By Ed Byrne
Are Boulder’s best days before or behind us? Fear of failure is a powerful motivator, but vision and hope have always better served Boulder.
Taxing ourselves to purchase open space and park lands may be the smartest planning policy we’ve ever adopted. Choosing not to deliver city water to homes on our foothills backdrop comes in a close second. Both wielded market tools to creatively steer growth to areas with existing and planned local and regional infrastructure.
Neither defied inexorable market forces or tied the private sector up with Gordian regulatory knots. Instead, public-private partnerships were formed — some grudgingly — and Boulder has continued to thrive.
Some are reacting to our continued good fortune with frustration. “They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast,” as Don Henley sang on “Hotel California.” Yet, it is local residential growth caps and escalating home prices that have led to a regional diaspora. 64,000 in-commuters fill our streets, heading home at night to sleep elsewhere.
But they’re not the only reason traffic congestion exists and is getting worse. Boulder’s deal with the auto-dependent planning devil is an abject failure. We are not alone. Single-use zone districts (residential, retail, office, industrial) require people to drive everywhere to do almost anything. Isn’t this the American Way? Not anymore.
Allowing homogeneous neighborhoods of all types to evolve towards “completeness” and self-sufficiency (the ability to work, shop and play closer to where you sleep) is the human settlement pattern that has stood the test of time. Our carbon-fuel guzzling suburban planning experiment is killing Mother Earth. We have no back-up plan. If Boulder, with all its resources, including wealth, wisdom and compassion, can’t plan a path forward to an environmentally sustainable, economically resilient, socially just future, who will?
Today, leadership that served us well in the past is still in charge three generations later, yet Boulder remains part of the problem, not the solution. Not for lack of trying, but for lack of vision. Partnerships, cooperation and consensus were once embraced in Boulder. Now, a kind of panic seems to have set in, resistant to change and frightened beyond measure. With six of nine City Council seats to be filled on Nov. 5, let’s not double-down on a governing philosophy that may have run its course.
City Council was poised to adopt mind-numbingly complex land use table revisions, rife with potential unintended consequences, and launch a one-size-fits-all community benefits project. Moderation prevailed, but still features a zoning map with carefully delineated districts. Staff has been asked to dive still deeper into the use tables to dictate outcomes, which will generate “nonconforming” uses and buildings (hard to maintain and finance, nearly impossible to modify or enlarge). Turning back the clock is not the answer. Opportunity beckons.
We need not reach into the top-down regulatory kit bag to conjure up new ways to demand that the private sector build more affordable housing and eliminate jobs. “Command and control” is not how Boulder has done its best work. Shrink-wrapping Boulder is not the answer.
Our current settlement patterns could hardly be more inefficient or dysfunctional. With a spirit of cooperation and creativity, we can still accomplish amazing things. Why prevent Boulder’s continued evolution? Stopping now may mean our lives will “get worse more slowly.” Heaven knows, we can do better than that.
Progressive communities elsewhere are adopting a new planning approach where single-use zone districts drawn with mono-colored highlighters are being abandoned and neighborhoods are being re-imagined, completed, and blended together (think watercolors for margins instead of Sharpies).
Strategically-located density can meet neighborhood needs closer to home and office. Just ask them. Create new village centers with retail-supporting workforce housing. Over time, we can effectively reconfigure the auto-dependent planning experiment that has failed us.
We’re all in this together. A more deliberative process during which engagement with and receptivity to private sector and nonprofit input can occur. We need to think big thoughts and dream big dreams. This has served Boulder well in the past and can now be used again to shape our regioin’s future. Micromanagement of our prescriptive zoning regulations is not the cure for what ails us.
Ed Byrne lives in Boulder and is an emeritus member of the Camera’s Editorial Advisory Board. Email: email@example.com.