Op-ed originally printed in the Boulder Daily Camera on 12/16/2018.
Several times in recent months, the Boulder City Council has proposed far-reaching building moratoriums with little evidence of need and with very little public process.
A moratorium on building large homes on residential lots. A moratorium on building new housing in business zones after a rumored redevelopment of the partly-empty Base-Mar Shopping Center. A moratorium on redevelopment of an “opportunity zone” that includes the long-distressed Diagonal Plaza.
Rather than setting a vision for local policy to help Boulder adjust to change and economic conditions, the City Council’s actions show a reactive group that fears a changing city.
After scheduling an emergency vote to limit large houses in Boulder, City Council backed off from its original proposal after significant community pushback. The measure would have disallowed new homes greater than 3,500 square feet, without any plan to address the root problems of large homes or affordable housing shortages in Boulder’s neighborhoods. Rather, our city leaders need to bring proactive ideas to address our problems. For instance, council members Jill Adler Grano and Bob Yates countered with a proposal to require large homes to contribute to Boulder’s affordable housing fund.
The newly-updated accessory dwelling unit ordinance should be used as a tool to create incentives for smaller homes affordable to a wider range of potential owners in our community. We should allow homeowners with larger lots to split the lot and build a smaller, additional home. Council should embrace ideas like duplexes and triplexes, which are not legal in most of Boulder’s residential areas, to serve younger families or older couples wishing to downsize and still afford to live in town. The fear of change in our neighborhoods drives a policy that doesn’t plan for a future of diverse housing needs.
On Tuesday, City Council will consider an updated proposal for changes to business zoning districts that would have banned any use of housing on first-floor properties. As the Camera reported, the proposal was “brought forward by city councilwomen Cindy Carlisle and Mirabai Nagle, who were concerned about the possibility of student housing being built at Base-Mar Shopping Center.” The moratorium was a reaction to make a particular project unviable rather than proactively planning for change that the neighborhood and city might want. We could take the opportunity to create more 15-minute neighborhoods and a better bikeable and walkable community, and establish permanently affordable retail space. Instead, members of City Council moved to preserve still-vacant buildings occupied just 12 months ago by Whole Foods, The Egg & I, Everyone’s Hair, and Beau Jo’s Pizza. While the new proposal has since become less extreme, the council still lacks a vision to move our city forward in a rapidly changing retail environment. The fear of change in neighborhood retail drives a policy that clings onto shopping centers that no longer meet the needs of the community.
City Council will also make policy regulating the opportunity zone, a status meant to encourage investment in lower-income areas. Boulder applied for an opportunity zone that includes Diagonal Plaza, a strip mall in serious disrepair. City Council pushed to halt possible redevelopment. From Councilman Sam Weaver’s council Hotline email, he proposes a development moratorium until “each zone district in the OZ has been reviewed under the current Use Table Review project” and no office space be allowed until “a sub-community plan is in place.” If you have visited Diagonal Plaza recently, you may agree it is an area in great need of redevelopment. The massive, empty parking lot along with a number of vacant businesses could serve as a terrific place for a mix of housing, retail and office space, creating a modern walkable community. The North Boulder Subcommunity Plan took 10 years to complete — how long must our city wait to make progress on desperately needed priorities outlined in the Comprehensive Plan? Instead, council members criticized the city manager for accepting opportunity zone status which would bring federal subsidies into Boulder — a move that is in the best interest of the city. The fear that tax incentives will aid redevelopment drives Council to tighten regulations and resist needed change.
Our city government has enormous control over the way that Boulder will change over the long-term. We need a council that will be looking forward instead of fighting change that is inevitable.
Eric Budd is a former candidate for City Council and former chair of the Boulder Landmarks Board. He is a current member of the Better Boulder Executive Committee. Twitter: @ericmbudd.