Can Boulder survive big-time growth binge?

| Oct 4, 2016

Here are a couple of documents that provide factual information and analysis related to the ongoing debate over the pro-growth policies being pursued in Boulder these days.

First are introductory remarks made by Paul Danish at a forum featuring County Commissioner candidates, hosted by PLAN Boulder County at the downtown Boulder Public Library Friday, Sept. 30.

The recent decision by the present Commissioners to designate land in the Twin Lakes area for a major low-income public housing project raises an inconvenient truth that has been ignored for years: Boulder County’s environment and quality of life is being made to play second fiddle to an obsession with so-called “affordable housing.”

Paul Danish at PLAN Boulder County forum (Reporter photo)

Paul Danish at PLAN Boulder County forum (Reporter photo)

The Twin Lakes decision shows that “affordable housing” trumps environmental quality, neighborhood integrity, open space and growth management — essentially the core concerns and values that PLAN Boulder has stood for since its inception.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. “Affordable housing” was used as the pretext for gutting Boulder’s growth control regulations in the 28th/30th street corridor. That turned the area into the most congested and least livable in the city, and is being used as the pretext for the ongoing attempts at back-door densification of Boulder’s low density residential neighborhoods.

It would be nice if we could have it all. But we can’t.

One of the definitions of “tragedy” is “having to choose between two equal goods.” By that measure the conflict between affordable housing and the environment may be a tragedy. But we still have to choose. And faced with that choice, I will choose the environment. And I hope you will too.

(For more on Paul Danish’s candidacy to challenge incumbent Deb Gardner for a Boulder County Commissioner seat see his campaign website.)

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Next comes this brilliant commentary by longtime Boulder resident Stacey Goldfarb. (A similar version of her text appeared in the Daily Camera Oct. 1.)

A Boulder pro-growth advocate regularly tweets, “If you love your city, you should build more of it.”

That’s like saying, “If you love your 15 children, have 15 more. If you love candy bars, eat hundreds.”

Analogies aside, the tweeter’s perspective seems at odds with the reality of our finite world and ecosystem. My field was science. Science everywhere confirms finite limits: resources, amount of carbon our atmosphere can handle, and population a bioregion can sustain.

The tweeter’s position reminds me of the anti-science fringe wing of Congress, which doesn’t accept science or facts. More disturbingly, Boulder government demonstrates a similar disregard for facts and limits. Our city government refuses to say how many more people they plan to draw to Boulder. The “silence from the top” is deafening.

No wonder citizens are uneasy. We look to our civic leaders, but hear only the policy equivalent of “More, more, more!”

In a related story, Boulder government has, for years, quietly pushed a hyper-aggressive economic development policy. Their “more, more, more” policy is nowhere more true than in their incessant courting of ever more commercial growth and major employers.

Of course communities need good jobs. But Boulder demonstrates a total inability to achieve a healthy, sustainable balance. We’ve completely overshot the mark. We have 104,000 jobs. Meanwhile, only around 70,000 of Boulder’s residents are of actual workforce age (not in K-12 schools, or retired). These excess jobs explain over half of Boulder’s 60,000 daily in-commuters.

Why does this matter? A major excess of jobs and in-commuters greatly increases housing pressure and prices. This, in turn, leads city leaders to consider plans to repeal Boulder’s height limit, densify neighborhoods by up-zoning and stuffing more and more people into them, pushing the city to try and annex surrounding open space lands for housing.

Palo Alto’s mayor recently expressed regret over the number of jobs created by tech companies there, which have contributed to $2.5 million median home prices.

Boulder’s government has actively fueled our problem. I hope they arrive at a better, wiser posture than, “Well, let’s just house 60,000 more people…that’ll fix our in-commuter problem.”

The problem is, when we continue to deny limits, and balance, it won’t just be 60,000. It’ll be 120,000 or 180,000 more residents, if Boulder refuses to ease off the accelerator of aggressive economic development and recruitment. Further, and counter-intuitively, housing supply-side theory doesn’t work in inelastic demand markets like Boulder’s. Building more primarily just yields more high-priced housing, without fixing anything (think: Eastpointe development). And Boulder’s deeply flawed affordable-housing formula which requires many additional luxury units, to fund a few affordable units.

With Boulder’s affordability challenges, you’d think Boulder would tap the brakes on ultra high-end economic development. Instead, Boulder actively courted a Google headquarters — absolutely bizarre, given our housing issues. Didn’t Boulder notice the housing price spikes Google and other high-tech presences created in Mountain View, San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Venice Beach, California? And Boulder didn’t even charge Google affordable housing impact fees.

Many existing residents are rightfully dismayed. Because now, council is telling quiet, single-family neighborhoods they’re responsible for fixing the problem: Low-density neighborhoods must be up-zoned to high density! Residents who simply want a quiet, sane existence in low-density, single-family neighborhoods, must now have 15-person “Animal House” co-ops next door (see Picklebric co-op). All to fix the city’s self-created “crisis.”

I urge Boulder citizens to realize the very unbalanced underlying dynamics that have created our current situation. Tell the city to ease off its active courting of ever more jobs and high-tech companies. And companies that do come should be charged impact fees equivalent to the problems they exacerbate, specifically, affordable housing and city infrastructure demand.

Lacking any clear, articulate solution from city government, we can only conclude that Boulder has no plan. Except to keep stuffing more people into Boulder, and asking all residents to accept more traffic, congestion, noise, big-city problems, and, quite possibly, repealing our height limits and building on open space.

All Boulderites should reject this. Tell City Council they should fix the problem they’ve created, beginning by realizing “we’re good,” on the job front, and easing off the accelerator. Tell council it’s time they recognize carrying capacity, and what happens when a bioregion or community exceeds it.

The question is, will Boulder have the courage to bring things back into balance, by limiting non-residential (i.e., commercial) growth?

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Editor’s note: A tectonic changing of the guard? A scary time for longtime Boulder residents. The Reporter can only wish to cover this largely unreported story. But investigative reporting is so-o-o labor-intensive. Sigh.


  1. Angela Bowman says:

    It’s sad that you are a part of a group that seeks to block all non-wealthy people from Boulder and do nothing to represent the stories of the people who are effected by this classist move.

    • Bob Wells says:

      I was out canvassing for the five slow-growth City Council candidates last weekend on about 10 blocks of the “coveted” Newlands neighborhood. I looked at the houses closely and concluded that most of the people in Newlands are not, in fact, wealthy. The notion that Boulder is a haven of the rich is a myth.

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