Boulder will stay the course on Alpine Balsam for now, pursuing city/county offices, housing

ConvertedThursday, May 16, 2019

Despite recent desperate calls for a way out of the $120 million and counting plan for 8 acres of recently purchased city land, council on Tuesday decided to slowly continue down the path toward development of city offices and housing on the site, referred to in city government parlance as Alpine-Balsam for its location between those two streets on the west side of Broadway.

During an April budget discussion, nearly every council member in attendance called for a way out of the $40 million land purchase, made in 2015. Their concerns were the massive costs, including the $90-$120 million (including debt repayment) renovation of the Pavilion building to house 260-300 city staff from four buildings.

Tuesday’s direction to stay the course wasn’t a yes to that pricey renovation; as councilman Bob Yates noted, he is still very uncomfortable with a price-per-square foot of more than $600.

“We could build new for less,” he said, noting that the council has chosen repeatedly to tear down the 295,000-square-foot hospital structure in part because the costs of renovating ($500/sq ft) far exceeded the costs of deconstruction ($50/sq ft, roughly).

“The numbers are not quite credible to me,” Yates said.

The estimates include more than just basic construction costs, explained Michele Crane, facilities design and construction manager. They include things such as street improvements which, on other projects, make up a little more than half the costs, Crane said. Estimates have also been adjusted for inflation assuming a 2024 construction date.

Yates wasn’t pacified, and asked for analysis on other options, such as building new elsewhere. Council also didn’t weigh in on a proposed fourth floor that adds $9 million to the cost; they will revisit that element at a later time.

But the numbers for the rest of the project were starting to make more sense, council members said. The $11-$16 million hospital deconstruction will be paid for with 2018 overflow dollars. Flood mitigation costs shrank, too, when an engineering analysis last week returned a verdict that detention at North Boulder Park didn’t make sense. (More study is underway now to identify options.)

Nearly 2/3 of the land may be sold off,  for a price that is TBD but is pegged between $18-$32 million. That will help pay for $5-$8 million in flood work and potential soil abatement (preliminary estimates: $3-$10 million) with some left over to help pay for ongoing costs.

Spread over 30 years, debt payments on the original purchase will be $2.9 million annually. Pavilion renovations will be another $3-$4 million each year. So, for roughly $6-7 million a year, councilman Aaron Brockett noted, the city will be getting the benefits of consolidating four office buildings (saving $2.5 million/year in lease costs) and units of/funding for affordable housing.

“It’s looking like it could work out,” Brockett said, “which I’d not been convinced of before now.”

Council decided the city should move forward with deconstructing the hospital itself. A completely sustainable tear-down was being pursued, but council loosened the reins a bit. The project will meet the 2020 building codes for materials recycling, but anything above and beyond that will be time-dependent: Whatever can be saved, recycled or reused in 18 months.

What will eventually go on the site is still in flux. An area plan, which will help guide the process, is underway now. It will wrap in the fall. Housing is the stated priority for the property, and council on Tuesday expressed preference for a phased approach similar to the one employed at the Pollard site, with the land being developed piecemeal. At Pollard, Boulder Housing Partners served as the master developer, taking a parcel for affordable units and selling the others to market-rate builders.

Without additional investment, about one-quarter of the eventual dwellings can be affordable, said housing director Kurt Firnhaber. Council would like to see more, potentially up to half the units, and a mix of owner-occupied and rentals.

The city may sell two of the 8.8 acres to Boulder County, who wishes to co-locate on the site. The county needs 120,000 square feet of space — a non-negotiable, said James Butler, project architect.

Boulder County hopes to move its offices from 17.7 acres at Broadway and Iris. It would be willing to pay market rate for the Alpine-Balsam land, Butler said.

Councilman Yates questioned that: “As a county taxpayer, why would you pay market rate here when you could do two acres at Iris/Broadway? You already own that land, why wouldn’t you just build there?”

It would be too difficult to keep the offices running while building at Broadway and Iris, Butler said, and leasing space in the meantime isn’t fiscally responsible. Plus a move south on Broadway puts the offices closer to mass transit.

“The No. 1 site for us is Alpine-Balsam,” Butler said.

The county has offered up Broadway/Iris as a potential site for affordable housing development. Rather than a purchase, Yates suggested a land swap, a proposal greeted warmly by the rest of council.

Despite the about-face on Alpine-Balsam from mere weeks ago, council did request lots of additional analysis and information: an accounting of tradeoffs of using space for affordable housing vs. offices; the true costs of Pavilion renovation when compared apples-to-apples against leasing or building new; different scenarios for funding affordable housing.

Staff will return to council June 4 with more details. A public hearing is also scheduled for that evening.

Mayor Suzanne Jones and councilman Sam Weaver said it was worth keeping in mind the multitude of benefits that come from sticking with the plan. The extra costs are worth it, Weaver said, especially spread out over decades: “I want to keep at least studying it.

What shouldn’t be forgotten is how it may make things easier for residents trying to access city offices, Jones said, particularly housing and human services.

“It’s a reason to try and pull this off.”

To view a Twitter thread of this discussion, click here.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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