The Boulder Planning Board approved a new plan for adding housing to East Boulder on July 19, 2022. Credit: John Herrick

Boulder’s Planning Board on Tuesday, July 19, unanimously approved a revised plan for redeveloping the city’s commercial eastern flank, reinstating a land use change that would allow people to live near a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. 

The East Boulder Subcommunity Plan, a 10-year vision for redeveloping the commercial area of the city east of Foothills Parkway, will now go back to the Boulder City Council for final approval. A vote is yet to be scheduled. 

In May 2022, the Boulder City Council approved the plan after nixing 180 potential housing units on a block north of Western Avenue near the CordenPharma manufacturing plant due to potential health and safety issues. 

Councilmembers made that land use change after the international pharmaceutical company raised concerns about possible complaints from future residents over noise, light and traffic caused by its 24-hour operations. The facility also emits, within legal limits, air pollutants considered harmful to human health. 

During the Planning Board meeting on Tuesday, Jonathan Singer, a policy adviser for the Boulder Chamber, which opposes allowing housing next to the plant, compared the environmental hazards at the drug-making facility to those at the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City. The refinery, which has a vastly different pollution profile, has polluted nearby neighborhoods for decades and prompted fervent calls for its closure by neighbors and elected officials. 

CordenPharma also weighed in. 

“We just want to make sure that we remain a good neighbor and don’t become a nuisance to anybody who moves into the area,” Jon Dreiling, CordenPharma’s director of production support and project engineering, told the Planning Board. 

The Planning Board’s version of the plan would allow mixed-use development just south of the plant across the railroad tracks, as did previous iterations over the last year. 

The East Boulder Subcommunity Plan is among the city’s most promising opportunities to address its housing crisis by allowing thousands of homes to be built in an area of the city where none currently exist. It has been in the works since 2019. 

The 10-year plan would lay the groundwork for land use and rezoning changes to allow for approximately 5,000 new for-sale homes and apartments mixed in with warehouses and office buildings. It would also annex the San Lazaro mobile home park, which is just outside city limits and does not have access to the city’s potable water. 

In order for the land use changes to take effect, the Planning Board and the Boulder City Council have to agree on a final plan. 

Laura Kaplan, a member of the Planning Board and the East Boulder Working Group, told Boulder Reporting Lab that “one of the main goals of the plan was to integrate housing into this area and do it in a very thoughtful way.”

During the meeting, she said she was not persuaded by the company’s concerns regarding noise and light. 

“I’m not convinced that these things are so significant that housing cannot exist here,” Kaplan said. “This is not going to be the first time that we’ll see a housing development that’s going to be next to a neighbor that might be noisy.” 

She and other board members raised concerns about CordenPharma seeking changes at the last stage of a multi-year process. The company sent a letter to the Boulder City Council on May 3, 2022 outlining its concerns. 

“I’m not sure that we want to set that precedent,” Kaplan said. 

The ongoing back and forth over whether to build homes near the CordenPharma plant highlights tension over how to address the city’s need for more housing without creating environmental justice issues. Those opposed are concerned low-income people may end up living next to harmful industrial operations. 

In seeking to strike this balance, the city council had amended its version of the plan to prevent mixed-use housing in the area north of Western Avenue “unless the incompatible heavy uses across the railroad tracks are no longer present.” 

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.

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