When you discuss the future of Boulder with the various no-growth, slow-growth, responsible-growth folks who have become so active in recent months, it is pretty clear what they want: limited height, preservation of open space, and an evolutionary growth that envisions Boulder as a sophisticated, yet small municipality.
But in all of the columns and letters from the growth and density aficionados, what has not been clear is this: what is their ultimate vision for Boulder? What do they want the City to look like and feel like when all of the growth they desire comes to pass?
Now we know. Mark Gelband’s recent jeremiad on housing envisions a Boulder that would be unrecognizable to anyone living here today. Every quality that makes Boulder an attractive, livable community would be thrown under the bus in the name of density and affordability. Tiny lots, tiny houses, ADUs everywhere, taxes on empty bedrooms (sorry about that empty nesters, but your time has passed; pay up, or get out), subdivision of all lots capable of being subdivided, and a dozen more. So draconian are his proposals that one wonders if he views homeowners as political criminals who need to be brought to heel under the new order of social justice.
Mr. Gelband’s proposals remind me of the famous quote back in the days of the Vietnam War, when a U.S. officer infelicitously said, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” It took me 40 years to understand what that meant, but Mr. Gelband has now provided the answer.
Mr. Gelband’s proposals would destroy the quality of life in every neighborhood in Boulder without solving the affordability issue: with 32% of Boulder’s families categorized as low income, even if the City achieves its goal to make 10% of Boulder’s residential units permanently affordable, the problem will barely be mitigated, not solved. And we will still have businesses hoping to relocate here, and the University of Colorado will inexorably continue to grow. We are an expensive community because the amount of land available for development is so limited.
Or is it? At the end of the movie – when there is simply no more land available to develop – does anyone believe that housing development will simply cease, or that companies will just amble up the road to Longmont, or that CU will cap the growth of the student body? And if none of these come to pass, what happens next?
What happens next is that the foundational principles that make Boulder unique will ultimately, inevitably, come under attack. We are 25.8 square miles surrounded by 71 square miles of open space. Mr. Gelband has already laid down a marker on this issue: he views our open space as a “wall” separating us from a more affordable future. And if you believe it will stop there, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Next up will be the argument that affordability will be advanced if only we get rid of those inconvenient height limitations. If density equates to affordability, what could be better than a few 20-story towers?
There are those who argue that all growth is good, that Boulder should aspire to become Portland or Austin. Why not? Because Boulder is also an intentional community of citizens who value a more intimate environment in which we know our neighbors, can contact members of the City Council directly (no doubt, to their infinite regret) and where, on an almost daily basis, we see that individuals can make a positive impact on their city. I wager that most residents in Boulder value these qualities as well.
Obviously, Boulder must evolve. Cities cannot be frozen in amber and we do need to make an effort towards greater affordability, particularly for working families and young professionals. But not at the expense of every quality that makes Boulder a desirable place to live.
If there was any question as to what kind of Boulder the density advocates ultimately envision, Mr. Gelband has put that to rest. He has offered a bleak, sterile vision of the future, where all neighborhoods will be destroyed for the greater good of affordability. Let the community judge whether that vision represents the Boulder they want to live in.
But now, at last, we can see what the struggle for the future of Boulder will be about.
Mark Wallach is a resident of Boulder
A version of this editorial has been published in the Daily Camera: Mark Wallach: The End of the Movie – Daily Camera