PLAN-Boulder supports slow growth and affordability, opposes forced density

| Mar 5, 2022

By Peter Mayer and Allyn Feinberg
Co-Chairs, PLAN-Boulder County

For more than 60 years, Boulder’s citizen-powered organization PLAN-Boulder has advocated for open space, the environment, and careful managed growth. If you moved to Boulder for access to open space, parks and recreation, and great public spaces like the Pearl Street Mall and the Farmers Market, and if you support species diversity and flood plain restoration, please know that the citizen volunteers of PLAN-Boulder have been and continue to be instrumental advocates for all these things.

Peter Mayer

Forced density advocates such as Jan Burton — as well as her business-backed organization Better Boulder and those that profit from the financialization of Boulder’s housing market — love to scapegoat PLAN-Boulder because PLAN believes that a reasonable balance between jobs and housing and a stable population are good things.

Favorite punching bag

PLAN-Boulder is a favorite punching bag because we support citizen power, neighborhood planning, and a thoughtful development process, which frustrates those that seek to make a quick buck.

We were disheartened to read Ms. Burton’s Feb. 22, 2022, Daily Camera Guest Opinion (“Boulder is moving away from its anti-growth past toward social equity”) in which she promotes myths and standard attacks on PLAN-Boulder and its volunteers who have committed years to our community and, in doing so, perpetuates damaging divisiveness. The problems that Boulder faces are real and significant and will not be solved by the “winners and losers” and “blame it on PLAN-Boulder” mentality that characterizes most of Burton’s published public discourse.

Allyn Feinberg

PLAN-Boulder believes that planning for a stable population and the long-term health and sustainability of Boulder is a good thing. Eternal growth is an unsustainable fantasy. PLAN-Boulder believes there is an ultimate size that a mature city reaches called build-out. PLAN understands Boulder is a carefully planned city with limited resources and an ultimate carrying capacity. Boulder, like a human body, has grown from childhood to maturity. Now that Boulder is mature, are we going to overeat and become obese with clogged arteries and roads, or will we stay healthy and fit?

PLAN-Boulder has long been an advocate for strong affordable housing policies like buying existing housing and subsidizing rent, requiring construction of affordable units, high linkage fees, and rent control. Many times, we have seen our recommendations for higher commercial linkage fees that go directly to affordable housing and more affordable housing rejected by those that profit from the urban growth machine. The demand for housing in Boulder is inelastic, meaning more people want more housing than supply will ever be able to satisfy. It’s an economic fantasy to believe that we can change the trajectory of Boulder’s housing market by building until we burst. We cannot produce enough housing to satisfy the demand for that housing by people who want to live in Boulder especially when we continue to use land that could have housing to add expensive commercial space.

“Cash-in-lieu” falls short

In Boulder, developers can produce market-rate housing at an excellent profit by opting out of building the required affordable housing units and instead providing funds through the affordable housing “cash-in-lieu” program. Funding contributed under the “cash-in-lieu” option covers less than half the cost of a new affordable unit, while allowing for the creation of four or five market-rate rental units.

Understandably, this program has come to the attention of the out-of-town developers, who are now hopping on the gravy train and joining the “progressive” voices to force density into neighborhoods as the answer to Boulder’s housing crisis (see “Boulder should open its doors to development, but not rent control,” a Feb. 23 Camera guest opinion by Lauren Brockman, a Denver housing developer). PLAN-Boulder believes market interventions like ensuring existing housing stays affordable and rent control would be far superior to any of Brockman’s suggestions.

Does the “build, baby, build” strategy create affordability?

Boulder at 4,000 residents per square miles is already denser than many US cities, including Austin, Phoenix, and New Orleans. A comparison of the density of American urban areas with their housing affordability shows a clear correlation: density makes housing less affordable, not more. Density, no matter how much, is not enough by itself to create affordability. To ensure affordability, local governments must intervene with programs or obtain additional concessions from the developer of the new high-density units. This is why PLAN-Boulder has consistently supported the work of Boulder Housing Partners, which builds new buildings and purchases existing ones to create affordable housing.

False accusations of racism

Recent efforts to suggest PLAN-Boulder and its members are racist are deeply offensive. Our membership of Boulder citizens over the years has been active in fighting for civil rights, unions, fair housing policies, and enlightened elected leadership, as well as for open space and the environment. We heard statements during the last election campaign and read published words that are deeply offensive and hurtful to the Boulder citizens who have worked tirelessly to ensure public access to great public spaces for all people regardless of race.

PLAN-Boulder strongly believes that we can all keep learning to be more thoughtful of meaningful inclusivity and more sensitive to how our actions impact others. But we also strongly believe that Boulder must move beyond the false narratives and polarizing name-calling that have recently prevailed.

How big should Boulder become? According to census data, Boulder’s current population is 106,319. There are currently proposals for about 6,500 (mostly multifamily) additional units across the city. Assuming the current average of 2.5 people per household, this will bring an additional 16,250 people. If we were to also increase infill by 10%, that could add another 10,600 people, bringing Boulder’s total population to 133,169. Do we have the water and infrastructure to support and sustain this population? This analysis is essential and must be done.

PLAN-Boulder supports slow, sensible, planned growth with a maximum focus on affordability for Boulder while continuing to expand open space and recreation. We think a buildout population of about 135,000 makes sense to plan and prepare for. We invite all Boulder citizens to join us and support our work.

What’s your vision for Boulder?

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Daily Camera on March 3, 2022, and is reposted here with permission from the authors and that publisher.


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