Boulder’s insane densification — Paul Danish

Boulder Weekly

Thursday, April 16,2015

The Boulder City Council’s latest mantra seems to have been taken directly from the Vietnam War: It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.

How else can you explain all the crap it has allowed to be built in the 28th and 30th street corridors — and in a lot of other parts of town as well?

The council’s land use and development decisions, motivated by a mindless, delusional obsession with affordable housing (whatever that is) and sustainability (whatever that means) has led to an explosion of dense, ugly development that is destroying the character of Boulder, is degrading its quality of life, and is, to paraphrase former CU President George Norlin, an affront to the Flatirons.

While densification in the name of sustainability is being inflicted on any number of Boulder neighborhoods (in order to save them from the heartbreak of unsustainability), the most egregious examples are found along 28th and 30th streets (and oozing several blocks to the east in some places) from Iris to Baseline. For simplicity’s sake call the area 28th/30th Street corridor.

This new development is not doing what it was supposed to do.

It is not making Boulder a less autodependent and more pedestrian-friendly city. The 28th and 30th street corridor is choked with traffic, and each new multi unit housing, office and commercial complex adds more. There is so much traffic in the area that it is threatening to exceed the carrying capacity of the roads. Driving in the corridor sucks.

The people who live in the housing complexes are not getting a higher quality of life in exchange for higher density. They’re getting a degraded one.

They are getting more congestion, more noise, more pollution, more crowding and (paradoxically) more isolation from the rest of the city.

The 28th/30th Street corridor is hands down the single least livable part of the city — yet that is the area that City Council has chosen for some of its most intensive residential development. Why?

If you ask a council member or a planner or a developer, chances are you will get a song and dance about the virtues of “primary mixed use” development — development in which housing, shopping, restaurants and entertainment exist cheek by jowl with residential housing. This is supposed to reduce the need for cars (and the impact of an auto-dependent civilization on the environment) and make for a more pedestrian-friendly, social and humane community.

It’s a beautiful theory, and there are places where it has worked, but in Boulder the theory is getting mugged by a gang of ugly little facts.

The new residential housing is not gracefully connected to the nearby commercial areas by pedestrian-friendly streets with wide sidewalks lined with shops and restaurants. ( Jane Jacobs, arguably the greatest urban planner of the 20th century, called such streets “seams” between neighborhoods.) Twenty-Eighth and 30th Streets are not seams. They function as barriers, that cut off the residents of the new dense housing from the commercial areas. The commercial development along the streets is for the most part not adjacent to sidewalks, but set back from the street by parking lots, some of them hundreds of feet wide. They are auto-friendly, not pedestrian friendly.

The people who live in the corridor will find it more convenient — and more pleasant — to drive to Whole Foods or to the Twenty-Ninth Street mall than to walk there.

The new housing projects show little sense of proportion and less sense of place. They are not inviting. Aesthetically they run the gamut from indifferent to irritating. And collectively they are making Boulder feel more claustrophobic. Judging by outer appearances, there isn’t a mobile home park in the Boulder Valley that isn’t a more attractive housing option.

Speaking of mobile home parks, if the city council is serious about providing affordable housing options, it should approve some new ones — ones in which the residents can buy the pads their homes occupy instead of having to rent them. When you don’t own the land under your house, and when your house can be evicted at the whim of the landlord, you can’t make long-term investments in maintaining and improving it. Your home is a depreciating asset, like a car. But when you do own the land under your house, you can invest in your home, maintain it and improve it. And then it becomes an appreciating asset.

Mobile homes are the private sector’s great affordable housing success story. Boulder has a long history of treating them and their owners shabbily and giving them short shrift, which is as stupid as it is rude.

Boulder’s problem is that it is trying to stuff too much stuff into the town. It isn’t that it can’t be done. It’s that it can’t be done without doing real violence to the town’s environment, character and quality of life.

The City Council does not have a political mandate to densify Boulder. Quite the opposite. Projects that remotely smell of increasing the density in existing neighborhoods routinely draw ferocious opposition from the neighbors — mixed use, affordable housing and sustainability be damned. It’s been that way for more than 30 years. I can’t recall a single public hearing — and I’ve sat through two or three dozen — at which a neighborhood welcomed densification or mixed-use development. The political mandate is for less development, not more — even if it has been green-washed in the name of sustainability or white-washed in the name of affordability.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.