Friday, July 19, 2019
Author’s note: It’s atypical of me to write opinion pieces. Mostly because I don’t have a lot of opinions on the things I cover. I also recognize the awkwardness of crafting an opinion on topics I’m actively reporting on. Since Hogan Pancost is over and done with, I made an exception. Consider this a post-mortem.
City council this week put to rest three decades of fighting over a piece of city property it bought last year: Hogan Pancost, 22 acres near the East Boulder Recreation Center, purchased for $5 million. Neighbors and developers have been doing battle for nearly 30 years over a succession of failed proposals to build housing. By deciding to use 14 of the acres for flood mitigation and save 3 others as open space — at an estimated additional cost of $2-$6 million — elected officials put an official end to the question of the land’s potential for development.
There is now virtually no chance anything will be built on the 5 remaining acres not devoted to flood detention or natural preservation. Council went further than dictating those uses, directing staff to use park funds for improvements on the property or to pay for its transfer from the general fund.
Lands or improvements on them paid for with parks money must serve a parks and recreation purpose, per the city charter. It will take a vote of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and of council, to dispose of land for any purpose that doesn’t align with that mission.
It was clear Tuesday night that council knew what they were going to do. The public may have been less sure.
In October, council was at least still pretending to consider alternative housing at Hogan Pancost. Housing Director Kurt Firnhaber brought forward ideas for housing that might be appropriate considering the unique hydrology of the area, including a tiny home village on just 1 acre, enough to accommodate 20-25 homes. The small dwellings could serve particularly vulnerable demographics, such as teachers, seniors, veterans or the formerly homeless. A group of female elder orphans was seeking land for just such a purpose at that time.
To a casual observer at that meeting, it seemed like the option was still on the table. In all likelihood, it never truly was.
Between October and last Tuesday, there was never another mention of tiny homes. Not in the packet to council; not during the discussion from the dais. The only time housing was referenced at all was when councilwomen Cindy Carlisle and Lisa Morzel asked staff how to keep it off the land for good.
When it was determined that the parks approach could be used as a buffer against future development, the audience began to haltingly cheer and applaud. Such open displays of support or opposition are not typically allowed, but Mayor Suzanne Jones gave the crowd permission — after first delaying them so council could “gush a bit” over its decision.
“Oh, go ahead and clap,” she said. And they did.
We should not be so quick to celebrate such a flawed process.
It turns out, the trotting out of a tiny home pilot project was merely council paying lip service to their professed goal of encouraging creative housing solutions. There was never an analysis as to the feasibility of a tiny home community or its impacts. There never was going to be.
In declaring the entire acreage unfit for housing of any kind, council was relying on years-old testimony from a hydrology expert during a Planning Board hearing for another, much larger housing project. That expert could not guarantee that such a development would not lead to flooding of nearby homes.
You wouldn’t know that if you were at the meeting, or even if you read through the publicly availably documents prepared for the October meeting and Tuesday’s. There was not a single reference of that being council’s underlying assumption. (Perhaps because it would throw into relief the absurdity of comparing two projects that could not be more dissimilar in terms of footprint and impact. Or perhaps because it would reveal council’s October consideration of tiny homes as the dog-and-pony-show it was; after all, by Jones’ own admission, council had decided no development was safe based on information it obtained long before October.)
It’s possible that 1 acre of tiny homes would be just as disruptive as previously considered developments. It’s possible that further analysis would have simply added time and money to the process and done nothing to change the foregone conclusion that Hogan Pancost doesn’t work for housing — any housing.
Even if that is all true, even if nothing has changed since that long-ago Planning Board hearing, presumably there are new residents in Boulder at this time (and new reporters). There are new people watching council to see if they are acting in good faith. At the very least, council could have summarized — in less than one paragraph or short speech — the old findings, to make it clear to everyone what information they were acting on.
By declining to have that discussion in public, council was saying to the voters, “Trust us.”
More than one member of this council has confided to me — off-the-record, of course — that they would like to see more innovation on housing or toppling of laws like Boulder’s occupant limits. They don’t pursue it because, they’ve said, it’s not worth the inevitable pushback.
This council (or at least some members of it) have stuck their necks out for housing before, particularly when vulnerable populations are involved. Palo Parkway, Attention Homes, 311 Mapleton: all were hotly contested by neighborhood groups. Council members who voted for them have been criticized by those within their own camps for their actions.
But those projects were similar in one key way: All were traditional dwellings by known, established entities. They’re the same types of developments Boulder has been fighting over for decades and will probably keep fighting over for decades more.
When it comes to innovation and breaking new ground, to confronting the unknown and pushing bravely forward, this council has done very little to inspire trust or confidence.
This council has responded to criticism of their approach to housing before, the charge being they are taking only very small steps to allay what is a massive and deepening crisis. To those critics they responded thusly: For the people who will eventually live there, every affordable unit is a win.
Using that same logic, every unit not pursued is a loss. A loss of a teacher, or a police officer, or an elder. A loss of someone who was once a Boulderite but can no longer afford to be.
By not fully embracing the possibility of tiny homes on just a sliver of that now $7-$11 million piece of land, by taking steps to prevent such a possibility, council sent a message loud and clear to the people who might have lived there: You’re not worth fighting for.
— Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle
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