Guest opinion: A positive vision for housing at the Boulder airport

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

By Philip Ogren and Ryan Schuchard

We want to live in a Boulder that enjoys car-lite, 15-minute walkable neighborhoods where residents share walls, cars and greenspace with their neighbors. Where we can live lightly on the earth with small environmental footprints by living in compact housing, using land and materials efficiently, and where we have beautiful, highly socially connected neighborhoods.

We are not the only ones. This future is something that Boulder residents have been asking to have for years, as expressed in the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP) – see, for example pages 13, 36, 48 and 79.

The BVCP, which is the main framework guiding Boulder’s long-range direction, also talks about how to get it done. It says that at the time of the next Airport Master Plan, the city will work with the community to reassess the potential for developing a portion of the airport for housing and neighborhood-serving uses (section 6.23). The time for that assessment is now.

The Boulder Airport (BDU) is a small municipal airport that primarily serves private plane owners; you cannot buy a commercial plane ticket to or from BDU. The airport is due for a refresh of its Airport Master Plan, last updated in 2007. This year, we are at a crossroads, at which the city will either embark on an update of the Airport Master Plan to lock in aviation uses for the next generation or two, or determine a different way to use this public land.

What an important decision it is that lies ahead of us: Invest in upgrades to our small, rundown airport, or plan a new neighborhood on one of Boulder’s few remaining large developable spaces.

This decision needs our community’s careful attention and consideration. Boulder city staff and third-party consultants have begun a community conversation about the future of the airport site. The project team, in collaboration with a community working group, has recently developed four potential future scenarios for this 179-acre parcel of public land:

1) Maintain the airport in good condition but basically unchanged,

2) Improve / grow the airport’s aviation services,

3) Add community-serving uses to the airport, or

4) Decommission the airport in order to create a new — and, dare we dream, visionary — neighborhood for Boulder.

The city is currently gathering community input on these four scenarios. There was a community “open house” on July 18 where a large crowd gathered to learn about the scenarios and shared their opinions. There is also an online questionnaire open until August 2 to collect public input on the four scenarios. This will be the last questionnaire about the airport’s future before the new City Council makes a decision — will it be a neighborhood or an updated airport? — in early 2024.

—> Take the online questionnaire: Learn more about the project:

What might it look like to repurpose the airport property for a new neighborhood? The city team has provided a rough preliminary sketch, but let’s imagine what is possible.

An obvious starting place is the Holiday Neighborhood in North Boulder, part of the last new neighborhood developed in Boulder. Holiday was built in accordance with the North Boulder Subcommunity Plan, completed in the 1990s. The Holiday Neighborhood consists of 333 units built on 27 acres and has 12 distinct sub-neighborhoods that include mixed-use residential, co-housing and senior living.

When Holiday was built, it was in the vanguard of a new movement to create affordable and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods. Holiday has many advantages over typical suburban-style sprawl such as integrated pathways and shared greenspace, but it is still dominated by car-dependent transportation. Any casual observer will notice that there are cars parked everywhere throughout the neighborhood, taking up valuable space and increasing the amount of asphalt required. We could significantly improve on Holiday with an updated approach to parking paired with frequent transit service and comfortable, protected bikeways.

Another area of improvement would be to incorporate more mixed-use development to provide more options for food, retail and services — essential for complete 15-minute neighborhoods.

For a next-level model, our vision can borrow from a suburb of Freiberg, Germany, named Vauban. Vauban was built on a retired military base in 1998 and features green building construction, solar-paneled roofs and excellent access to public transit. Perhaps most notably, it enjoys nearly pure freedom from parking and car traffic.

While cars are allowed, there is very little on-street parking. Most of the parking is relegated to parking garages on the edges of the suburb. Streets are designed for very slow speeds with priority given to pedestrians and cyclists. With these elements, Vauban frees up space for humans to occupy where children (and adults!) can play in the street and pedestrians and cyclists do not compete for right-of-way with large vehicles. Such neighborhoods give residents realistic options for living without cars; Vauban has very low rates of car ownership.

The book Happy City by Charles Montgomery dedicates several paragraphs to describing Vauban’s special qualities. In one anecdote, a five-year-old commuter’s first trip to kindergarten is described. Think about that: five-year-old commuters. How about this for a new definition of a great city – one where children can get around by themselves. We should be so bold. If you are concerned that the world is conspiring to turn future generations into screen swiping, button clicking pleasure-bots, we recommend giving our children walkable neighborhoods and set them loose.

With 179 acres at the airport site, we could build nearly seven Holiday neighborhoods (nearly two Vaubans) and expand Boulder’s resume of building communities with environmental sustainability and affordability in mind. We could demonstrate to the rest of the city and the world that beautiful, car-lite green neighborhoods that are suitable for different incomes, housing arrangements, stages of life and family identities are possible here in Boulder.

As we look at the future of one of Boulder’s last remaining large developable spaces, and keeping in mind our city’s considerable challenges with providing a variety of housing types and price points for families who want to stay in Boulder, let’s give a vision like this one careful consideration.

We encourage our fellow community members to get involved in the airport visioning project. Fill out the online questionnaire before August 2. Share your thoughts with current city council members and candidates and ask good questions. Make your voice heard.

Ogren is a member of Boulder’s Housing Advisory Board and Schuchard is a member of the Transportation Advisory Board, currently running for Boulder City Council. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of these two advisory boards, or of Boulder Beat.

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Growth and Development Housing Opinion

Growth and Development Housing Opinion

4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I totally disagree with reducing what the airport is. And I do not have a plane or use the airport. But it is fundamentallyn a very strong asset that helps in things like search and rescue, front range fires etc. There is not need to move this out for any kind of housing. And, if there are more people living there then they must know what they are getting into as far as the landings and take offs that happen at the airport. I say keep the airport.

  2. Is BDU an exception to the trend that airports tend to have a great deal of toxic soil contamination due to the use of leaded fuels and fire-retarding chemical foams (if even just used in drills)? Doesn’t sound like the best substrate for a green residential community.

  3. Great article! Boulder has 100k residents and the airport only serves 120 elite members of that community. Regarding “emergency use” and fire mitigation, the slurry flights are always fueled and refilled at Longmont airport. Even with the “decommissioning” airport scenario there is still an emergency landing & staging zone as part of the proposal. Crying “emergency use” is a tired argument by pro-airport enthusiasts that doesn’t have any weight when you read the proposals and review the facts. What is a fact, however, is that the private and flight school planes at BDU use leaded fuel previously banned in cars in the 1990s and our children are being actively poisoned.

  4. Stapleton was redeveloped into residential with many years of heavier aviation uses, and it’s one of the most popular areas of Denver. Candelas and all of those residential subdivisions had contamination of a much worse kind, and somehow they mitigated the issue in order to build residential there. It definitely is not impossible.

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