Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019 (Updated Oct. 13, 2019)
Mark McIntyre has a vision for Boulder. A walkable, bikeable city where people drive only if they have to, but bikes, buses and pedestrians are king. A city where people live in smaller, more energy-efficient housing close to grocery stores, restaurants and workplaces. A city with lots of publicly shared areas and open space that is open to all, with few restrictions.
On the surface, it’s not that radical. It’s reflective of Boulder’s own stated goals on transit-oriented development and 15-minute neighborhoods. But McIntyre sees disparities between the on-paper vision and real-life actions of elected officials.
“Boulder sets goals like crazy; we have all these fantastic goals,” he said. “And yet when you look at how we spend our money, many times it’s actually counter” to what we’re trying to achieve.
“I want us to take action on our goals. All our goals.”
If it sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard it before: McIntyre ran for council in 2017 on many of the same premises. He received 10,373 votes, the eighth most of that 14-candidate election and, as he points out, more than councilman Aaron Brockett won his seat with in 2015.
“It wasn’t a resounding no,” McIntyre said.
He doesn’t necessarily believe that more people will be more receptive to his ideas this time around, although the conversation nationally over compact, urban development has amplified recently. His argument is a moral one.
“We have a housing crisis,” McIntyre said. “We have a climate crisis. Manmade greenhouse gases are our root cause of this. What does telling people to go away and drive in do about that? Absolutely nothing. It makes it worse.”
Both of those crises have only worsened in the two years since the last election. Boulder median home prices climbed from $855,000 at the end of 2017 to an even more unattainable $925,000 in mid-2019. The fall 2018 U.N. climate report warned that unprecedented changes would need to be made within a decade to avert global disaster.
And yet, McIntyre said, despite our professed values, nothing has changed in a major way, locally or nationally.
“Right now, it’s hard to make real progress on a national level. We’re really at this stagnant, stasis point. City council, the city of Boulder, can really make real changes.”
Boulder has added hundreds of units of affordable housing in the past two years, much of it close to transit, and is continuing to advance its goals in that area with development at 30th and Pearl. The city has also kept its focus on climate change and alternative modes of travel, with recent updates to the Transportation Master Plan and the Climate Action Strategy. And Boulder met its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction goals three years early.
McIntyre still sees huge gaps in city policy that he believes demonstrate a lackluster commitment to change. The Transportation Advisory Board, of which McIntyre is a member, is prohibited via its charter from discussing land use in recommendations to city council, for instance, as is the Environmental Advisory Board.
“How do we weigh in on this transportation issue and our goals and not weigh in on land use issues?” McIntyre said. “Land use, housing, the environment — It’s all woven together. You cannot put these things in silos. You can’t promote sprawl and giant single-family estate residences and yet have carbon-free transportation and all this.
“Car-based neighborhoods don’t work (for the planet) now and are really going to suck in the future.”
The question of how Boulder uses its land is still highly controversial in Boulder, as in many wealthy communities. A segment of environmentalists rejects the notion that density can be a tool to combat climate change; notably, the local Sierra Club chapter has not endorsed compact urban development as the national group has.
McIntyre acknowledges this, but he thinks it’s possible to get residents on board with his vision by meeting opposition with inspiration.
“I want to help people see the positive sides” of density, he said. “What about shared gardens, shared yards, shared resources and a sense of community? Rather than saying we need to force people out of their cars, make cycling and transit so attractive that people want to get rid of their cars.
“I want the proposal to be so attractive that people go, ‘OK, yeah, I can see that.’”
He has one parting moral ask of Boulderites upset over increased traffic and reduced views: that they instead direct their frustrations toward doing everything possible to fight climate change.
“We need to direct our outrage to our climate crisis and greenhouse gas reduction goals and less about our yard or a few seconds on our commute or parking in front of our house,” McIntyre said. “We’re being outraged about the wrong things right now.”
Who he says he represents: The open space community; lower-income and working-class residents; cyclists, pedestrians and transit users
Endorsed by: Boulder Progressives, Open Boulder, Better Boulder, South Boulder Creek Action Group, The Coalition, Boulder Daily Camera
Priorities: Climate change, affordable housing, transportation, open space, equity and social justice
Relevant op-eds: “Boulder’s commons not just for those at front of the line”
Why you might want to vote for him: McIntyre has relevant experience working in ideologically diverse groups. He has served on TAB for several years and participated in a working group to reform Boulder’s campaign finance laws that included representatives from PLAN-Boulder County, Open Boulder and Better Boulder.
He also has specific proposals for nearly every issue — things Boulder can actually do. His fiscal policies have a huge equity component, as does his approach to public spaces.
“It’s a good example of what good community and good government can produce,” McIntyre said. “Privatization of public space is something that aggravates me to no end, whether it’s, ‘I don’t want you to park in front of my house, in a public right-of-way’ (or) ‘I don’t want you to hike on a trail that goes near my backyard.’ Public spaces are public spaces, and they need to be treated as a public asset for the good of the community.”
Why you might not want to vote for him: McIntyre has at least twice walked back statements. At the June Raucous Caucus, he answered a yes/no lightning-round question, “Is Boulder at or reaching capacity?” with a yes. (PLAN-endorsed candidates Adam Swetlik and Mark Wallach did as well.)
When asked about squaring that answer with his vision for increased density, McIntyre said the Caucus answer “was a mistake.”
“I’m not in favor of yes/no answers to very complex questions,” he said. “I’m opposed to the didactic positionalism that I see in certain constituencies in Boulder. Understanding (issues) from both sides I find to be an advantage. If you’re just so ultra positional that anyone that doesn’t agree with you is stupid, you’re not going to get very far.”
During this interview, McIntyre said it was “debatable” whether or not Boulder has a housing crisis. When pressed, he switched to a firm, “Yes, we have a housing crisis.”
In explaining the switch, McIntyre said “the word ‘crisis’ is overused.” It distracts from crises he sees as more dire, such as the climate crisis.
“I try to be careful with my words.”
That caution and consider-all-sides perspective are admirable. But McIntyre’s complete and abrupt about-face on both questions is troubling, casting doubt on what McIntyre’s true feelings and thoughts might be.
McIntyre on the issues
Housing: McIntyre wants everything on the table: further expansion of accessory dwelling units, increased density along transit corridors, relaxing of zoning regulations and plenty of subsidized affordable housing, paid for with new, progressive funding methods and existing fees on growth and development.
“It has to be a multi-faceted approach,” he said. “We need to do it all.”
McIntyre fully embraces land use changes in Boulder’s residential zones — at least 65% of which are reserved exclusively for single-family homes — to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.
“We need to start being more flexible and accommodate different lifestyles,” he said. Our land use policies need to reflect that, versus making it difficult. We’re not going to come and take someone’s yard away, but we need to change our land use patterns to reach our greenhouse gas goals, to reach our traffic goals, and for many, many reasons,” including affordability.
“We have an affordable housing goal. We’re not going to completely solve our affordability issue just by more, more, more, but we’re not going to do it by sprawl, sprawl, sprawl, either. We have to do what we can.”
One thing McIntyre isn’t sold on is rent control, citing research that shows it doesn’t increase overall affordability. (Brookings Institute has research supporting that premise but has also concluded that more modern forms of rent control can be a somewhat beneficial tool if combined with looser land use regulations like those McIntyre wants to pursue.)
Plus, he said, “the state still prohibits it, so let’s not even worry about it.”
Homelessness: McIntyre is a fan of the city’s new approach, called coordinated entry. He would not end Boulder’s camping ban, which forbids people from covering themselves with a blanket while sleeping outside.
“I struggle with it, because I understand the moral argument about not being able to shelter yourself in inclement weather,” he said. “You need to accommodate them with shelter.”
McIntyre would do that through official shelter services. He’d also like to see a campground established, both for unhoused people and those living in their vehicles.
CU South/flood mitigation: McIntyre would have voted for Variant 2 when council selected the preliminary design. (This interview took place before staff said Variant 2 presented too big of an engineering and permitting challenge.) In general, though, McIntyre is critical of council’s failure to find an option that works for the university, which owns the land.
“Let’s not underestimate what CU wants to do with their property,” he said. “The only thing we have to offer, the only thing they want is our water (which CU needs to access in order to develop the acreage). But if you look at CU, they do a lot up there that is separate from city utilities. They’re not incapable of dealing with that water issue. We could just lose the entire thing entirely.
“I think we’ve been acting on a lot of wishes versus being a good negotiating partner with public safety and flood mitigation as our highest priority. We need to realize when we’ve gotten the best deal we can.”
Budget: McIntyre has a lot of ideas for how he would like to tweak spending and generating revenue. He’d like to move away from a sales tax-based budget and toward measures such as progressive income or head taxes.
Sales tax “is regressive,” he said. “As our federal system of taxation continues to benefit the wealthy,” Boulder needs to “modify its taxation policies” with a focus on equity.
One way to do that would be a tax tied to the value of vehicles to fund transportation. Within the transportation department, McIntyre would like to shift away resources from maintaining automobile infrastructure purely to maintain traffic flow — he would still cover safety issues, such as fixing potholes and snow removal — and put that money into transit services and pedestrian/cycling infrastructure.
“We’ve got 100 years of auto infrastructure we’re struggling to maintain,” he said. “We need to really evaluate whether or not we’re perpetuating our reliance on cars by being slavish to the maintenance and devotion to making sure we don’t spend more time in our cars. We’ve got to quit talking about that.”
McIntyre sees room for more equitable spending on climate initiatives, too. Rather than subsidizing the purchase of electric automobiles, he’d put money toward bus passes, e-bikes or car shares that would get lower-income people out of their cars.
“I like our goals of electrifying vehicles, but we do it by giving rich people tax credits so they can buy a Tesla for a little less,” he said. “The person who is struggling who actually needs a new car or a more efficient car, we don’t actually do anything for them. There’s always a choice when you spend money, and I think we’ve made the wrong choice.”
McIntyre also sees room for efficiencies in the open space department. The city spends more on open space than anything but utilities or police.
“They have the biggest budget practically of any department in the city, and it’s all dedicated,” he said. “Transportation would love that. The library would love that. All these different departments would love that.”
Yet despite that steady revenue stream, the department is still facing $40 million in deferred maintenance. While many put the blame on increasing visitation, McIntyre points to inefficient spending (a stance he took in the 2017 election, before the total cost of deferred maintenance was known).
It doesn’t make sense to keep buying land when the department can’t even afford to take care of the acreage it already has, he said. (Acquisitions have ramped down, but there are still a half-dozen or so purchases in the pipeline, according to staff.)
“We’ve got to stop acquiring and start maintaining. That means decreasing and changing the head count in the department. We’re going to shift from people behind a desk to people behind a shovel.”
Just six full-time employees are dedicated to trail construction and maintenance, according to department spokesperson Phillip Yates — less than 5% of total 2019 staffing (125.35 full-time employees, according to the city budget). Those half-dozen are joined by seven ¾-time staff members and about 20 temporary/seasonal employees from April to December, plus hundreds of volunteers.
“We can have a better ecological outcome, better outcomes for wildlife, better experience for our visitors and our kids — we want them to grow up loving the outdoors — if we did a better job maintaining the asset we have,” McIntyre said.
Police oversight: “I think citizen oversight and the task force is great,” McIntyre said. “I’m anxious to see their product.”
He also hopes that Boulder takes the opportunity to replace recently retired police chief Greg Testa with a more diverse pick to lead the department. There needs to be a shift in training as well to focus on de-escalation. He points to the shift in approach to high-speed chases. Police will not chase suspects if it presents a risk to public safety.
“Not that our police don’t do hard work right now, but I think a lot of our training is focused on immediate, ultimate control (and) containment,” he said. “Everyone is a potential threat; everyone is potentially going to kill you. Let’s step back a bit, learn about ways to defer a little.”
Attended March for Police Oversight: No
Attended city council listening session on racism: No
Hill hotel: McIntyre is for the project “in general.” He laments the loss of longtime local businesses, including ones he worked at and frequented in college. But the buildings are reaching the end of their useful life, he said. They’re not attractive and they’ll be replaced anyway. The city might as well replace them with something useful.
Lethal control of prairie dogs: McIntyre has “no issues” with lethal control. The prairie dog populations need to be “actively managed” to prevent further erosion.
“If that includes lethal control to reach our soil quality goals, to help our tenant farmers, to reach our carbon sequestration goals, then sure,” he said. “We need to do the best we can.”
Occupancy limits: “I am opposed to using familial status as a measure of whether or not (people) should be able to live together,” McIntyre said. “I think it’s morally inconsistent and just plain wrong.”
He would instead shift the focus to code enforcement for the things neighbors complain about — parking, trash, noise.
“There are times we are all bad neighbors,” he said. “We need to fix our neighborliness and not focus it on blood status.”
Muni: McIntyre is firmly against Boulder creating its own municipal electric utility. After supporting it for years, he came out against the effort during the 2017 elections, a position he blames for his loss.
“I came to realize that this was not saving, sequestering or reducing an ounce of carbon over seven years and $20 million of our community funds,” he said. “We have a climate crisis. We’ve got to challenge ourselves and look at everything and say, ‘Does it move us forward on our greenhouse gas reduction goals?’ Let’s end the muni fight, and let’s repurpose that money.”
Council’s use of moratoria: “In general,” McIntyre said, “governance by fear of change and moratoria is … not addressing issues. That’s just buying time.”
When they drag on for years, as some have in Boulder, they begin to “be treated as actual policy” rather than a temporary fix to an emergent situation.
“If we have an emergency, fine,” McIntyre said. “But it’s got to be an emergency.”
Opportunity zone: While he disagrees with the tax policy, McIntyre thinks the moratorium prevented Boulder from “tak(ing) advantage of it to our community benefit.”
“We have not given up our zoning control, site review control,” he said. “We just need to look at projects that would go into the opportunity zone under the same sets of policies and zoning regulations as we would anywhere else.”
Height limit: McIntyre is not supportive of the now four-year timeout on building to the city’s voter-approved 55-foot height limit. There was “no reason” to implement it, he said. (It was put in place after several 55-foot buildings were approved, sparking concern from residents.)
“We have nothing that created an emergency that warranted a moratorium on people being able to build between 35 and 55 (within the) site review” process.
The original height limit, enshrined in the city charter, was a “brilliant” policy, McIntyre said. The prolonged moratorium has created confusion.
“What’s happened is everybody now thinks we have a 35-foot ultimate height limit. That was not something the voters have ever voted on. It’s become a de facto policy while never actually being addressed as a policy.”
Neighborhood opposition to development: “I’m opposed to the idea that those that live closest get to decide,” McIntyre said. Land is a community asset. “The entire community gets to have a voice in that without anyone’s voice having greater weight than another’s.”
Author’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that McIntyre in 2017 received more votes than council member Aaron Brockett did in 2015, and to reflect McIntyre’s endorsement by the Daily Camera. It may be updated further with additional or clarifying information.
— Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle. Edited by Deanna Hardies.
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