August 24, 2020

Dear City Councilmembers,

PLAN-Boulder County provided an assessment of Phase Two of the Use Table and Standards Project and the Community Benefit Project to the Planning Board for their meeting on August 20, 2020.  We have included that analysis below for your consideration but have several caveats to add after listening to the Planning Board’s discussion.  We are now even more adamant in our request that you pause these projects despite the amount of time staff and members of the Planning board have invested in them.

We are in the middle of a pandemic that may alter both our personal lives and the way we function as a community for years, or even permanently.  We do not know what changes we will be forced to make and what our economy will look like in the future.  Decisions about the changes proposed in both projects demand significant public outreach, which is impossible under our present circumstances.  We have not received feedback on the first phase of either of these projects, even though a prudent work plan would include enough time to collect and analyze results from the initial changes before proceeding to the second phase.

Planning Board members expressed the most widely divergent opinions on the vaguely defined 15-minute neighborhood when they discussed the Use Table and Standards project.  Although the financial feasibility of introducing commercial uses into homogenous neighborhoods has not undergone an economic analysis, 15-minute neighborhoods continue to be promoted to the public based on a romantic notion of small, neighborhood grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops.  Staff and some members of the Planning Board continue to focus on this fantasy.

In 2017, the Second Kitchen Food Co-op opened in the space currently occupied by The Alpine Modern Café.  It lasted less than a year despite relying heavily on volunteer co-op members to staff the store.  Alpine Modern, promoted as an example of what people could look forward to if they introduce commercial uses into their residential neighborhoods, has a unique proprietor who lives in the immediate neighborhood and values social cohesion.  However, no one has questioned how long even this except

Staff’s suggestion that consolidating different restaurant uses to streamline the Use Table was met with resistance by some Planning Board members who noted that size, hours, and alcohol service have huge impacts on surrounding residential neighbors.  The point was driven home during Public Participation by two representatives of the neighbors who live in the relatively affordable housing behind the restaurant, River and Woods.  The restaurant, which was approved for acoustic music to accompany meals, has turned into a seven-day a week concert venue with amplified music that is disrupting the lives of residents to the south.  The restaurant promotes the new use on its website as a “a socially-distanced party e

The pandemic has caused some restaurants, like River and Woods, to try alternative entertainment to boost business, but it was not uncommon even before the pandemic for failing restaurants to introduce live music and drink specials in a last-ditch attempt to save their businesses.  The disorderly conduct that followed had severe impacts on surrounding residential neighborhoods, which is another reason that promoting businesses with an exceptionally high failure rate as the cornerstone of 15-minute neighborhoods should raise alarm bells.  In fact, both staff and board members referenced the River and Woods problem throughout the debate over the Use Table and Standards project.

The Planning Board’s discussion of Community Benefit dissolved almost immediately into a series of critiques and questions that made clear the project has not developed beyond a list of possible uses that could fall under the broad categories of affordable commercial space, arts and culture, and social and human services.  Staff invested considerable time and effort in an attempt to flesh out the three benefits proposed, but they were not given direction on how the proposed uses should be implemented.

There was considerable opposition to the concept of affordable commercial space because it would be so difficult to accomplish fairly and pragmatically.  As the discussion moved to Arts & Culture and Human & Social Services, the lack of any plan for implementation eventually led to a desperate suggestion that perhaps an undefined voucher system would have to be adopted to execute Phase Two benefits.  None of the possible uses identified by staff were discussed, and the resulting direction from the Planning Board was so vague that City Council’s only viable option is to limit Community Benefit to the affordable housing option adopted in Phase One of the project for the foreseeable future.

Based on both our original evaluation of the Use Table and Standards project and the Community Benefit project and the results of the Planning Board’s discussion of them, we request that you pause these projects until our future becomes clearer, more significant public outreach can be conducted, and feedback can be gathered from the first phase of these projects.  We will proceed with our comments, included below, on the current proposals in the Use Table Project and in the Community Benefit Project, despite these reservations.

PLAN-Boulder County’s August 20, 2020 comments to the Planning Board:

1)  The Use Table and Standards Project

The major proposals in Phase Two of the Use Table and Standards Project focus on 15-minute Neighborhoods, Neighborhood Centers, and mixed-use nodes along transportation corridors.  As defined in your agenda packet, all three of these models rely on a commercial component, and their implementation would succeed or fail based primarily on the economic future of retail and services.  However, these models also promote walking, biking and public transit and provide opportunities for neighborhood cohesion.  By redefining these models based on how suitable each is for strengthening healthy community bonds and/or supporting commercial businesses, it becomes clear how best to use them to meet the BVCP goals.

15-minute Neighborhoods

2.14 Mix of Complementary Land Uses 

The city and county will strongly encourage, consistent with other land use policies, a variety of land uses in new developments. In existing neighborhoods, a mix of land use types, housing sizes and lot sizes may be possible if properly mitigated and respectful of neighborhood character. Wherever land uses are mixed, careful design will be required to ensure compatibility, accessibility and appropriate transitions between land uses that vary in intensity and scale.

BVCP p. 40

  • The BVCP uses extremely cautious language when it suggests the possibility of introducing upzoning and commercial uses into existing neighborhoods.  Using the Land Use Table to make these changes in established residential and industrial zones citywide functions more like a hammer than the scalpel that the BVCP deems necessary.
  • It would not be financially sustainable to introduce commercial uses at 15-minute intervals throughout the city, but we are already well on our way to establishing a web of 15-minute public amenities that provide spaces for community members to meet formally and informally.  Parks of different sizes and purposes, trailheads, and other outdoor recreational facilities, along with school grounds, libraries, and rec centers foster neighborhood bonds and community cohesion.
  • The small-scale 15-minute neighborhood’s strength lies in its benefits as a social rather than commercial model.  Spaces for social interaction within walking distance of homes, when carried out within the Health Department’s pandemic guidelines, fosters good mental health under our present circumstances and will continue to benefit the community in the years to come.

Neighborhood Centers and the “String of Pearls”

2.19 Neighborhood Centers

In addition to serving as neighborhood gathering places, these centers also provide goods and services for the day-to-day needs of nearby residents, workers and students and are easily accessible from surrounding areas by foot, bike and transit. Neighborhood centers contribute to a sense of place and the achievement of walkable (15-minute) places with a mix of uses and range of services.  

BVCP p. 35

2.24 Commitment to a Walkable & Accessible City 

The city will promote the development of a walkable and accessible city by designing neighborhoods and mixed-use business areas to provide easy and safe access by foot, bike and transit to places such as neighborhood centers, community facilities, transit stops or centers and shared public spaces and amenities (i.e., 15-minute neighborhoods). The city will consider additional neighborhood centers or small mixed-use retail areas where appropriate and supported by the neighbors they would serve. In some cases, the definition of mixed use and scale and character will be achieved through area planning.

BVCP p. 47

Neighborhood Centers

  • Commercial uses that would not be financially sustainable in small-scale 15-minute neighborhoods have an excellent chance of flourishing in larger-scale Neighborhood Centers.
  • The BVCP’s City Structure map (p. 36) identifies a dozen existing Neighborhood Centers.  Most of them currently support a variety of businesses that serve the daily needs of the surrounding residential and commercial neighborhoods.
  • Those Neighborhood Centers that are no longer commercially viable or are facing major difficulties could be redeveloped into socially and economically vibrant 15-minute neighborhoods if the commercial real estate market survives the failure of retail shops and restaurants due to the pandemic.
  • The city would have to provide improved access for pedestrians, cyclists, and whatever form of safe, public transportation that emerges in the next few years in order to ensure the success of mixed-use redevelopments with limited parking.
  • Many people who previously relied on public transportation have been forced by the pandemic to return to their cars.  This will slow the conversion of financially viable shopping centers from the large parking-lot model to a more intimately scaled mixed-use model for the foreseeable future.
  • The mixed-use redevelopment of existing Neighborhood Centers and the construction of new mixed-use Neighborhood Centers promote social cohesion by creating vibrant spaces for neighborhood gatherings and also provide access to daily necessities without the need for private vehicles.

             The “String of Pearls” or Mixed-use Nodes Along a Corridor

Instead of defining the “String of Pearls” model solely in terms of commercial uses, view it as a hybrid of the small-scale 15-minute neighborhood model that fosters social cohesion and the Neighborhood Center model, combining both social benefits and commercial convenience. When planning a “String of Pearls,” along an appropriate corridor, emulate the mix found along 9th Street:

  • Chautauqua Park, at the top of 9thStreet, offers outdoor recreational activities, cultural performances, community meeting spaces, and commercial amenities like the dining hall and rental cabins.
  • Walking north from Chautauqua Park, the Alpine Modern Café appears at the corner of 9thand College in a residential block.
  • Columbia Cemetery, which functions as a neighborhood park, as well as a historical landmark and cultural amenity, is across the street from Alpine Modern.
  • The Boulder Older Adult Services (West Age Well Center) is located at the corner of 9thand Arapahoe, next to the main branch of the public library.
  • Access to the Boulder Creek Path appears midblock between Arapahoe and Canyon.
  • The Haertling Sculpture Park is at the southwest corner of 9thStreet and Canyon, and the West Pearl commercial district begins on the north side of Canyon.
  • North Boulder Park is less than 15-minutes on foot along 9thStreet from Pearl.

The 9th Street corridor offers spaces for formal and informal socializing, recreational activities, municipal amenities, and commercial goods and services.  It is much richer and of greater benefit to the community than just a string of commercial nodes along a corridor.

2)  The Community Benefit Project 

In April, City Council wisely narrowed the second phase of the Community Benefit Project to three proposals.  The first, Affordable Commercial Space, aligns with Phase One of the project, which required additional permanently affordable housing.  Boulder’s desire to maintain a diverse population despite rising housing costs extends to an interest in fostering a diverse economy that values small, local businesses.  Small, local businesses are being priced out of Boulder’s commercial rental market, but the availability of affordable space may help stem any further losses and create an economic environment that allows local businesses to compete with national chains.

Protecting small, local businesses is not our only priority.  We have always valued our rich cultural life and the artists who live among us, as well as the social safety net we have broadened and reinforced through our private donations to a wide variety of non-profits.  Because we value these three aspects of our community, we must ensure that the recipients of any benefits are capable of supporting our economic, cultural, and social goals.  We must also carefully consider the proposed uses within the context of what we are giving up in return for Community Benefits.  Boulder’s mountain views are one of our most prized possessions, and the Appendix J map depicts precisely which view corridors are currently on the table as we consider trading views for Community Benefit.  It is worth investigating whether there are alternative means to achieve some of the same goals that these proposals target.

             Below Market Rate Commercial Rent

  • The most important aspect of this proposal is that the rent be affordable to small, local businesses that would add value to our economy but cannot currently afford commercial rents in the parts of town that would allow them to thrive.
  • Asking the Community Vitality Department to evaluate below market rate rent would not guarantee affordability unless the small, local businesses targeted for the program are an active part of the evaluation.
  • Businesses must be means tested, like applicants for affordable housing, but some adjustment should be made if a business remains small and independent but becomes highly successful.  Rather than risk harming the business by forcing it to relocate, a plan that would allow it to make payments, in excess of the affordable rent paid to the landlord, to a city fund that would contribute to affordable rent for other small, local businesses in need.
  • Because locations are so important to the success of small businesses, a payment in lieu option should not be considered.
  • Restricting the size of the commercial space to a size appropriate for small, local businesses should be considered, especially if it would allow for multiple affordable spaces.
  • The affordable commercial spaces should have street visibility and ground floor access as equal to that of market rate commercial space in the same building.
  • National franchises, even ones owned by minority business people or women, are not local They should not qualify for the program.
  • Require a minimum value at least equal to the affordable housing benefit set in Phase One of the project.
  • The commercial spaces should be affordable in perpetuity.

             Space for Arts and Cultural Use

  • The “ideas for definition” in Table 2 are so broad that they invite exploitation.  All uses should be solely for the production of art, rather than the marketing or commercial consumption of it.
  • Fine art studios, especially ones that share space, should be encouraged, but no sales should be permitted.
  • Performing art studios should be used only for the creation of works and rehearsals, not performances.
  • Performing arts venues, concert halls, or black box theaters should be considered for Below Market Rate Commercial Rentif they qualify, not Arts and Cultural Uses.
  • Commercial uses, like art galleries, co-ops, art cinemas, etc. should be considered for Below Market Rate Commercial Rentif they qualify, not Arts and Cultural Uses.
  • Amphitheaters, outdoor art venues, spaces conducive to murals and art in public places should not be considered, even if managed by a nonprofit.  It would be too difficult to ensure that these uses provide true Community Benefit rather than serve as a commercial enhancement to the properties they are on or adjacent to.
  • The creation of shared studio space for arts that require expensive equipment, like film, video and digital arts should be encouraged because it would allow artists to use the equipment cooperatively.  The space should be limited to fine arts uses, not commercial ones.
  • The creation of instructional art studios that offer free or reasonably priced classes for people of all ages should be encouraged, especially for art forms that require expensive or bulky equipment.  The Pottery Lab is an excellent example of this instructional model.
  • Boulder is particularly generous with grants to the arts. Do not encourage uses that duplicate the work of the Arts Commission.
  • A limited use of the in lieu option would be appropriate if it ensured that instructional art studios and shared studio space are located within walking distance of underserved populations and grant special services to children.
  • Require a minimum value at least equal to the affordable housing benefit set in Phase One of the project.
  • The use should continue in perpetuity.

Human/Social Services

  • Although the City of Boulder Human Services staff declined to vet proposals under this category before they would be considered by the Planning Board, expert vetting should be required.  The Community Foundation may be able to help find the right people to do this work.
  • The list of essential human and social service uses under consideration is comprehensive, and the desire to keep them within the city limits is both logical and laudable.  However, it is difficult to imagine that the typical investor asking for an increase in height, floor area, or density for a new development would choose many uses from this category for onsite inclusion.
  • Perhaps a new senior living center would consider a space for a non-profit health care facility as an amenity, but it is doubtful that anyone who is not a resident would have access to it.
  • Daycare centers might be an option for a development that requires full-time staff, but that, too, could be self-serving rather than a true Community Benefit.  Onsite daycare could be used as a perk to attract staff, or it could be used as an amenity to attract families to residential developments.
  • How would in lieu funds be deployed to support the uses under consideration?  Would they function as a revenue stream for the City Department of Human Services and Initiatives and the Boulder County Human Services Alliance?  If so, these departments must be consulted about how to structure the program.
  • Although staff recommends against restricting these uses to non-profits because Human Services is afraid that it may exclude some small, local, for-profit businesses, the protection against exploitation that non-profit status offers outweighs these fears.
  • Investigate whether these Human and Social Services goals can be accomplished by other means.
  • Require a minimum value at least equal to the affordable housing benefit set in Phase One of the project.
  • The use should continue in perpetuity. 

             The Appendix J Map

  • Even the small amount of community feedback that staff members have struggled to gather under pandemic conditions proves that Boulder’s stunning mountain views are its most distinctive and highly prized feature.
  • One of the most significant positive developments to emerge from the debate on Community Benefit was the 2015 moratorium on requests for height modifications, which resulted in the Appendix J Map.  The moratorium offered relief, albeit it temporary, to many members of our community who reacted viscerally to the loss of beloved views that are now blocked by tall buildings.
  • Views are egalitarian.  They belong to everyone who lives in Boulder, and they foster a communal sense of pride in our physical environment.  That is why it is so divisive when they are lost.
  • The Appendix J map should be made a permanent feature of our land use code in order to protect important view corridors and eliminate the acrimony provoked in the community when residents are forced to oppose individual projects.
  • A public process should be created for neighborhoods that wish to appeal any current exemption allowing requests for height modifications in Appendix J.

Respectfully submitted,

Peter Mayer
Allyn Feinberg

CoChairs –PLAN- Boulder County