Boulder-based green energy group makes case for density to meet city’s climate goals

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Saturday, August 10, 2019

A local nonprofit focused on energy efficiency has released a comprehensive report calling for increased density in Boulder. Through exhaustive use of data, the 50-page “Growing Greener: The Environmental Benefits of a Compact and Connected Boulder” makes the case that the city cannot meet its climate goals without housing more people and lambasts the city’s anti-growth policies for exporting its environmental impacts into neighboring communities — despite Boulder’s reputation as a leader in sustainability.

The report’s authors praise Boulder’s many efforts to preserve and protect the environment, from its open space program to implementation of the Blue Line and height limits. But, they write, “Boulder’s positive contributions to the environment are undermined by housing policies that contribute to regional sprawl and increase global warming pollution.”

“These policies are now making it harder for Boulder to address climate change by fueling driving and traffic, challenging Boulder’s status as a beacon of sustainability. … By limiting new housing opportunities in Boulder, city policies have driven up the cost of housing, forcing new growth to happen in nearby towns and counties, many of them with less environmentally sound policies than Boulder.”

The good news, authors say, is that those same growth policies will help mitigate the impacts of density, from Boulder’s focus on maintaining an urban tree canopy to its embrace of green stormwater infrastructure and its existing infrastructure supporting walking, biking and transit.

Growing Greener” was produced by Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), a Boulder-based nonprofit promoting “greater energy efficiency and clean transportation” in six states (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming). Boulder has tapped SWEEP for sustainability work before, including a 2015 assessment on electric vehicle adoption still being used today.  Former Boulder mayor and Boulder County commissioner Will Toor served as SWEEP executive director from 2013 to 2019 before taking a job in the Polis administration as head of the Colorado Energy Office.

Denver’s Frontier Group and CoPIRG Foundation co-authored the report. Toor helped to review it, as did Chris Hagelin, senior transportation planner at the City of Boulder; Michael Leccesse, executive director at Urban Land Institute Colorado; and John Tayer, president and CEO at Boulder Chamber.

The authors use hundreds of sources and data points — the footnotes alone run from pages 37 to 50 —  to make the the case for density, referred to in the report as “compact development.” Clustering housing along transit corridors, jobs and shops can reduce emissions, improve air and water quality, lower water consumption and reduce flood risks, the report claims.

“A wealth of evidence from dozens of studies by academics, government agencies and nonprofit organizations shows that compact development has less overall environmental impact than low-density development,” it reads. 

But the primary benefit of putting more people in housing near jobs and services, to SWEEP and CoPIRG, is that it reduces driving. Both organizations have done extensive work on transportation issues.

Today, drivers in the Boulder Valley average 2.49 million VMT per day, according to notes given to council for a July 9 climate goals update. The city of Boulder hopes to reduce that to 1.59 million VMT by 2050. Though more total miles are being driven than in 2005 (2.46 million, the baseline for reductions) per person VMT has decreased 14% since that time.

Promoting alternative modes of transportation — walking, biking, buses — is something Boulder does extremely well, said Matt Frommer, a SWEEP senior transportation associate and a report co-author.

“We have a world-class bus system” more typical of larger metropolises, Frommer said, with good access and frequent intervals. “We’re just not putting enough people on (buses) because we don’t have the density to support it.”

Boulder in 2015 spent $32 million for RTD’s base level of bus service of 13 local routes. “The local bus service has plenty of capacity,” the report reads, citing a 2013 State of the System Report, “but in many neighborhoods, ridership is constrained by lack of density.”

The Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan — basically Boulder’s planning bible — has a few policies explicitly related to encouraging higher-density development near transit. But the real-world conversation tying housing, transportation and land use has been slow and halting. The Transportation Advisory Board is actually forbidden, via its charter, from discussing land use “unless its opinion is requested by the city council.”

“Increasingly, it’s hard to advocate for transportation if you’re not looking at land use and zoning,” said Danny Katz, CoPIRG’s director and co-author of the report. Making meaningful reductions in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is “not just (about) running more Flatiron Flyers.”

Growing Greener” zeroed in on Boulder’s 63,900 daily in-commuters who drive an average 29 miles to and from work in the city — 77% of them alone, according to the 2017 Boulder Valley Survey for Transportation. Boulder residents drive an average of 12.8 miles per day, according to data provided by Chris Hagelin, Senior Transportation Planner.

While Boulder’s per-capita VMT has declined in recent years, in-commuters are driving from further away: the average per-commuter VMT has increased 5% since 2008, Hagelin told the report’s authors.

Broomfield sent 4,000 more residents to jobs in Boulder in 2015 than a decade previously; Erie sent 1,100 more people commuting to Boulder for work over the same time. Hundreds more people drove in from Frederick, Firestone, Windsor and Commerce City, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data. Of jobs based in Boulder held by non-residents, the majority (55%) are held by someone who lives in another county: Denver, Broomfield, Adams, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Larimer, Weld, Douglas and El Paso counties, according to the 2016 Boulder County Intercounty Commute Analysis.

These in-commuters drive a collective 245 million miles more than if they lived in Boulder, the author’s conclude, contributing roughly 99,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

Forcing people to live in far-flung, sprawling communities also contributes to the loss of undeveloped land. Colorado, in the grips of a population boom, loses 250,000 acres of rural, developable land each year, the authors claim, citing a 2018 work by Lisa Benton-Short, John Rennie Short and Chris Mayda, Regional Geography of the United States and Canada: Toward a Sustainable Future.

Between 2005 and 2015, Colorado lost roughly .5% of its developable land, according to the authors’ analysis of Disappearing West, a project from the Center for American Progress. The nine counties who send in-commuters to Boulder lost between 1% and 10% of developable land during that decade, with Denver (8.5%) and Broomfield (10%) at the top.

“We’re just growing and growing because we’re sprawling,” Frommer said. “One of the benefits of (developing in already-developed areas) is that you’re slowing development on undeveloped land. If you love the wilderness, leave it wild.”

The author’s draw a straight connection between land loss and Boulder’s housing policies, noting that Broomfield County also sent more new in-commuters to Boulder between 2005 and 2015. But correlation does not necessarily equal causation: Broomfield also experienced its own employment boom, adding more jobs than Boulder, Denver, Weld or Larimer counties between 2007 and 2015, the Daily Camera reported in 2018.

Despite its commitment to reducing its own emissions, Boulder is inadvertently exacerbating emissions overall with its restrictive policies, the report argues. Colorado’s growing population has to live somewhere; by keeping people out of a city with smart environmental policies, their per capita carbon footprints — and therefore total global emissions — are greater.

Even without more density, Boulder as it exists today is greener than its neighbors. In 2017, per capita emissions were 14 metric tons of CO2, compared to 17 for Colorado as a whole. According to Growing Greener, which used data from The Center for Neighborhood Technology, other cities and towns in Boulder County have 20% higher per capita emissions than Boulder based on vehicle use alone.

“Vehicle-related emissions per household are lower in Boulder than in any other community in the region except for Denver,” the report reads, “thanks to Boulder’s density and efforts to reduce vehicle travel.”

Under current zoning, Boulder could house 19,270 more people: little less than a third of current in-commuters. Doing so would result in 81 million fewer miles being driven each year, according to the report, saving 33,000 metric tons of CO2 annually and 305,000 metric tons by 2050 — 10.8% of the way to the city’s 2050 goal for reducing transportation emissions.

Increased density would help Boulderites travel more greenly, too. Occupants of single-family homes are more likely to drive alone to work than residents of multi-family dwellings, according to a report commissioned by Boulder’s transportation department and released early this year, Modal Shift in the Boulder Valley, 1990-2018.

The “tipping point” for a transition away from driving as the primary means of travel is 7-8 dwelling units per acre, Katz said. Various studies cited in the report put the figure from 7-10 dwelling units per acre as point where dependence on cars begins to wane.

The vast majority of Boulder by land area allows five or fewer dwelling units per acre. Even Boulder’s most populous areas — North Boulder, South Boulder, Central Boulder, Gunbarrel and Southeast Boulder, which hold 80% of the city’s population — mostly fall below the threshold considered necessary to support a shift away from cars.

Central Boulder: 29,335 population, 13,312 dwelling units, 8.87 dwelling units per acre

South Boulder: 15,381 pop., 7,312 DUs, 6.52 DU per acre

Southeast Boulder: 22,739 pop., 9,385 DUs, 6.93 DU per acre

North Boulder: 12,291 pop., 5,847 DUs, 5.96 DU per acre

Gunbarrel: 10,731 pop., 5,110 DUs, 6.46 DU per acre

Source: Boulder Growing Greener, using BVCP data

To reach seven dwelling units per acres in those five areas, 15-30% more housing units would be needed. Density should be higher near transit stops and neighborhood centers with jobs and retail, studies suggest: 10-20 dwelling units per acre at minimum.

Boulder already has some neighborhoods that are examples of what this type of density would look like, Katz and Frommer said. The two gave a brief presentation Thursday morning at Boulder Housing Partner’s Red Oak Park near Valmont and Folsom. With a mix of single-family homes, duplexes and triplexes and tree-lined streets, Red Oak averages 12 dwelling units per acre.

“We’re not saying (do) skyscrapers and hyper-density,” Frommer said. “Just build compactly in places that make sense. Build more medium- and high-density (housing) where it already exists, and in low-density areas, give homeowners more options than just single-family homes.”

The report makes recommendations for Boulder to increase density without increasing traffic, including: Rezoning for density, particularly along transit corridors and near commercial centers;  instituting density minimums, rather than maximums; further increasing allowances of accessory dwelling units (ADUs); increasing occupancy limits or doing away with them altogether; implementing parking maximums rather than minimums; ending the temporary height moratorium to allow taller buildings in “key locations” such as transit corridors and east of Folsom; exempt certain areas from Boulder’s 1% yearly growth cap; invest in and encourage regional transit; expand EcoPass, parking cash-outs, car-share and bikeshare programs.

Boulder has been working on many of the issues Growing Greener identifies for decades, spokeswoman Meghan Wilson said in the city’s written, one-page response to the report.

“Since 1977, the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan has been anchored on having compact development by concentrating urban development in the city and preserving rural lands outside of the city,” Wilson wrote. “A diversity of housing types and affordability levels continues to be a core value of the city.”

Wilson listed several council priorities that touch on density, including its expansion of ADUs last year, planning for Alpine-Balsam,  re-evaluating large homes and large lots (though council declined to cap house size) and declaring a climate emergency — though she failed to note that, during the July 9 council discussion of climate goals, land use was not mentioned.

City staff  “are in the process of reviewing (the report) and analyzing its specific recommendations,” Wilson wrote. Updates to the city’s climate and transportation plans and the BVCP “will continue to integrate the interconnection between equity, development, transportation and climate action, and we will encourage all community members to participate in these efforts.”

Boulder has long had goals related to increasing density, Katz and Frommer concurred — but they have stayed largely on paper, undermined by other policies and decisions. A section of the report was dedicated to highlighting the ways housing is hindered.

For example, more than half of residential land allows only single-family homes, and zoning incentivizes fewer, larger houses rather than more, smaller ones. “Boulder requires each housing unit to be built on a lot of a certain size with a certain amount of open space,” the report reads. “Because these requirements apply to each housing unit, rather than the floor area of the building, multi-unit buildings require larger lot sizes and more open space than single-family homes.”

The proof is in the numbers, Katz and Frommer said. Boulder’s yearly annual growth cap — set at 2% in 1976 and revised down to 1% in the ’80s — has “never been reached.”

The city’s actual growth rate is less than 0.5% per year, according to Census data. Boulder’s population grew by 8.3% between 2000 and 2017 — less than half the rate of Boulder County as a whole, and lower than any county municipality except for Jamestown. Population actually declined by 0.5% in 2018.

With multiple communities along the Front Range considering similar caps, and six seats up for grabs on Boulder’s city council, it’s never been more important to carefully analyze the impacts of such measures, the authors said.

“Every community should look at the recommendations in this report,” Katz said. “There are lessons here for everywhere.” 

In response to questions from reporters, Frommer admitted the timing of the report’s release was somewhat motivated by the upcoming election. But Katz insisted the evidence speaks for itself and said critics should “read the whole report.”

“Read all the different research that we analyzed,” he said. “We looked at all the studies. It’s pretty compelling that compact development has benefits.”

Compact development isn’t the only answer, he added: “We can’t only use technocratic solutions.” For instance, increased vehicle electrification will be needed.

But all Boulder’s goals — 15-minute neighborhoods, reducing vehicle miles traveled, curbing emissions — “it’s going to be difficult to get there” without density, Katz said.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle


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