Boulder looks to limit office space, single-family housing in first peek at changes to built environment

Photo by LYCS Architecture on Unsplash

Saturday, April 6, 2019

In its bid to remove a ban on construction and demolition from much of east Boulder, city council this week considered changes to regulations governing what can be built where. It is the first step in what will be a long and involved process to structure the city’s built environment in an attempt to mitigate the so-called jobs/housing imbalance.

Among staff’s suggestions for changes to the city’s use tables — which govern what types of businesses and homes can be permitted in each zoning district — were a complete prohibition on new office space in residential areas and single-family homes in high-residential and mixed-use zones.

Nearly half (45.95%) of the city’s total space is residential zoning, though homes are allowed in some of the non-residential districts. Just 4.25% is high-density; a further .52% is mixed-use.

The use table project was among council’s top priorities for 2019, with a focus on the 18 different zoning types in the two-mile federally designated opportunity zone currently under a development moratorium until June 22, 2020. The OZ runs roughly from 28th to 55th Streets and Arapahoe to Diagonal Highway.

Among staff’s suggested tweaks per zoning district:

Industrial – Allow small retail spaces (under 2,000 square feet)

Business – Allow retail; require a more stringent process for lodging, athletic facilities or car dealerships; allow 100% efficiency units (currently, units smaller than 475 square feet are restricted to 20% of total units without use review, a more involved process); restrict office space to no more than 25% of total square footage of a particular building, or 50% if affordable housing is provided on-site.

In Business Commercial zoning, housing would not be allowed on the ground floor.

Banks or other financial institutions would not be allowed on the ground floor of the Downtown or Business Main Street zoning districts, codifying and expanding Boulder’s downtown bank ban. (B-MS can be found on the Hill, downtown and a small area around 30th and Valmont, according to a city zoning map).

Residential and Mixed Use – Efficiency units would be allowed to make up 100% of a project; single-family housing would be prohibited in high-density residential zoning districts and mixed-use; all office uses would be disallowed.

Along with clarifying uses, staff also wants to create a new category of uses. Currently, there are four dominant classifications:

Allowable – Also referred to colloquially as “by-right,” it means that a simple building permit or business license is all that is required.

Conditional – Requires a quick, staff-level review and approval.

Use Review – A longer process is required, including public notice and, potentially, an appearance before Planning Board and/or city council.

Prohibited – Uses in this category are not allowed. For example, a manufacturing business couldn’t set up in a residential neighborhood.

Staff is proposing a new category, Limited, which would nestle between Allowable and Conditional. Uses in the Limited category would deviate on one criteria from an allowed use. So, for instance, a project with housing on the ground floor in a Business Commercial zone could be Limited, rather than requiring Use Review, which would shorten the regulatory process.

Councilwoman Mary Young suggested that a project with more than 20% efficiency apartments should be a Limited use, rather than an Allowed one, if the units were made permanently affordable. Some members of council argued that such dwellings would be naturally more affordable due to their small size, and that Young’s suggestion didn’t offer any options to developers beyond what is currently available.

“We say smaller is better,” said Mayor Suzanne Jones, “but we’re not incentivizing that.”

“Just because it’s smaller doesn’t make it more affordable,” countered councilwoman Cindy Carlisle.

“Yeah,” Jones replied, “but if it’s bigger, it’s really not affordable. We’re not being consistent.”

Some council members were concerned that allowing an all-efficiency building would cause older, cheaper apartment buildings — particularly along 30th and Glenwood — to be knocked down and replaced with market-rate studios, which can rent for $1,000 or more.

That is a demolition issue, Jones argued, and needs to be addressed through other means than use tables. Certain members of council, Lisa Morzel most vocally, have recently stepped up criticism of demolitions in the city, their comments at meetings and board and commission interviews hinting at possible regulatory limits on what structures can be removed.

There was also some pushback to completely disallowing housing on the ground floor in BC zones. Young, Morzel, Sam Weaver and Aaron Brockett all agreed that housing would be appropriate in certain areas, particularly those that transition from major shopping areas to more residential ones.

Weaver noted that apartments along 30th Street next to Google don’t disrupt the walkability of the area. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said.

A complete ground-floor ban “goes too far,” Brockett said. “It’s discouraging housing, We have a housing crisis.”

Brockett also felt that a total prohibition on office space in residential areas was extreme. Small offices should be allowed, he said, to promote live-work situations and 15-minute neighborhoods, long a goal of elected officials in Boulder. The rest of council was largely agreeable, though Weaver asked that the Whittier neighborhood be excluded, and Carlisle said West Pearl should also be exempted.

One other minor change Brockett suggested: allowing small restaurants in industrial areas, to serve workers. Jones, who heads nonprofit Eco-Cycle in east Boulder, agreed. “We could use some options for lunch,” she said.

The discussion did not include a public hearing, though two members of  political group PLAN Boulder addressed council during the open comment period. Leonard May questioned allowing more efficiency units, arguing that they don’t serve families.

In a statement read by Adam Swetlik during a public hearing on affordable housing goals, PLAN suggested that all construction of new housing “should be focused within” the opportunity zone, and that developers should include more than the 25% affordable housing required of them in other parts of the city.

PLAN member Lisa Spalding said council was moving too quickly on use table changes, rushing to end the temporary development ban, which itself was passed on emergency vote. “Lifting the moratorium has become the focus of the opportunity zone process rather than developing an overall vision for the area,” she said.

Tuesday night’s discussion was council’s first look at the topic, but a study session will be held May 28 to consider a more refined approach. Any final changes will be subject to formal approval from Planning Board and council, with public hearings before each.

Public engagement is ongoing now: there have been community meetings, and an online questionnaire is available.

For a Twitter thread of Tuesday’s conversation on this issue, visit

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

Growth and Development Housing

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