CDOT on board for Boulder’s flood work, but open space, CU buy-in less certain


Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Sunday, June 2, 2019

CDOT is willing to work with Boulder on plans to build a flood wall in the U.S. 36 right-of-way, city leaders said Friday. The revelation brings one of three key organizations into the fold, but the participation of two others — the city’s Open Space Board of Trustees and the University of Colorado — is still in doubt.

City council, however, maintains that a workable solution can be found. Members will receive an update from staff at Tuesday’s meeting and decide how to proceed in negotiations.

Officials from the Colorado Department of Transportation in February sent city elected officials and residents into a mild panic by revealing that the agency never gave approval to Boulder’s building a flood wall on state land along 36. A spokesperson for CDOT went so far as to say that federal regulations prevented any structures from being placed in the right-of-way.

Boulder city staff held firm that CDOT had, in the past, expressed a willing to negotiate that would prove true in the end. That assertion bore out during a recent meeting of CDOT officials, Mayor Suzanne Jones, and representatives from Boulder County and CU.

CDOT will allow the flood wall to abut its right-of-way and the footings to be built underground within the right-of-way. Without those concessions, Jones said, the project “would have required a massive rethinking of any of the variants” of the design for flood wall and detention.

The flood wall will protrude into open space land by 2-4 feet, according to Douglas Sullivan, engineering project manager with the city, including underground structures. Impacts to open space would be threefold: temporary construction, the permanent above- and below-ground structures, and detention of water during a flood event.

All of them may require a formal disposal of open space land, said John Potter, resource and stewardship division manager. The board of trustees would need to approve disposals, as would council.

Such measures have been considered before, Sullivan said: in 2014, when the city was narrowing down flood mitigation options. One — Option D, which later was further refined into Variants 1 and 2 — eventually won approval.

There was not a lot of options for open space impacts then, Potter said, and things haven’t much changed: There is a “significant clash of values here between what CDOT is offering and what the ecological values of the site are.”

Getting a thumbs up for that disposal will be a big lift,” said Curt Brown, an OSBT member. (Brown said he was not speaking for the board.) “That habitat is almost impossible to replace.”

CU still has to come to the table as well. The university owns the 308-acre parcel on which the flood work will be conducted; it has agreed to allow 80 acres for flood mitigation. Less than two weeks ago, officials sent a letter reaffirming its need for 129 acres of land on which to build student and faculty housing and classrooms. As currently designed, the flood mitigation efforts would inundate portions of that acreage, preventing it from being developed.

Officials pled for a return to Variant 2, the design passed over by council last year. The subject was broached briefly in Friday’s staff update. CDOT is unwilling to allow any structures to be attached to the U.S. 36 bridge over South Boulder Creek — a key component of Variant 2 necessary to narrow the flow of the waterway and reduce pooling on CU’s property.

CDOT, in an email, confirmed that there were “concerns” from technical staff about the design. It was reported at the meeting that CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew said having anything attached to the bridge “was a bridge too far.”

The structure was never intended to be attached to the bridge, Sullivan said: It could instead be constructed any distance from it; for example, 10 feet away. But Jones said it would need to be 52 feet away, completely outside CDOT’s right-of-way, and that, per regulations, part of the creek would have to be paved.

While from a technical standpoint, “you can do just about anything,” Jones said, moving the structure away from the bridge “would engender a whole suite of issues,” including “some very serious aesthetic” concerns. “It didn’t seem practical.”

Councilwoman Cindy Carlisle, during Friday’s meeting, seized on Lew’s comment. Variant 2 is dead, she said, and expressed a hope that CU and members of the public and press would stop blaming council for their August vote. (Though, at the time, the nature of CDOT’s objection was not known or discussed in council’s deliberations.)

“Once and for all, I’d like it to be off the table that council made a mistake in not choosing Variant 2,” Carlisle said.

Boulder transportation official Kathleen Bracke, participating via phone, said CDOT made no declarations as to one variant or the other. Lew’s remarks should not be interpreted as such, she cautioned.

It was a specific comment, it wasn’t related to the entire alternative; it was very specific to that infrastructure. Maybe there’s different ways it could be designed, but she did express concerns with it.”

Councilman Bob Yates, also present, said the focus should be less on “Variant 1 or 2 or 1.5” and more on finding a plan that is acceptable to CDOT, CU and the city. That could mean playing with the design a bit, compromising on 100-year or 500-year protection, or allowing CU to build elsewhere on the site by redrawing the land use lines.

It’s a Venn diagram of life safety, CU’s needs or desires, and what CDOT is willing to do,” Yates said. “Through a little bit of compromise, is there a place where those circles can converge? There’s some dials (staff) can turn.”

Mayor Jones also expressed confidence that all parties could reach an agreement, saying the meeting with CDOT “will really help things move forward.”

CU has less reason to be swayed than the city. The university doesn’t intend to build out the site (which first needs to be annexed into Boulder) for several years: the planning process alone is likely to last through 2022, Vice Chancellor Frances Draper said in an interview earlier this year. Much can change in that time, she said, which is why a certain amount of land is needed to hedge its bets.

“We would not have brought forward an annexation for years and years,” Draper said. “The only reason we are doing this is because the city asked us to, and we are equally concerned that something needs to be done soon to protect” thousands of downstream residents.

For now, the disagreement with CU is not holding up the process, Sullivan said. All the work being done was necessary regardless of the eventual design. As long as a compromise is reached within the next six months, there won’t be any delays.

Draper objected to characterizations from members of council and the public that CU is responsible for holding up the process by not giving into the city. The university has already agreed to many stipulations (height limit, capping housing at 1,100 units) that, as a state entity, it normally wouldn’t.

We normally wouldn’t agree to all these restrictions, but we know they need to know something about what we will and won’t build,” she said. “We have made a lot of concessions in the last three years in recognition that this needs to get done.”

CU is asking for the same thing it always has, Draper said: Let us keep 129 acres of our land to build on, and we’ll give Boulder 80 acres for flood work.

“We offered a very generous deal” — in fact, some regents “were concerned that this was a bit generous.” The regents have been mostly hands-off during this process. That may not always be the case, Draper said.

“They are in support right now, but they’re an elected body and they change as well over time. If I were city council, I would grab that deal while it’s sitting in front of me, because things change over here.”

There will not be opportunity for public participation during this discussion, though speakers may sign up for a spot during the open comment portion of the meeting. Council is hoping to have a more in-depth revisit of the topic on July 16.

City council meeting: Tuesday, June 4, 6 p.m. 1777 Broadway

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle
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