In recent weeks, members of the Boulder City Council have repeatedly requested that city staff allow for more housing in the long-term plan to redevelop the mostly industrial eastern half of Boulder, known as the East Boulder Subcommunity Plan.
In a city practically surrounded by open space off limits to new housing, the East Boulder plan is the latest opportunity to make a meaningful step toward addressing Boulder’s longstanding housing crisis. The most recent version of the plan seeks to redevelop the area east of Foothills Parkway and allow for about 5,000 new homes and apartments, according to estimates.
But as city staff were putting the final touches on the plan, which has been in the works since 2019, the Boulder City Council effectively nixed 180 potential housing units from it by changing zoning regulations on a block just north of Western Ave.
The change came at the request of CordenPharma, an international pharmaceutical company with two drug manufacturing plants just across the train tracks from the parcel previously set aside for mixed-use housing, according to the company and several councilmembers interviewed for this story. The company makes active ingredients in many over-the-counter drugs.
On May 3, Jon Dreiling, the company’s director of production support and project engineering, wrote a letter to city councilmembers that said adding housing near its 24-hour facility could lead to conflict with future residents due to truck traffic, lights and an overhead paging system.
In an interview with the Boulder Reporting Lab, Dreiling said the company has been ramping up its operations, in part because it is making an ingredient in the Covid-19 vaccine. He said he does not want complaints or lawsuits from neighbors to slow that down.
“At the end of the day, we would have to address any issues that came up. We make life-saving medicines here. If it became that we had to slow or stop something — we just want to make sure we can keep going. We just want to be a good neighbor,” he said.
The change to the plan highlights the thorny challenges of building housing in a mostly industrial area that is occupied by major businesses, including Ball Aerospace, a manufacturer of spacecraft parts and military weapons. Concerns have also been expressed about allowing more housing near the Boulder Municipal Airport, which is located in the northern section of the subcommunity. (Residents in the Rock Creek neighborhood of Superior are suing Jefferson County over airport noise.)
The question of whether to keep the block near the pharmaceutical manufacturing plant open to potential housing development stoked a debate extending into the early hours of the morning during Tuesday’s council meeting. The conversation pitted the desire to address the city’s lack of affordable housing and rising homelessness against environmental justice concerns.
CordenPharma is the largest emitter of toxic pollution in Boulder County, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory. It emits dichloromethane, which the EPA considers to be carcinogenic, and a range of hazardous air pollutants, though at levels generally below EPA limits. (According to the company’s 2021 environmental report, emissions from the two plants have declined significantly over the last two decades. Dreiling said CordenPharma is in compliance with all its air emission permits.)
The question of ‘choice’
Potential air, light and noise pollution was one of the reasons Councilmember Junie Joseph suggested the city council seek to at least temporarily block homes from being built near the pharmaceutical plant in East Boulder.
“A lot of the time, affordable housing is not in the best side of town. It’s often near the highway or places with environmental issues,” Joseph said in an interview with the Boulder Reporting Lab. “It’s my job and my responsibility to ensure that housing is not put in places where it may not be the safest place to put people just because of their income.”
Nationally, urban planning policies have led to racial segregation and have had the effect of encouraging low-income, Black and Latino families to live in areas with polluted air and toxic water. Joseph feared the homes built near the plant could have a similar effect.
“We don’t want to put affordable housing in places where people will feel alienated, especially when in our community we are trying to be inclusive and diverse,” she said.
But several members voted against the change, including Councilmember Nicole Speer, who said that while people should not have to decide whether to live in a home in an area with pollution, the reality is sometimes they do.
“And under those circumstances, we shouldn’t be taking decisions away from people who are already disempowered,” Speer said.
She said she grew up in a home in Oregon that was about 200 feet from a highway.
“Talk about pollution. Light, noise, we had it all,” Speer said. “Because of that house, I was able to get a really good education. It was the house that my parents could afford in one of the best school districts in the state.”
Before the city council meeting this week, Speer said she was at an event hosted by Feet Forward, a nonprofit supporting the basic needs of homeless people, where more than 100 people were seeking to apply for a lottery for subsidized housing. She said these were the people she was thinking about when the city council was considering removing 180 housing units from the East Boulder plan.
“Those units were not just empty apartments,” Speer said of the apartments she envisioned one day being built. “They [could be] filled with the people who are living on our streets, the workers who are keeping our grocery stores shelves stocked, and the families and the young children that our schools are losing.”
Councilmember Joseph said she recognizes the importance of giving people a choice of where to live. But she said it is similar to the choice of eating at McDonald’s when there is nowhere else to get affordable, healthier food.
“They are not real choices,” she said. “When you cannot pay your rent and you end up living in substandard housing, that is not a choice. That is a false choice that is provided to you because we live in a society where we don’t care for everyone the same way.”
‘Residential and industrial living’
The city council voted 6-3 to support the provision to remove the housing units from the plan, albeit potentially temporarily. The move would prevent the area from being zoned for housing until the nearby “incompatible heavy industrial uses,” such as the drug manufacturing plant, are no longer present. This effectively means no housing will be built near the plant unless it drastically changes its operations.
Councilmembers Speer, Lauren Folkerts and Rachel Friend all voted against changing the subcomminity plan to prevent housing near the plant. Councilmembers Joseph, Bob Yates, Mark Wallach, Tara Winer, Aaron Brockett and Matt Benjamin voted to prevent the housing development.
Councilmemember Folkerts, an architect, said the homes in the area could be designed in such a way to mitigate noise and light impacts from the plant. She recalled touring a redevelopment near a major port in Hamburg, Germany, where homes were designed to reduce noise caused by docked ships. By using certain materials and design standards, she said, residents’ widows attenuated noise, even while open. The same standards could be applied in East Boulder, she said.
“There is a lot we can do from a technology standpoint to help protect residents in new buildings,” Folkerts said. “Dealing with these potentially higher levels of noise and light is something that we will want developers to consider in the design and redevelopment of new buildings.”
Despite the disagreement over the parcel near the drug manufacturing plant, the Boulder City Council unanimously supported the East Boulder Subcommunity Plan, a major milestone in a yearslong planning process.
The plan seeks to overhaul land use regulations in the area to preserve some of the city’s only remaining affordable commercial real estate, while also allowing developers to build homes there for the first time.
“It is suggesting closer residential and industrial living,” Folkerts said. “If we had all the space in the world we might not be looking to bundle those two things as closely as we are in this plan. But I think because of the needs of our community, that’s just something that we need to do at this point.”
The plan now goes before the Planning Board for final approval, which could happen in the coming weeks.