Boulder takes big stick to office space, but barely gets council support to promote housing

Photo by Stefano Zanin on Unsplash

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 (Updated Friday, May 31)

After years of fretting, a failed emergency moratorium and five discussions over the past nine months, Boulder finally rejected setting limits on how big new homes can be. Maybe.

A size cap failed to garner support from a majority of city council members, though councilman Aaron Brockett — who, with Mayor Suzanne Jones and Lisa Morzel, was generally supportive of mandating smaller houses — said he hopes the idea is revisited in Phase 2 of the large homes/large lots project. That work, stretching into 2020 and beyond, will be for a new council: six seats are up for grabs this November.

The measures proposed for Phase 2 are complex: subdivision, rezoning, possible updates to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan. Council’s contemplation of the changes Tuesday night, paired with a use table discussion, threw into sharp relief elected officials’ preferences for sticks over carrots (restrictions vs. incentives) in trying to shape how the city’s limited land gets used.

Some highlights (I recommend reading my Twitter thread of the discussion or watching the meeting video for a more thorough understanding):

Council not cool with a cap on home size

Member after member expressed their reluctance of limiting square footage of houses, and indifference or dislike for the incentives staff suggested to encourage construction of smaller dwellings. They were deemed “baby carrots” at an April council meeting because they require slight regulatory tweaks and are therefore more easily achievable; staff has set a goal of having ordinances ready for council approval this fall.

“I wouldn’t do any of these things,” said Bob Yates (who, according to property records, lives in North Boulder, where much of the scrape-and-replace McMansion activity is concentrated, in a 4,540-square-foot home on a 16,554-square-foot lot: the largest of any council member).

Many neighborhoods already have so many large homes that they have become the character of the neighborhood, Yates argued. “Context matters.” Size limits citywide, or even zone-wide, would be “absolutely artificial, arbitrary, capricious and out of context” with big house-heavy parts of town.

Mary Young and Cindy Carlisle concurred, saying they would rather see the issue tackled on a by-neighborhood basis per a process like subcommunity planning. Solutions should be focused “where the issues are happening,” Carlisle said, and “we really haven’t heard from other areas” that it’s a problem, added Young.

The loss of “sweet little homes” in North Boulder over the past decade-plus is “unfortunate,” Mirabai Nagle said, “but it is what it is now.”

“I think if we wanted to limit/cap house sizes, we should have done it 15 years ago. The ship has sailed.”

Those in favor of exploring incentives placed the process in a larger context. How Boulder makes use of its limited land has broad implications for the environment, affordability and the makeup of the community, they said.

“Already, people’s children can’t live here anymore,” Morzel said. “A huge amount of our workforce can’t live here. By continuing to do nothing, we’re constricting the future of our children, our children’s children, and the future of our community. We have an out of balance situation, and I don’t think this project is going to solve it all, but I certainly think it could add more housing.”

Mayor Jones pushed back on Nagle’s assertion that it was too late to act (which Carlisle echoed, saying “that horse left the barn a long time ago”). The future is determined by the decisions its leaders make today, Jones said — for all of Boulder.

“I would like to be setting rules for the future that take into context that we want more, smaller houses rather than fewer, large houses … if we’re going to address affordability and having a diverse population. That’s a choice that may not be popular everywhere in town … maybe all of us wish Colorado’s population wasn’t booming and the world wasn’t being overpopulated … but it’s also the reality of the age we live in.

“Applying these rules more broadly, that’s where we have to head as a city, with every neighborhood throwing some skin in the game.”

Incentives for more, smaller dwellings narrowly gain council’s support

Despite the dour view of the large homes project as a whole, five council members did agree to move forward with two potential incentives: allowing existing family homes to be converted to duplexes and triplexes, and permitting two accessory dwelling units on larger lots.

Staff will continue to develop regulations pertaining to those two solutions. Changes would be limited to the lowest-density zoning districts, Residential Rural and Residential Estate. A suggestion was made to include Residential Low-1: Boulder’s second-largest zoning district, encompassing nearly 20% of the city’s land. But Sam Weaver shot it down, citing the vastness of RL-1 and preferring that such changes be accomplished through subcommunity planning.

There are 1,916 RR and RE lots; their combined 47.4 million square feet take up 6.24% of city land. Approximately 2% of RR and RE lots (38) have or are in the process of pursuing an ADU, according to planning director Chris Meschuk. Duplex and triplex conversions are a rare occurrence, too. The city sees maybe five a year, said senior planner Karl Guiler.

If every homeowner added two ADUs (unlikely, given the current rate of adoption), that would result in an extra 3,794 dwellings — just shy of the 4,008 extra units Boulder needs by 2035 to meet its recently upped affordable housing goals.

Though ADUs, duplexes and triplexes, by virtue of size alone, would certainly be more affordable than the large, multi-million dollar homes common in RE and RR zones, there is no guarantee they will qualify as affordable housing. Although there is some reason to be encouraged.

Boulder has seen an influx of ADU applications under the recently relaxed regulations. Sixty-one are currently under review, staff shared, and 25 of them are for rent-restricted dwellings: a full 40%.

What — and whose — opinions count for council?

There was little council appetite for the more radical changes proposed by staff, for a Phase 2 taking place in 2020 and beyond.  Among the suggestions were subdivisions of large lots (10,000 square feet or greater), construction of new duplexes and triplexes in current single-family-home-only zones, or the creation of cottage courts à la Poplar Place and Toby’s Lane: 1,500-square-foot homes grouped around a common green space, possibly with shared parking facilities in lieu of private driveways.

The proposals could require rezoning, which in itself may necessitate changing the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan to up the allowable number of dwelling unit per acre. Before any substantive changes, council wants to see more public engagement around Boulderites openness to rezoning or increased density.

Public engagement on the large homes project has been extensive, relative to other city initiatives. More than 1,000 people participated in events (open houses, etc.) and an online Be Heard Boulder survey. A slight majority supported finding ways to create more, smaller housing in the city; a slight majority also opposed limiting home sizes. 57% of Be Heard respondents thought allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family zoning districts was a good idea.

Opponents on council were not swayed, noting that the input was not a statistically valid survey. “For me,” said Nagle, “that’s what counts.” Although she appeared to make an exception for the many emails council received from North Boulder homeowners opposed to changes, which she called “a big red flag.”

She and Carlisle felt that the opinions of homeowners in affected neighborhoods be considered above those of the general public. “I would really like to hear from the people who live in the area,” Carlisle said, “and what they would like.”

Boulder should focus its survey on specific neighborhoods, Nagle suggested, to gauge “what the people living in those areas experience on a daily basis, because this is what they bought into. This is their blood, sweat and tears. What they invested into is something I have to honor.”

Councilman Weaver countered that a statistically valid survey should be citywide, though neighborhood-specific data could be pulled out as a useful compare-and-contrast metric.

“We’re supposed to represent the whole city,” he said. “That includes people who are renters” who might like to buy, and those who struggle to even rent in the city.

Council OK with losing jobs

Boulder’s use tables — which govern what can go where in terms of types of housing, offices, retail, etc. — haven’t been updated since the ’90s. As a result, many of the allowed uses are out of step with current BVCP goals. This, according to council, has exacerbated the community’s jobs/housing imbalance.

Boulder County added 39,719 jobs between 2007 and 2017, according to census data. Only 11,262 housing units were built during the same time, a ratio of 3.5 jobs to every new dwelling.

Council on Tuesday showed itself to be more willing to use sticks than carrots to correct the imbalance: Sticks to discourage job-creating land uses like office buildings, and carrots to encourage additional homes.

Three staff proposals best illustrate this: A suggestion to allow 75% of ground-floor space in commercial districts to be housing, and a proposal to limit office space in a majority of areas zoned for business and residential uses.

Up for consideration is a measure to completely ban housing on the first floor in Business Regional zones (the area surrounding the Twenty Ninth Street Mall) in order to preserve retail space. Council enacted a similar prohibition earlier this year that applies to many of Boulder’s shopping centers.

Council’s suggestion in early April was not to disallow housing completely, but to preserve some space for retail. Staff settled on a 75/25 mix: up to 75% of ground floor space could be residential, with 25% saved for retail.

That’s too much housing, councilman Weaver argued. Other council members backed him up, criticizing the lack of additional affordability requirements in exchange for greater residential floor area. Councilman Brockett, whose concerns prompted the 75/25 compromise, contested that 25% was likely all that was needed to preserve street-facing retail.

“We need more housing,” he said. “Making the whole ground floor retail is restrictive.”

Council also stopped short of an outright ban on single-family homes in high-density areas, over professed fears that it would handicap expansion of existing houses. And councilwoman Carlisle objected to a proposal to allow a greater number of efficiency apartments (under 475 square feet) per project, due to density concerns.

Members were much more on board with measures to limit office space, including a proposal to keep offices to 1,000 square feet or less in residential zones (and only through use review) and another to change offices from a by-right use to a conditional one (pending a staff-level review) in Business Main Street, Business Transitional and Business Regional.

Those three zoning districts (BR, BT and BMS) make up 64% of all business zones, and 4.8% of the city’s total land. The proposal would limit office uses to no more than 25% of a building, or half the square footage if affordable housing were providing on-site.

“After you did this,” councilman Brockett said, “downtown would be the only place you could build an office.”

“We don’t need any more,” replied Mayor Jones.

“I get the fact that people don’t want more offices, but by proposing this, you’ll have fewer and fewer offices over time, until you have none at all,” Yates said. “Maybe that’s the idea.”

“If we lost some jobs,” said Morzel, “I think that would be OK.”

The change wouldn’t result in zero offices, Jones said, just fewer, because the new regulations would limit them to a quarter or half of buildings rather than the 100% they are entitled to now.

Brockett pushed back a bit on office space limits in residential areas, noting their potential to promote 15-minute walkable neighborhoods, which council unanimously agreed was a priority earlier in the discussion.

“Full disclosure: This is me,” he said, noting that he walks to a small office near his home. “I’m not the only one; a lot of people walk to work. I think that’s a real positive thing.”

“I agree it’s a positive,” Carlisle said. “It’s just if it gets out of hand.” She suggested imposing saturation limits that would cap the total number of offices in any given zone. “Since we do have this horrific imbalance, I don’t know why we would be permitting more offices.”

“We’ve had a value of creating mixed-use neighborhoods in this town for decades,” Brockett countered. “We should have a rich mix of uses.”

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

Author’s note: This article has been updated to correct statements from staff, made during Tuesday’s council meeting, that no applications had been received for rent-restricted ADUs. Staff sent a followup email with accurate information later in the week.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle
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0 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Summary: density has to increase everywhere, but entitlement to what you bought in to is only valid in rural NB.
    Belated action, but at least they are doing right by limiting office space to remedy the J/H imbalance.
    Comprehensively they need to inventory and categorize jobs by income to about 10 levels before they can realistically quantify the amount of land to be dedicated to jobs. Same goes for housing, which also creates jobs, (mostly service industry) compounding the problem. Most of the housing being built now can only defray the demand arising from the high income workers. The cheapest is not affordable. The former Eastpointe was affordable, Parc Mosaic, it’s scrape/new build replacement is not.

    The city charges Airbnb hosts the same accommodation tax it charges hotels, which have low paid workers commuting in. The Airbnb hosts make their own beds and do their own laundry.

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