City and activists agree: Boulder neighborhoods need more say — Alex Burness

By Alex Burness, Staff Writer
Daily Camera, Boulder, CO
POSTED:   01/25/2015 05:28:52 PM MST

[Editor’s note:  This meeting was arranged by  member of the Livable Boulder Forum’s steering committee.}

On Tuesday night, a group of 20 Boulder residents gathered in the basement of the public library branch on Table Mesa Drive to meet for an hour, over Skype, with two city planners from Madison, Wis.

The planners had been invited to speak on Madison’s neighborhood-based planning structure, in which residents from 120 pockets of town meet with city staff to discuss, early and often, resident concerns about everything from commercial development to road construction.

“We do try to see ourselves as working side-by-side with the residents,” Madison Urban Planner Linda Horvath said. “We have expertise, but just in terms of driving the process, the people on the steering committee who represent the neighborhoods, they’re driving the content of the plan. We’re helping to facilitate the process.”

This sort of neighborhood planning is not uncommon, and has long been employed in cities such as New York, Seattle and Austin, and in smaller cities, including Golden. Tuesday’s library meet-up was little more than a first step, in which the Madison planners explained their system, then briefly took questions.

The conversation was the result, however, of lingering frustration from a vocal faction that believes Boulder residents have largely been rendered invisible in decision-making around controversial development projects and the gradual whittling-down of affordable housing, among other issues.

“Many of us have felt left out, and we’ve been saddened by what we’ve seen happen to our beloved town that will now carry some big, regrettable scars for buildings,” resident Kay McDonald said. “(We) have felt like we are a bother to the city, which thinks it knows best.”

Patrick Dillard, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s meeting, said the end goal is to see a neighborhood planning section written into the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan, which informs land use codes in Boulder city and county, and will be updated later this year.

“We believe that the only way to address these problems and have buy-in from the community is to start the planning at the neighborhood level,” Dillard said.

He described the city as “cannibalizing itself” by granting high-occupancy zoning to properties in his neighborhood, East Aurora, just east of the University of Colorado, across U.S. 36.

“I think what the city wants to do is allow absentee landlords to turn their houses into multi-unit buildings,” Dillard said. “Imagine if you own a house and you’ve lived there five, 10, 20 years, and put a lot of mortgage into it. Suddenly, your neighbor turns their house into an apartment building. Well, now the fabric of your neighborhood is irreparably changed.”

That sort of up-zoning, however, does offer additional affordable housing options in a city where they are hard to come by. It could help offset the high-end commercial developments that raise the pricetag of a city already unaffordable to many of the 60,000 who commute to work in Boulder every day.

Projects including Google’s approved future campus, to house 1,500 employees, and the proposed mixed-use, six-acre “Rêve” development that would sit next to Google, will, by Mayor Matt Appelbaum’s own admission, only attract more wealthy renters.

While the linked conversations around development and housing swirl, the city says it is taking steps to solicit much more feedback on the resident level. In fact, two hours after the library meeting adjourned, City Council gave initial approval to what amounts to a two-year halt on development taller than 38 feet, in most of the city.

Additionally, the city will soon announce a hiring for the position of neighborhood liaison, which hasn’t existed in Boulder in more than a decade.

“We always know we can do better,” said David Driskell, Boulder’s director of community planning and sustainability. “There are about 99,000 people who are not involved, for various reasons, and we want to find ways to make it easier for them to be involved.”

Councilwoman Lisa Morzel believes neighborhood planning would be a step in the direction of heightened community awareness and engagement.

“I think it’s cool that they did this Skype, and I think it’s good to have neighborhood area plans,” she said. “For me, the idea of the comprehensive plan and of a neighborhood area plan is to provide stability and predictability for the people in the neighborhoods. They deserve that.

In the 1990s, prior to joining council, Morzel was closely involved in the formation of the North Boulder Subcommunity Plan, a land use vision negotiated between residents and city officials. Twenty years after its creation, that plan has drawn positive reviews from both parties, and is seen by some as a shining example of the benefit neighborhood planning could bring to other areas of the city.

“I came to City Council as a neighborhood activist,” Morzel said, “Out motto used to be that we can’t stop development, but we can have a say in what gets developed and how it happens.”

At the City Council’s annual retreat Saturday, Councilman Sam Weaver said he sees a lot of value in having neighborhood plans, and he would be willing to put more resources — money and staff — into supporting the creation of such plans

“You want to have your neighborhood plans in place in advance of a large development proposal,” he said.

Though Dillard and his associates say they hope to bring the Madison planners to Boulder soon, where they would presumably address council, the march to put neighborhood planning in stone may not gather enough steam to make it onto the next comprehensive plan update.

At council’s retreat, Mayor Appelbaum said Madison is different from Boulder in important ways, namely that many of the neighborhood plans aim to revitalize vacant or run-down areas, whereas neighborhood plans in Boulder might aim for no change at all.

Appelbaum added the city has larger goals, especially around affordable housing and diversity, which neighborhoods should not get to veto.

Council ultimately decided Saturday to look for opportunities to do more neighborhood engagement out of the comprehensive housing strategy process. That process is expected to be completed later this year and lead to proposed code changes, some of which could be tested in pilots in neighborhoods where residents are amenable to those changes.

Staff Writer Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.