CU may not build student, faculty housing on south Boulder parcel

body of water surrounded with grass
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Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020

University of Colorado officials, in a recent letter to Boulder leaders, threw water on the long-held assumption that the university-owned land south of the city would host housing for students and faculty in addition to classrooms and athletic fields.

The issue, CU’s Frances Draper wrote, is the current flood mitigation design, which “will greatly impact the usability of the property.”

Referred to as Variant 1, elected officials and the public are still awaiting final details on a compromise to the original concept selected in 2018; council and staff have spent 18 months finagling the plan to seek a design that satisfies the multiple parties to the process.

CU has always preferred another design, Variant 2, that was rejected first in August 2018, again a year later and a final time a few weeks after that. Under Variant 2, a flow restrictor would have to be built in sensitive habitat, a non-starter for city council and, possibly, state and federal permitting agencies.

Variant 2 wasn’t referenced in the January 16 letter from Draper. Instead, she highlighted issues with Variant 1 — ones that would persist no matter what tweaks city staff comes up with.

Among those options is to shrink the size of the detention pond: Council initially selected and then reaffirmed support for detention that would protect for a 500-year flood; a 100-year design was also on the table. Once it became clear that size of detention was untenable for CU (inundating too much of the land the university hoped to build on) council directed staff to find a compromise that included a smaller detention area along with other options, such as land uses changes that would allow CU to build elsewhere on the 308-acre site.

“We have since realized that any level of Variant 1 — from 100 to 500 year — will result in an earthen dam which stretches from the east to west property lines close to Table Mesa, effectively severing the developable portion of the property from the community,” Draper wrote. As such, “the university will consider, but cannot guarantee, that housing for university faculty, staff and students will be built on the site.

“The feasibility for housing will be evaluated in the future based upon the final flood project constructed, resulting access to the site and the degree to which the university reasonably determines this to be a suitable site for homes behind a dam.”

Housing has always been part of the plan for CU South, as the acreage is commonly called. Indeed, the university agreed to limit the number of potential dwellings to 1,100  to assuage neighborhood concerns.

CU is often criticized for not providing enough housing for students even as enrollment swells. This pushes students off-campus to compete for housing with workers, critics say, driving up prices. The university area consistently posts the highest average rents in Boulder, according to quarterly reports from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver.

But the university has also held fast to the claim that the property is being annexed into Boulder earlier than CU intended, at the city’s request, to provide valuable protection to thousands of residents downstream of South Boulder Creek who were heavily impacted by the 2013 floods. CU doesn’t even know what its needs for the site will be, Draper told Boulder Beat last year; that planning process is scheduled to begin in 2021.

It is unclear how this recent revelation will be met by the new council. Progress on CU South is among members’ top priorities for 2020. An update was presented to council at its first post-election meeting, Nov. 19.

An analysis of “conceptual alternatives” is currently scheduled for a Feb. 25 study session. Staff testified in November that board and commission feedback would follow in March and April, with a council vote in May.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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CU South Housing Open Space

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