We are in the midst of a development binge. Many of us are seriously concerned. Is this rush to build hotels, luxury apartments, and high-end office space really what we need in Boulder? We don’t think so. In 2003, the Boulder City Council passed resolution 922 directing undefined “…city staff to develop plans and proposed regulations … [to] reduce the amount of projected nonresidential development, increase planned housing, reduce projected traffic congestion, and preserve a desirable quality of life within this community.”
One of our members recently commented:
Last week, I was driving west on Pearl Street where I don’t usually go. Just after I went under the Foothills Parkway I looked ahead and saw “the new great wall of Boulder”. Huge buildings almost completely block the view of the Flatirons. As I passed between these new edifices, I fancied myself driving through the gates of a prison – one that is my hometown.
What has happened to our small congenial city? It’s being ruined. And it’s being ruined to enrich developers whose focus is not on what has made Boulder the wonderful place that our residents cherish.
How could this happen? We have a Residential Growth Management System that is our law. It’s patterned after the Danish Plan that was enacted by the citizens in 1977. It limited growth to 2 percent a year and it worked. When it expired five years later, the City Council legislated a 1 percent per year limit. After the Danish Plan began to be enforced, growth remained below about 1 percent until 2013. In that year 878 building permits were issued, enough for 2 percent growth.
We looked into what happened. Yes, there is a Residential Growth Management System in force which, in the introduction says it limits the “long-term rate of growth in the city [to] no greater than one percent per annum.” It says it does so to: “assure the preservation of its unique environment and its high quality of life,” “assure that growth…does not exceed the availability of public facilities and urban services, …avoid degradation in air and water quality, …avoid increases in crime and urban decay, and …encourage the completion of older developments in order to reduce infrastructure costs to stabilize residential neighborhoods.”
So how could the great wall of Boulder happen over the last year? Did the City Council break its own law? Growth was rarely above 1 percent until last year. While most of us are happy the economy is better, it’s made a lot of money available for construction. Now we are on a housing and development binge. What we see is that the Growth Management System has no teeth. The years after about 2000 when growth was lower were because of the economy, not Boulder’s enforcement of its law.
A closer look shows that in about 2000, the council created a number of exemptions that prevent the city from accomplishing our stated goals. The two biggest exemptions are for “mixed use” developments and for land that was rezoned from a nonresidential type. The first is interpreted to exempt all housing built in business zones, even when the project isn’t really mixed use. This exemption was supposed to create affordable housing downtown; instead we got multi-million dollar condos there. We also got big apartment boxes like TwoNineNorth (at Twenty-Ninth Street) and Solana (Pearl and 30th). A second exemption simply encourages developers to annex ever more land. There is a third one that exempts all of housing developments that provide 35 percent permanently affordable units.
These exemptions are sorely out of date and seriously in need of reconsideration. One step City Council should take immediately is to suspend most of the exemptions and begin a community discussion on what kind of development Boulder actually needs. The intent of the exemption for permanently affordable housing should be retained.
Do we need seven new hotels? Do we need a huge development of office space to fuel even more housing demand? No, we need affordable and worker housing, and we’re not getting it.
Call your Council members if you agree or write firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you want to be part of a growing movement to restore Boulder’s traditions, send us an e-mail at email@example.com