This article first appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera
By Alex Burness
In January, a panel of visiting urban design and development experts published a report envisioning what the industrial zone around Arapahoe Avenue and 55th Street could look like under very different circumstances.
The panelists, working for the Urban Land Institute and commissioned by the Boulder Chamber and the Boulder Area Realtors Association, devised a plan for a new “East Edge” of the city that felt like more of a “special place” than it currently does.
Focusing on the 55th Street corridor from Arapahoe to Pearl Parkway, the advisory panel recommended introducing housing in several formats and at varied price levels. They called for more public spaces “that celebrate art and culture” and commercial services easily accessed by foot or bicycle, all contained within a mixed-use district with a new “Main Street.”
The panelists recommended exploring buildings above Boulder’s 55-foot height limit, and as high as 90 feet tall, as a way to accommodate extra office space and some of the up to 2,400 dwelling units they considered for the area. (Such a height exemption would require a citywide vote to amend Boulder’s charter.)
“Businesses could stay in Flatiron Park” — the giant network of buildings and parking spaces just east of 55th Street — “in six-story commercial buildings instead of a two-story buildings,” wrote Renee Martinez-Stone, a panelist who directs the West Denver Renaissance Collaborative, an initiative of the Denver Housing Authority.
“Or they could be residential, with cool studios and lofts, the next generation of an innovation hub, rezoned to allow for the next iteration and to allow companies to grow up.”
The report asserted that such broad redevelopment of the 325-acre study area could be tackled on a timeline of as few as five years. It presented a future East Edge that looks almost nothing like the area does today.
Currently, the corridor offers some of the most affordable office space in Boulder, and is zoned to include industrial uses that aren’t welcome in most other parts of the city. This business-friendly hub has an estimated 10,000 workers commuting in every day, and about 80 percent of visitors to the area get there by car.
It’s also characterized by a total lack of housing, just a handful of dining and retail options, a car-centric layout with wide streets and a couple dozen surface parking lots, and limited bus access.
“The purpose of this is to stir the pot,” said Urban Land Institute Executive Director Michael Leccese. “That area is sort of divorced from the rest of Boulder right now; why does it have to be that way?
“Why can’t we make it an area with jobs and innovation but also a better place to live? Let’s make it into a place and keep all the jobs and economic vitality, but make it something better.”
There’s nothing to suggest that the report will translate to policy, or that individual recommendations are being or will be considered by planners and officials who have the power to transform the area based on the panel’s advice.
But the general goals of the report — build a mix of housing types, preserve jobs, encourage travel by modes other than single-occupant car trips, create a more walkable and inviting district — are consistent with the kinds of urban design to which the City Council regularly says it aspires in select parts of Boulder.
‘There’s a lot of incremental change on the horizon’
The Urban Land Institute has done more than 50 panel reports in Colorado since 2004, and one of the first of those panels was commissioned by Boulder.
The city was engaged in early planning for what is now known as Boulder Junction, and the panel helped inform what would ultimately become the Transit Village Area Plan — a document that originally assumed the city would see a rail line built into Boulder. That has morphed, as it has become clear no train will service the city in the near future, into a guide for the neighborhood around 30th and Pearl streets.
Before there was such a thing as Boulder Junction, the area, like the East Edge, was certainly vital economically, but was hardly an active location. There was little housing, little in the way of mixed-use development and the design was — and still is, albeit less heavily — very auto-centric.
Today, it’s home to a hotel, the future Google campus, a bus station, apartment complexes that look like skyscrapers compared to most of Boulder and a series of upcoming ( and controversial) developments that will make the neighborhood even denser, more populated and more commercially active than it is now.
Susan Richstone, a longtime city planner who’s now the acting planning director, reflected on the January report and on the study area’s similarities to the Boulder Junction of 10 years ago, and said the panelists identified “a lot of stuff that’s consistent with the values we have, with the direction this community has gone.
“Having a place with a range of housing types, convenient services. … There’s definitely a number of issues around east Boulder that came up that are very similar to the issues raised in the report, and that we agree with.”
Richstone said she believes the city is most successful in planning when it considers entire areas, as opposed to individual plots. And, as recently as 2014, Boulder was in the process of devising such an area plan for a portion of east Boulder that overlaps with much of the space reviewed by the Urban Land Institute.
This campaign, called Envision East Arapahoe, has since been scuttled in the face of significant citizen pushback, and has been reborn in a much more narrow capacity as the East Arapahoe Transportation Plan.
City planners came up with three different scenarios while Envision was still alive. One of them involved, essentially, a continuation of the status quo, which is what Boulder ultimately landed on by default when the project was put on hold.
But the others included some of the same ideas posed by the recent East Edge report: “districts” with medical office space near the Boulder Community Health’s Foothills Hospital; arts and entertainment near the corner of 55th and Arapahoe; shopping and dining options; public spaces; workforce housing that would be affordable to some of the many who work in east Boulder but live out of town; and mixed-use retail areas to serve employees and residents.
Gradually, the ideals of Envision have crept back into city planning.
For one, the East Arapahoe Transportation Plan is eyeing a possible bus-rapid-transit line between Boulder and Brighton, which could run from downtown Boulder through the East Edge, all along Arapahoe.
The plan also may result in remodeled transit stops, a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly street redesign and various connections that would allow people visiting or commuting to east Boulder to more easily transfer between modes and places.
Of course, as Senior Transportation Planner Jean Sanson — who is helming the East Arapahoe project — acknowledges, any sweeping remodel of one of Boulder’s largest commuting corridors goes “hand in hand” with planning around housing, business and commercial options.
Any big changes on those fronts would likely have to be accompanied by amendments to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP), which is undergoing a five-year update now that will determine what is possible in terms of land use in coming years.
The East Edge area is zoned as industrial space. It provides for only small amounts of housing, though developers haven’t taken advantage of that allowance. Sanson said the transportation strategy will adapt as city leaders continue to mold the BVCP.
“For the purposes of the work that we are doing, our forecasted land uses are those that are currently part of the adopted (comprehensive) plan, but they’re also coordinating with potential changes that might come out of the update,” Sanson said.
At a joint study session six weeks ago intended as a check-in on that update, the Planning Board and City Council directed city staff to move ahead with drafted policies that would allow for more housing in the industrial areas, noting that this should be done in ways that do not diminish business viability.
“We’ve heard a lot about wanting to increase the mix of uses in those areas to have some supportive retail and particularly to allow for housing,” Richstone said.
“There’s a lot of agreement that there’s opportunity to make more of a place in east Boulder. And there’s a lot of incremental change on the horizon right now that would help support the evolution.”
An adoption of the BVCP is slated for this summer, but Lesli Ellis, comprehensive planning manager, said that even if the city takes a different zoning approach to east Boulder, “any sort of transformation is a long-term proposition.
“It takes time, but this is definitely an area that has been viewed as having opportunity, for sure.”
‘Sort of the whole Boulder problem’
It’s a good thing that Dan Mulder and his daughter, Rachel Reese, like the food at the Deli at Flatiron Park, their Wednesday lunch spot for the past 10 years — because it’s the only restaurant in the office park.
The park also includes one coffee shop, one brewery, a total of zero housing units, a layout with wide streets and a couple dozen surface parking lots, and access to just two RTD bus lines.
The routines of Reese, who works in biotech and commutes in from Berthoud, and Mulder, a longtime employee of Ball Aerospace who drives from Longmont, are typical for the area:
Housing in Boulder is expensive, so they don’t live near their workplaces. It’s most convenient to drive in every day, so they do. And when they get hungry, they visit the one and only eatery in the park.
Mulder said that he finds Flatiron Park to symbolize “sort of the whole Boulder problem.
“There’s tons of jobs, and most people can’t afford to live in Boulder, so everybody’s commuting in and traffic’s tough.”
He added, “If you can have jobs close to where people are living, that’s better. And if they could figure out a way to get some affordable housing in here, so’s that. I don’t know how you do it, though.”
But Mulder cautioned against any changes that move companies out, either by replacing their spaces with other uses or by creating a more expensive neighborhood in general.
Just as it’s much costlier today to rent offices in Boulder Junction, some fear that an East Edge area plan similar to what the report proposed could lead to the city’s last major industrial area transforming to the point that those who thrive there today no longer could.
In 2014, chef Hosea Rosenberg opened Blackbelly, an upscale restaurant and butchery much more comparable to the fine-dining slots on Pearl Street than to the rest of east Boulder’s few and relatively modest restaurants.
“You can start up a business here for much cheaper than you can on Pearl,” he said, noting that Blackbelly pays about a third per month of what it might have had Rosenberg located downtown.
And if his account of the local reaction to Blackbelly’s opening a few years back is any indication, some who live south of Arapahoe in the area of the East Edge might not welcome a widescale shift toward the kind of neighborhood in which Rosenberg’s restaurant doesn’t stick out, but rather is among a number of commercial draws that could collectively turn east Boulder into a destination.
“When we were out canvassing for our liquor license, I did hear concerns from people,” the chef said. “They felt like this was one of the few places they could still afford in Boulder and they worried that if there’s too much development, they’d be pushed out in time.
“I would worry that certain people who enjoy what they have here might not be able to afford it much longer.”
Judy Forkner, a retiree who’s lived in the East Arapahoe area for 25 years, said one of the things she most appreciates about her neighborhood is the mix of income levels and the opportunity for small business growth.
“I’d hate to see those businesses go away because they can’t afford the rent anymore or because they get taken out for something else,” she said.
The panelists said that if more of the area’s businesses could expand up, instead of staying in one- and two-story buildings, the East Edge might become even more of an innovation hub — and perhaps not at the expense of commercial and residential development.
Exceeding Boulder’s height limit is not the way to redevelop the area, Forkner said, and the recently rehashed community debate on the issue of building heights would suggest many agree with her there.
Don Forkner, her husband, is of a different mind. He’s pessimistic that Boulder can ever truly “solve” what officials increasingly refer to as a “crisis” of housing affordability — but he’d like to see the city at least try something different in the East Edge area.
“If you can’t build up and you can’t build down and you can’t build out,” he said, referring to the height limit and growth boundary that shapes Boulder urban planning, “and you still have these incredible job opportunities, I’m not sure what you can do.
“But I do think it could be developed into something with much higher density and house a lot of people who could then work in Boulder and not have to commute in.”
Judy shook her head when he suggested the East Edge might be primed for taller buildings and greater density.
Don smiled and said, “My neighbors don’t necessarily agree with me.”