With direction on Alpine-Balsam area plan, council decides status quo must go

The Alpine Balsam Area, courtesy City of Boulder

Thursday, June 6, 2019

City council this week took the lowest-density option off the table in planning for the future of the Alpine-Balsam area, insisting — despite neighborhood concerns — that more housing is needed in the north Boulder enclave.

The Alpine-Balsam Area Plan being created now will govern the long-term redevelopment (through land use and zoning regulations) of the geographic area that runs along Broadway from roughly Balsam Ave. to North Street, and 9th to 13th Streets east-west. Ensconced within those bounds is the 8.8-acre city-owned site formerly home to Boulder Community Hospital. That is where the effects of the Area Plan will most immediately be seen, through how many homes and offices will be built there in the next 5-7 years.

Five options for use and density were presented to council Tuesday night. They aren’t meant to be cast in stone; further refinement will take place through an ongoing public process. Council voted on what options should be pushed through for resident feedback.

Every member but Mirabai Nagle felt Option 1 should not be advanced to the public. The plan called for minor land use changes to reflect the high-density housing already in the area, but otherwise left the neighborhood much as it exists today, limiting the number of homes that could be added through future development primarily to single-family dwellings.

Option 1 would also make it cost-prohibitive to provide affordable housing on the city’s land. At least 170 dwellings have to go there in order to make affordable units financially feasible, said Kurt Firnhaber, director of housing. Leaving current zoning intact would allow an estimated 65-105 homes on the city site.

“I don’t think (we spent) $40 million to keep it the way it is now,” councilman Sam Weaver said, referring to how much Boulder paid for the land in 2015 and explaining his vote to eliminate Option 1 from the pool.

The option “doesn’t meet our objectives around affordable housing,” said councilwoman Mary Young.

Nagle, explaining her dissent, cited neighborhood opposition as her primary concern. This neighborhood “overwhelmingly” wants low density, she said, so Option 1 should remain in the mix. She suggested, as did Young, that if Option 1 went, the higher-density Option 3 plan should go as well.

They represent “extremes,” Young said. “Our job is to start the conversation of bringing people to a compromise.”

Young, Weaver, Nagle and Cindy Carlisle all voted to axe Option 3. Mayor Suzanne Jones, who voted to shelve Option 1, said she would prefer if everything was advanced to the public.

“We’ve got to have a conversation about housing … in a meaningful way,” she said.

Councilman Aaron Brockett reminded council that none of the options have to be accepted as-is. Through the public process “parts and pieces” of them can be retained and amalgamated into a final plan.

Along with overall themes of density and land use, staff presented rough estimates on how many housing units each option could bring to the hospital land and throughout the entire area, via redevelopment:

Option 1, Current Trends / Minimal Growth: 65-105 units (city site) ~50 units (area)

Option 2, Emphasize Housing: 170-250 units (city site) 400 (area)

Option 3: Strongly Emphasize Housing: 230-300 units (city site) ~530 units (area)

Option 4, Emphasize Mixed Use: 170-250 units (city site) ~400 units (area)

Option 5, Mixed Use, Strong Civic Presence: 30-90 units (city site) ~400 units (area)

Estimates are how many could be added over time as redevelopment occurred. Area plans are meant to guide 15 years of development. Council urged the public not to focus on the numbers as sure-and-certain forecasts of the future.

Residents nevertheless used the open comment portion of the meeting to decry the number of proposed units in higher-density plans.

Kathleen Hancock said 50 units, at most, should go on the hospital property, but acknowledged the need for affordable housing. “Maybe you need to go higher than 50 units. Maybe 100. I can live with that. But 200 or 300 new units goes completely against a balance.”

Martin Boone felt the hospital site should become public space, which would “improve the quality of life of all citizens.” Francesca Silva, organizer of a group opposed to increased density in the area, asked council to consider “a low-density option that fits with surrounding character of the neighborhood.”

Affordability is a national issue, Elizabeth Prentiss said, one Boulder can’t “build its way out of. More and more density is not the solution.”

A group of pro-housing activists were present as well, urging council to fit the most housing possible in the Alpine-Balsam area, which already serves as an active neighborhood center and is located along a major transit corridor.

“It’s the perfect place for higher density,” said Francoise Poinsatte. “(Too much) of this town’s residential land is zoned single-family; we can’t continue with that.”

(Author’s note: Poinsatte actually said that 85% of the land was zoned for single-family residences. I could not verify that particular claim with the information I have on-hand, due to the fact that a variety of housing types are allowed across zoning districts. For example, single-family homes are allowed in high-density zones. And some housing is allowed in mixed-use zones. However, generally speaking, 75% of Boulder’s residential land is zoned for low density; 90% for low or medium density; and 9.45% is zoned for high density.  If you have any additional information that might be helpful in sorting this out, please share it.)

David Adamson, who organized the pro-housing cohort, said there is common ground to be found between factions. In pushing council to adopt Option 3, “we’re asking you all to come from the values that I think we all share: Affordability, sustainability, equity and livability.”

Just as (most of) council felt Option 1 didn’t meet affordability goals, Carlise, Bob Yates and Lisa Morzel felt Option 5 fell short for the same reasons. A city office hub would reduce the number of housing units that could be built on the site. Office uses don’t belong in neighborhoods, Morzel said; Carlisle was concerned about traffic.

Yates has never been sold on the idea of locating city offices there — the multi-million renovation of the Pavilion building is too costly, he has repeatedly said. The city needs to find somewhere to fit staff from three separate buildings, two of which are in the high-hazard flood zone. The third comes with a $1 million annual lease.

Boulder County, which hopes to co-locate on 2 acres of the city’s land and move its services at Broaday/Iris to 120,000-square-feet of office space there. Option 5 is the county’s preference, Commissioner Deb Gardner said: “Additional emphasis on housing doesn’t really offer the opportunity for this kind of services at that site.”

Any deal with the county could also include housing on the county’s 17 acres at Broadway and Iris. Roughly 8 of those acres are available for development. (Ballfields and an historic building sit on the rest.)

The city and county are currently going through their respective facilities master plans. Boulder’s council will visit the issue in August. A decision on the Alpine-Balsam site is expected by September.

Councilman Weaver asked if the county would be ready to commit to a co-location deal by then. “We’d rather it happen sooner,” Gardner replied.

Public engagement on the area plan will continue through June and July, with transportation, housing and parks & recreation advisory boards weighing in. Planning board and city council will both host public hearings  in August.

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

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle
Want more stories like this, delivered straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up for a weekly newsletter from Boulder Beat.


7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Thanks for this summary. The number I’ve calculated is that low-density is 83% by land area of our residential zoning. That’s counting the RL, RE, and RR zones. RL-2 allows attached dwellings, but still requires 6000 sq ft of open space per dwelling unit, so it’s definitely low density. I’ll try to dig up my spreadsheet and send it to you, if you’re interested.

    • Thanks, Kurt! I have a spreadsheet from the city showing zoning district by sq ftage and % of total land use. That’s how I arrived at the numbers posted above.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: