Boulder’s planning board support restricting housing, offices in retail districts
City council to consider changes Dec. 18
The board voted 6-0 to recommend that city council pass Ordinance 8296, which would amend the land use code and limit ground-floor uses in business commercial zoning districts to “neighborhood-serving” retail or restaurants. (Member Peter Vitale was absent.)
Housing and other uses, such as offices or hotels, would still be allowed on upper floors or on the first floor if proposed developments go through the use review process, which is subject to approval from the planning board and council. Use review also adds time and cost to projects.
Despite the unanimous vote, half the members present had misgivings about the approach to land use changes. The idea was first floated by councilwomen Cindy Carlisle and Mirabai Nagle inresponse to a fear among residents that a redevelopment of Base-Mar Shopping Center into housing or offices was imminent. A first attempt at an ordinance would have simply outlawed first-floor residential dwellings, not preserved retail space, so it was scrapped.
Referring to Base-Mar, member John Gerstle countered, “We have an immediate issue in front of us that we’re still trying to deal with; that’s why we’re facing it right now.” While having a long-term vision is important, “I don’t think (it) will help us in the short-run, which we need to think about also.”
“Our reactive policies really come from the tax codes now being changed to incentivize certain investments,” added planning board member Crystal Gray, in reference to the opportunity zone program. (Base-Mar is not part of Boulder’s sole eligible parcel, which stretches from Arapahoe to Diagonal Highway on the eastern side of town and encompasses the Diagonal Plaza shopping center.)
“Remember when hotels couldn’t get money for years and then all the sudden, boom?” she said, alluding to the trio of hotels that went up recently along 28th and Canyon. “We had nothing in place to ask for retail on the ground floor. Picture how much more vibrant (those areas would be) if we had (a mechanism in place to) ask for that.”
Several members echoed the sentiments of the sole public speaker, Peter Weber, design principal with local architectural firm Coburn Partners, who called for more expansive land use approach rather than policies of restriction.
“If we want to encourage retail, let’s talk about other places where retail can and should happen but is not currently allowed,” Weber said. “Let’s open up places for it to happen, not force it to happen in a specific place.”
Restrictions and allowances are two sides of the same coin, said planning board member Harmon Zuckerman, noting that in Boulder it is easier to pursue the former. That often comes at the expense of the city’s larger goals, such as 15-minute walkable neighborhoods.
“Some of the areas where retail could really be fomented in the city are areas that are currently all residential, and it might create some pushback,” Zuckerman said. “I hope if this goes through, it’s a precursor to a flip side of that coin.”
That hasn’t happened yet, responded Bowen, noting that a handful of development moratoriums have been pursued by council in recent years. Those include timeouts on building to the city’s full allowable height — recently extended through 2020 — a short-lived ban on banks on the Pearl Street mall, and a failed stoppage on construction of large homes. The retail issue, too, could be subject to a moratorium: staff requested that council members considering such a move post their suggestions to the publicly available hotline email thread.
“Whatever the next thing someone hears about, (the reaction is) ‘Oh my god, we should think about a moratorium,'” said Bowen. “We react to something and we don’t ever actually get to the point of planning.”
Council will consider the ordinance at its Dec. 18 meeting, which will include a public hearing. A discussion on opportunity zones also will be held at the meeting, though there will not be opportunity for the public to speak.