housing to yield nominally 20% affordable housing from new development).  There is growing awareness within the community that DENSIFICATION HAS NOT AND WILL NOT AUTOMATICALLY RESULT IN PERMANENTLY AFFORDABLE HOUSING, but HAS AND WILL CONTINUE TO RESULT IN THE MANY NEGATIVE IMPACTS described previously.  It has become all too clear that densification has largely benefitted developers at the expense of everyone else and still the housing affordability problem continues to grow. 

That is because growth/density and housing affordability are separate issues.  Council and City staff should stop conflating the two and perpetuating the hoax that growth/density equals affordability.

It is time for Council to confront affordability honestly, rather than perpetuating myths.  The hard truth is, addressing permanent housing affordability in any meaningful way will require a Boulder taxpayer financial commitment.  It will require a commitment to demand that MOST new housing development is permanently affordable (currently nominally 80% of what gets built is high-end).  It will require a taxpayer commitment to finance the purchase of existing market-rate affordable apartments and mobile home communities by their residents, or nonprofits, or by the City outright, to make sure they are not gentrified out of existence. 

Alpine Balsam is not an isolated neighborhood upzoning endeavor.  Council is currently engaged in a city-wide defacto neighborhood upzoning project under the harmless sounding “Use Table Revisions” moniker.  If you love your neighborhood, you better pay attention and let Council know what is important to you.

Leonard May

Leonard May is a former Planning Board member, former Landmarks Board member and former PLAN-Boulder County board member. The views expressed herein are solely his.