The draft East Boulder Subcommunity Plan proposed annexing the San Lazaro mobile home park. Credit: Harry Fuller

City of Boulder planners are almost done drafting a 20-year vision for transforming the city’s industrial eastern flank into a mix of residential neighborhoods. 

The draft East Boulder Subcommunity Plan could add about 4,400 homes and apartments to the area east of the Foothills Parkway, according to city models and an analysis by consultants. The Boulder City Council is scheduled to vote on a final version of the plan in early May.

Much of that housing would be concentrated around Valmont City Park and near a proposed bus station on 55th and Arapahoe. The city also plans to annex the San Lazaro mobile home park, which is just outside city limits and does not have access to the city’s potable water. 

But whether that is enough additional housing for the area, in a city grappling with a housing crisis, is still being decided. When city planners presented the plan to the Boulder City Council last week, several members requested they go back to the drawing board. 

“We’re adding a lot of housing potential with this which is fantastic,” Mayor Aaron Brockett said. “It seems like it could still tilt a bit more towards housing over jobs from where we are right now.” 

Councilmember Mark Wallach pointed out the lack of middle-income housing in particular. “Middle-income housing and diversity of housing types is really central to this plan. And as I read it, I am still looking for more detail as to how we get from here to there,” Wallach said. “The current trends in Boulder are almost exclusively to produce high-end rental housing and the occasional very-high end townhouse.”

He added, “I see the goal. I see the aspiration. I don’t see the methodology to get there.” 

But creating incentives to developers to build any kind of housing in the area has been a balancing act, according to city officials and members of the East Boulder Subcommunity Working Group. The 21-member group of residents and property owners has been meeting over the past three years to gather community feedback and to hash out the plan. 

To do so, the city plans to overhaul the area’s land-use and zoning codes to allow developers to build more homes next to warehouses and storefronts. Because much of the land is privately owned, these are among the few levers the city has to encourage mixed-use development.  The area slated for redevelopment is entirely commercial and industrial, except for the San Lazaro mobile home park.

“Redevelopment is voluntary. The city can’t mandate you must redevelop and you must do it this way. The property owner can always decide they are not going to redevelop,” Laura Kaplan, a member of the working group and city Planning Board, told the Boulder Reporting Lab. “It has got to be attractive to a developer to take an existing building and either knock it down or retrofit and creatively reuse it in a way that meets the vision. That I think is the major challenge.” 

And rather than allow homes all over the area, city planners want to concentrate housing in certain areas of East Boulder in order to attract grocery stores and bus routes into certain neighborhoods. 

“If we have a more scattershot approach, I think it will take a much longer time to develop a neighborhood,” Kathleen King, a city principal planner and project manager for the East Boulder Subcommunity Plan, said in an interview.

“We definitely have a goal of creating opportunities for housing,” King added. “But what the plan tried to do even more than that is create neighborhoods.”

Despite this deliberate planning, more housing might have been included in the plan if more residents showed up to meetings to advocate for it, according to John Gerstle, a member of the city Planning Board and the working group.

“The public participation in this was generally dominated by the commercial landholders in the area. Their influence was very clear in terms of trying to ensure they were able to profitably develop the land according to their desires as much as possible,” Gerstle said. “There is nothing corrupt or faulty about it. It’s just that the people who were most interested showed up. There are very few residents in this area who showed up.” 

Urging more affordable housing in the plan 

The city is about halfway to meeting its affordable housing goal of setting aside 15% of its housing stock for low-, moderate- and middle-income residents by 2035. According to city data, it has designated nearly 4,000 housing units as permanently affordable. 

Most of these homes are rentals for low-income residents who earn up to 60% the area median income. (The median income for a household in Boulder is $75,000, according to the U.S. Census.)

The city’s middle-income housing strategy calls for creating “1,000 deed restricted permanently affordable” homes for middle-income residents by 2030. The city has a total of 811 moderate- and middle-income housing units that are permanently deed restricted through the Affordable Housing Program, according to King. 

The city generally requires all developers to designate 25% of the new housing units as affordable or pay into a fund that the city uses to subsidize housing. 

The East Boulder Subcommunity Plan recommends changing city policies to provide more incentives for affordable housing in the development process. This includes creating a “menu of incentives” under the city’s Community Benefit Project, which already allows developers to build taller buildings in exchange for adding more affordable housing units to the property. 

The city is also in the process of reviewing its land use and zoning policies. Such changes could allow the city to require more affordable housing in certain areas of East Boulder after a plan is finalized. But one concern about using zoning to require affordable housing is that it can have the effect of pushing such housing into certain areas. 

“Historically, in communities throughout the country, when you concentrate only affordable housing in certain areas of the city, it tends to prejudice the outcomes, services or investments that might be seen in those concentrated areas. So we do not take that approach,” King said. “It’s really important to Boulder that affordable housing is of a similar character, quality and has the same access to all of the city’s amenities that any other type of market-rate housing would have.”

Aesthetics: how to retain the East Boulder character

The plan also proposed zoning for certain mixed-use areas that keeps an industrial aesthetic with large ground-floor openings and tall ceilings. 

“That’s another piece of the housing puzzle that’s less about the math and more about character and quality,” King SAID. “The term that came up in a lot of community sessions was the word ‘gritty.’ People like the gritty nature of East Boulder.” 

Kaplan, of the working group, said the neighborhoods should not just be walkable, but also vibrant and funky. 

She added, “How do we have that balance where we retain the industrial uses, where we’re not just creating a monoculture, but we’re retaining some of that character of the area and helping it grow into this vision?”

Update: This story was updated on April 20, 2022 at 11:57 a.m. with additional information regarding the San Lazaro mobile home park.

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.