Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019
Brian Dolan says he “always thought about running for council.” On some level, it makes sense: He’s lived in the same neighborhood — near North Boulder Park, where he meets me to talk about his campaign — since the age of 2. He lives in the same house he grew up in, taking over the mortgage when his father passed away from multiple sclerosis in 2006.
But for all his years in Boulder, Dolan knows next to nothing about the various issues plaguing the community.
He hasn’t followed city government at all; he can’t speak to any of the topics city council has been tackling in recent years. He admits that his “first conversation” about homelessness happened one day before our late-August interview and that he didn’t even know the city had instituted a camping ban.
Dolan does know about one thing: the city’s plan to redevelop the old hospital site on Alpine-Balsam and Broadway into housing and, possibly, city services. It’s this process that drew Dolan into the race without, he admits, a plan other than to make sure neighbors get more say over what eventually goes there.
“I don’t want to get into a deeper dive only because I understand that I’m not an expert on anything at this time,” he said. “I have a general idea that the community engagement is not where I’d like it to be, the process is not where I’d like it to be.
“I’d like to see a community-driven process to get to where we’re going.”
The four-year engagement process on Alpine-Balsam wasn’t community driven, Dolan said. Neighbors preferred a low-density option for the city-owned former hospital campus and 60-plus acres surrounding it. But council took that off the table in June, citing the need for more housing and the area’s proximity to shops, services and bus lines as ideal for supporting car-free living.
“It feels like there’s a preconceived idea and it just moves forward,” Dolan said. That’s true of other city decision-making as well, he believes.
“I’ve talked to many groups, and all those groups say we’re not being listened to. (From) everything I’m hearing, it doesn’t sound like (community engagement) is community-driven.”
Dolan is right that many Boulderites don’t feel represented by elected officials. Just 10% of respondents to the 2018 Community Survey felt city council considered their input. (It also indicated that homeowners are much more likely to interact with the government than renters: 32% of homeowners had attended a public meeting, whereas just 13% of renters had. And those who own their home are happier with the city overall.)
There is often concentrated pushback to individual development proposals as the city seeks to meet its housing goals. Palo Parkway, Attention Homes and 311 Mapleton were all met with organized opposition.
Dolan was an organizer of Think Boulder, a neighborhood group that coalesced against changes at Alpine-Balsam. He didn’t mention it in our mid-August interview; in response to an emailed follow-up question, Dolan wrote that “it was not germane” because he was “in the process of stepping down” from the group’s leadership.
But Dolan was still involved during survey and petition campaigns that used questionable tactics and misleading information to drive participation. Dolan himself, in a letter to the editor, made out-of-context claims that the city hasn’t promised affordable housing at the former hospital site — yes, no legally binding document has been signed, but affordable housing has long been a stated goal there and the city doesn’t typically require legally binding covenants on property it controls — and was party to another op-ed with similarly lacking-in-context statements. (Many here to choose from, but here’s two: The new, aggressive parking standards are, in fact, new and aggressive. What the op-ed fails to say is that they are the city’s own stated goals for parking as it seeks to encourage alternative modes of transit. And while traffic at two key intersections is expected to worsen, according to a study commissioned by the city, the number of car trips throughout the day and during morning and evening rush hours will be less than the number of trips generated while the hospital was operating at peak capacity.)
Dolan did not respond to emailed requests for comment about the group’s tactics in the days following our in-person interview. In a recent phone call, he defended Think Boulder’s actions. They were intended to involve the community, which worked: More than 1,000 people signed a petition put out by the group.
“We weren’t being heard; no one wanted to listen to what we wanted to say,” he said. “We just wanted the city to sit up and take notice.” (It did. Council abandoned planned land use changes in the area surrounding the former hospital site.)
Dolan will keep that same focus on council, he said. “My goal is to make sure the whole community is heard.”
Who he says he represents: “I want to be more of a centrist than anything else.”
Endorsed by: PLAN-Boulder County, Together4Boulder
Priorities: Managing ever-expanding growth and development; preserving and protecting open space; improving city engagement efforts; combating climate change
Relevant op-eds/letters: “Layers of bad decisions at Alpine-Balsam”
Why you might want to vote for him: Dolan’s knowledge of the issues, just 2.5 months ahead of the election, was woefully inadequate. He is at least attempting to learn, meeting with various officials. He even managed to teach me something: that no on-site affordable rentals have been built in the history of Boulder’s inclusionary housing program.
He also agreed to a follow-up interview in the face of harsh criticism of the group he helped organize, Think Boulder. Many politicians (and people) disengage when faced with critical coverage; that Dolan didn’t is a good sign.
His honesty about how little he knew was respectable as well; rather than attempting to B.S. an answer, he owned up to his lack of familiarity on the topics.
Why you might not want to vote for him: Whatever efforts Dolan has made in the past few months to educate himself, his complete and utter ignorance of nearly every major issue in Boulder — despite living here for four decades — is extremely troubling. It shows an extraordinary amount of privilege that Dolan could opt out of local happenings for so long.
Dolan blamed his non-answers on nerves. “I’ve worked on cars” — Dolan owns a business importing classic cars — “and I sold insurance. That was my first ever public interview. I’m learning. It’s still early.”
Since the interview, Dolan has appeared marginally more informed. It’s still unclear where Dolan might be getting information or if the sources are accurate and unbiased (not to mention diverse and representative of the city’s entire population).
On the issues he did speak to during our interview (and follow-up), he often referenced “people (he’s) talked to” or “things (he’s) heard” as sources of information. In subsequent public appearances, Dolan often read from notes and parroted party-line talking points. (Though to be fair, other candidates have as well.) Many things could explain both behaviors, but given Dolan’s baseline knowledge level, it is concerning, possibly demonstrating at best continued unfamiliarity with issues or, at worst, a lack of independent thought.
Outsiders are a welcome change in a town with entrenched politics and players. And new candidates can’t be expected to know everything; this council handles dozens of complex topics. But it’s a fair ask that the people who will soon be in charge of spending tax dollars and making laws be reasonably well-informed. There are numerous ways to learn about what council is up to: the local newspapers and radio station, even the city itself puts out fairly comprehensive summaries of most major issues and policies.
All of those sources have their own pros and cons. The best leaders seek out multiple, reliable sources of information and supplement it with on-the-ground feedback. There’s no evidence as of yet that Dolan has or will use that approach.
Dolan on the issues
Housing: Dolan advocated for raising the cash-in-lieu fee that developers can pay to opt out of including affordable housing on-site at their projects.
He also thinks the city should aim for all new housing to be subsidized, to be paid for with an affordable housing tax.
“Development is not the only actual way to get affordable housing,” he said. “It’s the easiest way, but it’s not the only way.”
Dolan gives conflicting answers on the role density should play in Boulder’s housing policies.
“I know that adding density in dense places makes sense,” he said. “It’s something that moves the scale. It’s something that needs to be studied, and people are studying it, so I think we need to look at that as a potential.”
Where, exactly, density makes sense in Boulder, Dolan couldn’t say: “I’m still trying to get to that understanding.”
Homelessness: Dolan admitted that “literally the first conversation I had” about homelessness was the night before our interview. He wasn’t aware there was a camping ban or what sort of services the city offered. He did acknowledge the need to balance services for unhoused residents with the comfort and safety of housed residents.
In a follow-up interview, Dolan focused on changes to the county’s needle exchange program to reduce the risk to public safety. He also praised coordinated-entry as “a great approach.”
CU South/flood mitigation: In his interview, Dolan didn’t talk much about the specifics of the process. He had a general sense that progress was slow because “not everyone’s on the same page.”
“From the conversations I’ve had with people who’ve been involved in the process, all the right people haven’t always been involved in the room at the right time so they can drive the conversation forward.”
His two priorities would be protecting people through flood mitigation and protecting the wetlands, Dolan said.
At a PLAN-hosted forum (where he read his answer from notes), Dolan suggested that the city should abandon flood mitigation at the site altogether if it can’t get CU to agree to a land swap, possibly of Flatirons Golf Course.
“No one’s willing to give except for the city of Boulder. The current proposal for 80 acres doesn’t do enough for flood mitigation.”
Annexation talks should be put “on hold,” he said: “Those conversations shouldn’t even be happening.” CU should build somewhere else with “better transportation.”
“Get them out of that parcel. We need to back up. Back out of this land parcel and move forward.”
Police oversight: Dolan was aware of the incident in which an unarmed black Naropa student was confronted by armed officers, and he was vaguely aware of the formation of the task force. Other than that, he said, “I haven’t looked at this issue, to be honest with you,” but generally, “having oversight is important. I think there needs to be checks and balances.”
Attended March for Police Oversight: No
Attended city council listening session on racism: No
Budget: “I don’t think I’ve looked at the budget a single minute,” Dolan said during our interview. “I don’t know what the city budget looks like.”
(He has since attended a city information session on the budget.)
Some tidbits of Dolan’s approach have since been revealed at public events. At a forum hosted by the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, Dolan said he supported a sales tax extension to fund open space. Rather than 20 years, he would like to see the tax extended in perpetuity.
He has stated several times that new development needs to “pay its own way” via increased or new impact fees. (All except the affordable housing commercial linkage fee are at their legal maximum.)
Muni: This was one issue Dolan spoke more comfortably on during our interview. He is pro-muni or at least pro letting the voters decide.
“We’ve put ourself in a situation where I think we need to see what the numbers look like,” he said. “I think we need to have clean energy and control of that energy and where it comes from.”
Lethal control of prairie dogs: “I don’t know a lot about it,” Dolan said during his interview. He would defer to the “experts.”
At a PLAN-hosted forum, Dolan said he would support lethal control as “the last available option.”
Hill hotel: “I don’t know a lot more about the Hill hotel other than there’s a lot of pushback around the whole area,” Dolan said during our interview.
In a follow-up interview, his support for the project was lukewarm. He questioned whether the project would bring revitalization to the area.
“I’m not 100% sure we need a hotel, but if that’s the goal and the community is behind it,” it’s fine, Dolan said. “We need to look at the impacts it’s going to have on traffic and small business.”
Occupancy limits: Dolan had some awareness of the city’s limits on unrelated persons living together: “It was a rule when I was growing up here it could be you and two buddies living in a place, but if it was you and three buddies, you’d be in trouble.” (That is essentially accurate; low-density neighborhoods like the one Dolan grew up in have a three-unrelated-people limit, while the Hill has a four-unrelated-people limit.)
Dolan didn’t have a position on whether or not these should be changed: “I haven’t formulated a thought on it, to be honest with you.”
In a follow-up interview, Dolan said he was not in favor of changing the occupancy limits.
“Our houses are set up to hold a certain amount of people,” he said, referencing sewage systems and pipe widths. “I know they’re meant for more than three (people), but it can overwhelm the neighborhoods with parking and congestion.”
Council’s use of moratoria: “It’s an effective tool,” Dolan said, “but it shouldn’t be used automatically for everything.” However, he supports the three moratoria currently in place in Boulder.
Opportunity zone moratorium: “There is a lot of low- and middle-income housing in the area. I want to ensure that doesn’t get destroyed or taken away.”
Dolan believes the moratorium gives Boulder time to better understand how to prevent the loss of affordable housing and encourage investment in building more.
Height limit: “I’m for as well, just because I think we need to make a better plan of what we want our city to look like,” Dolan said. “I feel like development and plans get pushed forward without having full input from all the stakeholders. We don’t need to keep it (permanently), but it’s a good time to take a step back and make sure everybody is being heard.”
Neighborhood input on development: Immediate neighbors of a project shouldn’t be “the only people who have a say,” Dolan said, but they should get “a little bit more of a say” than the community as a whole.
“This affects their daily life,” he said.
Dolan is intensely critical of the city’s engagement process. He’s among the advocates for increased use of statistically valid surveys and disputes the city’s information about how much they cost to conduct ($17,000-$24,000 on average for a single-issue survey, according to engagement manager Sarah Huntley).
“I’ve heard that” figure from the city, Dolan said, “but just from local groups I’ve heard, it doesn’t cost near that.”
At a PLAN-hosted forum, Dolan said residents themselves should be the ones who determine the future of their neighborhoods via subcommunity planning processes.
“I think you make area residents the experts who write these plans. They know what can fit in there, what the current environment is. You don’t have to go in front of council (or) planning board.”
Author’s note: This article has been updated to clarify how Dolan acquired his house. It may be updated with additional or clarifying information.
— Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle. Edited by Deanna Hardies.
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