Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019 (Updated Sunday, Sept. 1)
The image is a pretty standard one, an aerial view of one of Boulder’s better-known buildings: the former Boulder Community Health hospital along Broadway between Alpine and Balsam. The site has been the subject of much interest, agita and fear since the city bought it in 2015 for $40 million, in part to control future redevelopment.
But then, the image changes. Rising from the ground, silently, gray, windowless buildings shoot toward the heavens — four, maybe five stories tall, impenetrable blocks of concrete looming over the landscape. They look most like a prison, or perhaps a warehouse.
The rendering can be found on the website of Think Boulder, a neighborhood group opposed to the city’s plan to rezone the roughly 70-acre area surrounding the hospital as part of an Area Plan implementation process. A static image of the gray monoliths exists, too, on paper flyers distributed throughout the city by Think Boulder, along with a call to action: “Reject this kind of ultra-high density,” it reads, warning of 640 new apartments and five-story buildings. The flyer encourages recipients to sign Think Boulder’s petition, email city council and show up at Tuesday’s public hearing.
Such formless buildings stand in sharp contrast to the actual types of housing and offices being proposed under the Alpine-Balsam Area Plan being considered for adoption by city council on Oct. 1. The suggested housing for the BCH site includes two- and three-story apartments and townhomes, with four-story apartments or county offices along Alpine — not five, as suggested by the flyer. Buildings will have “generous” setbacks. Pitched roofs are mentioned no fewer than five times in the draft plan; denser dwellings would be required to have “substantial” and “meaningful” open space, the plan states. A strip of land on the north side of the site along Balsam will be used for flood conveyance and provide “a new naturalized greenway.”
There are no apartments being proposed for construction at Community Plaza or Ideal Market either, a claim that — while rooted in fact — is presented without context. A change in land use is being suggested that would allow mixed-use redevelopment, such as apartments above the shops, if any proposals were to come forward in the future.
But such development is allowed under current land use and zoning, staff, council and the property owner testified Tuesday night. A staff, in notes to council, wrote that both centers are likely candidates for landmark designation to preserve the iconic facades.
“If site review is required for properties with an eligible building(s) in the planning area,” the draft area plan reads, “staff would likely recommend landmark designation applications be submitted as a condition of site review.”
About 800 flyers were distributed throughout the area, said Kathleen Hancock, one of the organizers of Think Boulder; a member used her own money to print them, and volunteers distributed them. Hancock paid for the website hosting herself; it was designed by a volunteer. The only fundraising the group has done was roughly $750 donated by some 100-plus members of the group, “a couple hundred dollars” of which was paid to a volunteer who designed the group’s survey, conducted earlier this summer. The rest went for a color flyer campaign to promote the survey; Boulder Beat has not viewed copies of those materials.
Hancock defended the group’s messaging in an interview following the publication of this article. The gray buildings used in the flyer and website are modeled after the graphics city staff themselves used in very early stages of the planning process, she said. Likewise, all the claims made on ThinkBoulder.org or its associated materials represented proposals that “were on the table … at certain points” in the process.
She also defended the website’s “contact” form, which doubled as a petition sign-up form. The only way to fill out the form and reach group organizers — contact information was not provided — without signing the petition was to “change” the subject line from the suggested, “I support this petition” to something else reflecting non-support, Hancock said.
Persons who used the form in such a way — for contact, not for petition-signing — were not scrubbed from the list, Hancock confirmed. She claimed only “one person” used the form to express discontent.
“I don’t think anybody else, once they saw this was a petition, and that’s what this would be signing,” filled it out, Hancock said.
The form was repurposed from its original use as “a straight-up contact form” for those wishing to become Think Boulder members. Rather than asking to sign the petition, “it said, ‘If you want to join our group, sign here.'” Hancock lacked the technical expertise to create a new contact form created by the web designer, she said.
“I try to only contact him if I have an urgent issue. I know enough to go in and change wording and add some pictures and update facts. To create a whole new form would be beyond my abilities.”
Also left in the final tally — 1,086 signatures, as of Saturday afternoon — were signees from outside Boulder. According to Hancock, 18 signatories reside outside Boulder: Denver (2), Englewood (1), Erie (1), Jamestown (1), Longmont (7), Louisville (2), Loveland (1), and Niwot (3). Out-of-town signatures were broken out by percentage in the report given to city council.
Though Hancock admitted that the image and claims were “maybe … intending to be provocative,” the sheer number of signatures in a week’s time, plus the results of the 533-person survey Think Boulder conducted, show that community concern over the redevelopment is real and far-reaching.
“Did some people sign because they were scared of five-story blocks? That certainly is possible, but I would also say they could read directly what we were advocating.”
Such tactics were also necessary, Hancock said, because city staff didn’t provide good information. A “bird’s-eye” 3D image of proposed housing at the hospital site was requested by neighbors but not provided, for instance, leading to the creation of the gray building-GIF.
While staff did a “pretty good job” with the engagement process, she said, “there were lots of places they could have done better.”
There was no low-density option for residents to vote on, despite that being the overwhelming preference. Staff showed a clear “high-density bias” when presenting neighborhood feedback to council. Neighbors feel their input was not adequately or accurately presented.
“They were not honest brokers,” Hancock said. “We get so much more attention than the city does in part because we hand out flyers, we’re on the ground giving people flyers so we know what’s happening.”
That is reflected in the Think Boulder survey results. The majority of respondents said their main source of information on Alpine-Balsam was neighbors. While this could bolster Hancock’s argument that staff’s efforts were inadequate, it also could help explain the numerous residents who spoke before city council Tuesday and repeated inaccurate claims.
Hancock said she corrects the record online when she sees information that is incorrect or lacking context, such as a popular Next Door post that claims the city is planning to “bulldoze” Ideal Market. (That emanated from from a non-Think Boulder affiliated group, Hancock said.) In another show of good faith, Think Bolder removed the image of the gray, block buildings from its website following the publication of this article, though it was used repeatedly in presentations to council Tuesday.
She thinks the group deserves credit for bringing so many residents into the process through its efforts. Tuesday’s hearing was at capacity; about one-half to two-thirds of public speakers were in opposition to the city’s plans. Hancock put out a meeting reminder Monday afternoon via email, a copy of which was forwarded to Boulder Beat, imploring recipients to sign Think Boulder’s petition and attend Tuesday’s meeting.
“Get two more people to sign by TUESDAY 3:00. Let’s try to beat 1,000. We especially need people outside the Newlands area.
Attend City Council’s Tuesday meeting, TOMORROW. City Council Chambers, 1777 Broadway. We now recommend arriving no later than 5:45 PM. To guarantee a seat, come at 5:00. Speakers should sign up as close to 5:00 as possible. Bring snacks, games, a book. Our event is scheduled for 7:40, beginning with the City’s presentation. We will have signs saying “2-3 Stories + Affordable Housing.”
Brian Dolan, a candidate for Boulder City council, has also served as a leader of Think Boulder. Dolan did not mention the affiliation during an interview for his campaign with Boulder Beat. In response to an emailed followup question about his involvement and some of the claims made by the group, he wrote that “it was not germane” to his candidacy because he is “in the process of stepping down from the group.”
Dolan did not respond to multiple subsequent requests for comment.
In the interview for his city council run, Dolan said neighbors feel their feedback has not been considered in staff’s engagement reports to council. He did not attend every event, but heard from others who did.
“When you talk to someone whose been in every group and has been through that whole engagement process,” Dolan said, “and they saw what people said, and they saw what came out on the other side” it doesn’t match.
The report to council from staff is that the community has mixed feelings about density and development in the Alpine-Balsam area, Boulder’s engagement manager Sarah Huntley said. That reflects the wide variety of opinions shared throughout the four years of public engagement on the issue, which started with the Vision Plan (a step that precedes an area plan) and drew 600 participants. The Area Plan engagement has included 20 kickoff events and small workshops, four open houses, two walking tours, online surveys and hundreds of written comments.
“We’ve gone out, we’ve talked to a lot of people, we’ve tried really hard to engage a broad (segment) of the community,” Huntley said. “Of course neighbors are part of that.” But the city also has to consider “who are the people who might want to be part of that community who are not currently there.“
There’s a reason Think Boulder isn’t seeing the option it wants — retention of current land use and zoning, preserving low density — among the public engagement options: City council nixed that in early June, arguing that more housing is needed in the area.
Huntley contends that neighborhood concern has also resulted in a “scaling back” of “some of the original talk of how dense this area would be.”
She also spoke to requests for a statistically valid survey, which Dolan and others have advocated for. Their pleas reached city council members: Mirabai Nagle, who lauded the number of signatures Think Boulder’s petition was able to get in contrast with the 100 responses to an online Be Heard Boulder Survey.
A statistically valid survey was never part of the engagement plan, Huntley said. “It’s not very cost effective to do a statistically valid survey for every decision we’re going to make.”
They cost, on average, $17,000 to $24,000 for single-topic questionnaires. More complex issues demand higher prices: The biannual community survey, for instance, was commissioned for $40,000, according to Huntley.
In all, community engagement for Alpine-Balsam cost $46,000, according to city spokeswoman Meghan Wilson, not including staff time. “This includes contractor support, venue charges, miscellaneous supplies for engagement events.” Roughly 950 people participated, according to a summary of efforts. (That count does not estimate the number of unique engagements.)
“One of the benefits of doing community engagement that’s not a survey is you can provide a lot more education and context,” Huntley said. “You’re bringing those of different viewpoints into a room; they have to listen to one another. Just doing a phone survey or paper survey doesn’t have that added benefit.”
Aside from ballot initiatives, it’s unlikely council would rely on a single statistically valid survey to make decisions, Huntley said. That’s why the engagement process uses a variety of means and methods to garner feedback.
“Different people with different perspectives are going to plug in to different techniques and tactics,” she said. “I would never recommend (using) one technique, even a statistically valid one. We’d never pretend a dot-voting exercise or BeHeard (questionnaire) is the be-all, end-all decision maker. It’s simply one way of hearing people’s fears and concerns and hopes.
“If you have a small percentage (of people) who want one thing over the other, it’s still council’s responsibility to make decision for the community as a whole.”
While it’s technically true that proposed land use changes in the 70-acre Alpine-Balsam area could result in up to 640 new units, as Think Boulder’s flyer claims, that would be the possible maximum redevelopment potential over time, if every existing lot were redeveloped.
The number is “very, very assumption based — and they are very broad assumptions,” said senior planner Jean Gatza, and will be further revised over time. Already, she said, they have been revised downward.
Gatza on Tuesday night, in response to a council question, explained how area plans are still guiding redevelopment in areas. North Boulder’s plan, adopted 20 years ago, is still not fully built out. Ditto for Boulder Junction (then called Transit Village) adopted in 2007. Further, as part of the area plan process, council can choose to implement a timeline for desired development.
“There’s a ton of misinformation out there,” Gatza said, “that I have to say is weighing heavily” on staff.
Today, there are roughly 400 housing units and a population of 812 people in the Alpine-Balsam planning area, a geographic area that runs along Broadway from roughly Balsam Avenue to North Street and 9th to 13th Streets east-west. Residential densities range from very low (1-6 dwelling units per acre) to very high (79 dwelling units per acre).
The area used to be zoned for higher density, but zoning was changed in the ’90s to accommodate commercial development. There are roughly 2,000 jobs in the area today; 62% of total developed square footage is non-residential, while 38% is residential.
“In 1997, the underlying zoning district in the southwest corner of the planning area was changed from High Density Residential (HZE) to Mixed Density Residential (MXR-E), or the precursor to today’s Residential Mixed-Use (RMX-1) zoning district to align with the comprehensive plan’s land use designation. The results of the zone change can be seen in the office and retail presence in the area. An unintended consequence of the change is having rendered several existing multifamily apartment complexes and condominium buildings nonconforming as to dwelling units per acre. Given that these properties are now nonconforming as to dwelling units per acre, the structures cannot be rebuilt to the same density. Overtime, as people seek to invest in maintenance and upgrade structures, it may be more difficult to maintain the current number of units, which in turn may affect housing affordability.”
Source: Alpine-Balsam existing conditions report
But the planning area is also surrounded by hundreds of single-family homes, from whence comes the majority of opposition to increased density, traffic and parking. Think Boulder claims around these issues hew more closely to the truth but still leave out crucial context.
The city does plan to use parking minimums that are lower than current city averages: .8 to .9 spaces per housing unit, compared to the citywide average of 1.2 spaces per unit. (Boulder Junction and downtown average 1 space per housing unit.) But the new standards are in line with the Transportation Master Plan goals for encouraging alternative transportation and reducing parking and car travel in order to meet climate goals.
A traffic study has found that, on the BCH site, daily vehicle trips under the proposed land use changes will be less than half what the hospital generated during its heyday. Estimated traffic counts are actually lower the more housing that is included: city and county offices will bring more cars to the area, a traffic impact study found.
Option 1A (Max. Office) 2,904 daily weekday trips; 324 morning rush hour trips; 330 evening rush hour trips
Option 1B (Max. Residential) 2,580 daily weekday trips; 252 morning rush hour trips; 279 evening rush hour trips
Option 2A (Max. Office + Area Development) 4,780 daily weekday trips; 455 morning rush hour trips; 494 evening rush hour trips
Option 2B (Max. Residential + Area Development) 4,456 daily weekday trips; 383 morning rush hour trips; 443 evening rush hour trips
“For comparison, it is estimated that the historic hospital site use generated significantly more traffic (approx. 8,500 vehicle trips per day) than any of the land uses anticipated on the Alpine Balsam site and in the surrounding area plan area.”
But the changes will increase traffic at two key intersections, the report found: Alpine and 9th and Broadway and Balsam. Already, neighbors complain of the long lines of traffic there in the evenings. Staff is recommending adding and extending turn lanes to accommodate the increased vehicles.
Council also debated Wednesday the possible inclusion of Boulder County offices at the BCH site. The county needs at least 120,000 square feet of space to relocate its staff from Broadway and Iris. Accommodating them will result in a loss of 90 housing units; the county has offered land at Broadway and Iris for additional housing. Between 50 and 240 units could be built there without disrupting the ballfields, an analysis found.
One council member, Bob Yates, has yet to be convinced that it makes sense for city offices to go there, though that has been one of the stated purposes for buying the hospital property. The city needs to relocate staff from at least two buildings in the high hazard flood zone and would like to consolidate one other building that Boulder pays roughly $1 million per year to lease.
Staff has argued that renovation of an existing building on the campus — for a hefty $58 million — would pay for itself in 40-50 years. Yates has requested additional information for a fuller look at the project’s financials.
Yates on Tuesday also addressed some of the claims being made by Think Boulder. In response to a publicly available email sent by Boulder Beat to members of council including some of the group’s materials, Yates wrote that he sent “more than 300 separate emails to residents on Sunday (it took me nine hours) and probably a 100 more between yesterday and so far today.”
“Folks seem to be appreciative of receiving the facts,” he wrote. “So far, no one has argued with me, especially when they see the actual staff plan.”
But the councilman said he likely wouldn’t reference the misinformation directly from the dais, referring to the campaign as “rumors.”
“It makes me a bit uncomfortable to argue with or admonish someone from the dais because of the very apparent and real power imbalance,” Yates wrote. “Folks have a first amendment right to say what they want, even if it’s not true. I feel that my job is to provide them with the facts and tell them what I think. I don’t think that extends to telling them that they’re wrong.”
Some council members — notably Sam Weaver and Mayor Suzanne Jones — took pains to clarify the facts on Tuesday for the audience, including the planning timeline, number of units and proposed heights. But no council members critiqued the claims being made; indeed, some praised Think Boulder’s efforts.
Cindy Carlisle, who did not attend the meeting, in an email wrote that she supported forming a working group to ensure a “full-on” public engagement process.
“In just these few short months, groups like Think Boulder have created great citywide interest and it seems now is the time to listen to all the voices from them, Save Boulder, and others who have different/similar views,” Carlisle wrote. “I stand with those community members who ask us to pause, listen, and engage in a meaningful public process for the outcome of the area.”
Councilman Aaron Brockett, from the dais, thanked Hancock for Think Boulder’s “thoughtful engagement.”
In a follow-up exchange on Twitter, after viewing copies of the flyers distributed by Think Boulder and image posted on its website — both of which had been emailed to council earlier in the day, but Brockett said he had not seen, though the image of the gray buildings was used frequently in speaker presentations Tuesday night — Brockett backed off his position.
“That image definitely doesn’t represent the area plan we’re considering,” he wrote, “and doesn’t constitute constructive engagement in my opinion.”
Author’s note: This article has been updated with comments from Kathleen Hancock, from Tuesday’s meeting and to reflect the fact that, under current zoning, housing could be built at the Ideal Market and Community Plaza shopping centers.