Boulder’s Struggle to Meet Its Ideals

This piece first ran in The Denver Post.

Boulder, Colorado prides itself on progressive values, striving to lead in sustainability and limiting climate change. But as city leaders grapple with unaffordable housing and pressures from growth, attempts to find balance in a changing character cause Boulder to fall short of its ideals on many fronts.

In housing specifically, the city council speaks for their desire to create “15-minute neighborhoods” where residents can walk and bike to services, to improve bus and bike infrastructure, and build housing for the “missing middle” as a greater number of middle-income families can no longer to afford to live in Boulder. But an example of one recently proposed housing development accomplishing many of those goals was unanimously rejected by Boulder’s Planning Board.

The housing development “Iris and B” would have provided 50 middle-income housing units on the city’s most active transit corridor. The project would have fulfilled many of the stated goals: providing a neighborhood coffeeshop or restaurant, a diverse mix of housing targeted at 80 to 120% of the median area income, connecting to a bike route and having a six minute bus ride downtown. The units would have ranged from small efficiency-style up through three-bedroom condominiums for families, using smaller footprint designs that reduce the amount of heating, cooling, and water use per person.

The planning board ruled an increased zoning for the development would be “too dense” for the neighborhood, even though Broadway is a four-lane arterial with frequent bus service. Concerns about worsening traffic from this relatively modest development drew criticism, even though a majority of traffic on the corridor in peak hours results from commuters outside of the city limits, part of Boulder’s 65,000 regional daily in-commuters. Rather than supporting a project which meets its long-term goals of reducing vehicle miles traveled and providing more affordable housing options, Boulder’s planning board instead supported a development pattern which worsens the city’s long-term difficulties.

Another example is Boulder’s effort to pass a workable cooperative housing ordinance. A housing cooperative is a group of individuals who share meals and housekeeping tasks to improve affordability, reduce energy use, emissions and food waste per person. Boulder, like many cities, has laws limiting occupancy of unrelated people living in a house, setting a limit of three people per house in low-density zoning areas. Reducing the number of people living in a house, particularly when new homes continue to increase in size, greatly limits affordable housing options for people outside of a traditional family or without a high income. Passing an ordinance to enable housing cooperatives would gain community benefits while limiting impacts on existing neighborhoods relating to the potential for additional noise, trash, or car parking needs.

On Tuesday December 6th, the Boulder City Council met to update the proposed draft ordinance which would permit groups to create up to fourteen co-ops per year, allowing up to twelve people, and requiring separation between housing cooperatives to limit any impacts on neighborhoods. Yet by the end of the evening, some council members, responding to concerns of neighbors, insisted that occupancy be more heavily restricted by square footage per person, house size, and lot size, such that most of the currently legal or potentially legal co-ops in Boulder could not exist under the new law. Now several co-ops risk eviction with the proposed law as written. On the same night, Boulder City Council unanimously supported a climate goal of an 80% emissions reduction by 2050, showing a significant disconnect between policy ideals and laws that directly accomplish those ideals.

Boulder is a community that has both the wealth and resources to carry out its ambitious plans. Now Boulder needs to take the real steps required to make a lasting impact on sustainable climate in ways that promote a diverse and inclusive community.

Eric Budd is a resident of Boulder working on equitable housing and transportation policy. You can tweet him at @ericmbudd.

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