From the opinion panel: Make the most of Boulder’s limited land

Friday, April 21, 2023

City council has been targeting some of Boulder’s last available large plots for developing, approving a partial rebuild of Diagonal Plaza that will add 282 units, and beginning preliminary study of redeveloping the airport. What do you think of these proposals? Will they help in solving Boulder’s housing and affordability crises? What are they missing?

Courtesy City of Boulder

Claudia Hanson Thiem: Let’s make great neighborhoods everywhere

Diagonal Plaza, Boulder Municipal Airport, Alpine-Balsam, and – once-upon-a-time – the Holiday Drive-in (my home of the last 14 years): Boulder’s handful of large developable plots get a lot of attention because of their housing potential. When housing need is measured in the thousands (see, for example, the city’s 2016 Middle-Income Housing Strategy), the prospect of adding hundreds of units at a time excites the imagination, and advocates show up accordingly.

With an openness to modest density, strong requirements for affordability and a willingness to work with the realities of housing finance, large plots can indeed improve Boulder’s housing outlook. But our challenges go beyond unit counts. As we plan for development on multi-acre sites, we should focus on how they can become (or support) mixed, vital and connected neighborhoods.

Two needs stand out to me, though there are certainly others.

First, Boulder needs to embrace the concept of “urban” family living. While monitoring local planning proposals, I’ve seen a clear trend toward small rental units. These are much needed — at this point in the housing crisis, it’s hard to think of a unit-type that isn’t — but in a city that is also losing households with children, this is a problem.

When developing large plots, we could require or encourage the inclusion of space-efficient “family friendly” designs, focusing on elements like unit floor plans and shared outdoor spaces. Boulder should also be exploring creative approaches to financing homeownership in multi-family projects, at least while the market is shunning condominium construction.

Second, we need to commit to developing these precious spaces for people and not for cars. Boulder has long required large projects to submit transportation demand management (TDM) plans, which often contain commitments to construct bike storage, fund EcoPasses, or charge residents for parking to reduce private car use.

Again, these are good steps. What’s missing are city-led investments in transit, bike and pedestrian connections. New neighborhoods need frequent and reliable bus service and safe routes to schools and basic services in order to be good places to live.

We can and should make development on large plots better, but we can’t rely on them to meet all of our changing housing needs. Boulder’s established neighborhoods must also be part of the solution. We should continue to advocate for ADUs, middle housing (e.g. duplexes and triplexes) and other sharing opportunities citywide.

I’m excited for the opportunities Boulder’s large plots offer, but we’d do even better by helping our entire city evolve.

Claudia is a recovering academic (ABD, Geography) and full-time parent turned community advocate, with interests in affordable housing, land use and transportation. More about Claudia

Brian Keegan: Timid developments imperil Boulder’s affordability and climate goals

Boulder’s current and future developments continue to be too timid in the face of its self-inflicted housing crisis. Some of the largest lots like Macy’s, Diagonal Plaza, and Alpine-Balsam are already being redeveloped well below their potential.

As plans for redeveloping the East Boulder sub-community, Boulder Airport and other parcels emerge, the city needs to push for more transit-centered and affordable housing to meet its affordability and climate obligations.

Large lots available for development in Boulder continue to be underutilized for development. The Macy’s redevelopment will add 154,000 square feet of office space and no housing despite post-pandemic commercial vacancy rates hovering around 30%. The nine-acre site on the western side of the blighted Diagonal Plaza will only be developed into 282 residential units. The nine-acre Alpine-Balsam site may include as few as 120.

While as many as 500 new housing units would be welcome in Boulder, consider this thought experiment: If the 18 total acres at the Diagonal Plaza and Alpine-Balsam sites were zoned  to mimic the beloved mixed-use Pearl Street downtown corridor — with 20% set aside for outdoor areas and a maximum floor-to-area ratio of 1.7 — this would permit over 1 million square feet of new affordable development.

Assuming an average of 1,000 square feet per housing unit, these two sites alone could provide 1,000 new housing units. This is more than double what has been approved and almost a third of what Boulder has allowed to be built since 2010.

According to U.S. Census data, the City of Boulder built fewer housing units in the 2000s (3,201) and 2010s (3,277) than in any decade since the 1940s. Blocking new housing development may please a vocal minority of homeowners, but it (unsurprisingly) did not slow demand for housing in Boulder.

Restrictions on new housing development have inflated housing prices and property tax assessments while pushing essential workers out into carbon and water-intensive suburban sprawl. The Department of Agriculture’s census reported Boulder County’s agricultural land declined 22%, from 137,668 acres in 2007 to 107,043 acres in 2017.

Instead of building 500 more homes close to businesses and along transit routes at Diagonal Plaza and Alpine-Balsam, that demand for housing will mostly be met by more car-centric sprawl that deprives an aging city of tax revenue and workers while creating more traffic and pollution. Proposals like SB23-213 may reduce the urgency of ensuring large properties like these two sites are effectively and affordably developed by permitting more housing everywhere.

As discussions for the East Boulder sub-community plan and Boulder Airport take off, Boulder should prioritize development options that allow more people to live close to their jobs and commerce.

Brian Keegan is a computational social scientist and assistant professor of information science at the University of Colorado Boulder. More about Brian

Growth and Development Housing Opinion

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Time to build housing on our thousands of acres of EMPTY PARKING spaces. Look around at the office parks off Foothills and Walnut & Pearl. Thousands of empty parking spots. Time to condemn them and build housing! How about the Wells Fargo parking in downtown. Could be a 55ft residential building. Parking lot behind the Tea House. Hundreds more units there.
    There is plenty of space to build in Boulder. We just need to put the love of car parking behind us.

    • The above comment was posted by Stephen Haydel. (As a reminder, commenters must use their full first and last name. Exceptions may be made if you contact Boulder Beat via email.) Thanks! – Shay

  2. Living near the intersection of 28th St. Frontage Road and Aurora, we are often stymied by roads blocked by delivery vehicles or vehicles waiting to pick up passengers from the tightly built relatively new high-density surrounding apartment complexes that are built right to the sidewalks. Sometimes a whole block is narrowed to one lane by a row of temporarily parked vehicles. Why are planners not including pull-off areas for temporary parking, especially if the density is encouraging people to forego keeping a permanent vehicle of their own?

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