In the coming years, warehouses now occupied by breweries and shipping centers on the eastern edge of the City of Boulder could also include apartments and for-sale townhomes. And sprawling parking lots surrounding the industrial buildings today could be torn out to plant trees and build bike lanes connecting new neighborhoods to downtown.
This is part of a 20-year vision for redeveloping the city’s commercial area east of Foothills Parkway, known as the East Boulder Subcommunity Plan. On Oct. 6, 2022, the Boulder City Council unanimously passed new land-use codes that lay the foundation for implementing the plan.
The plan, which has been under works since 2019, seeks 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 the latest attempt to redevelop land to build a substantial amount of housing in a city that is virtually surrounded by open space off limits to housing development.
Using models and feedback from consultants, city staff estimate the new land-use designations could lead to the construction of about 5,100 new apartments and for-sale homes.
More than 90% of the new housing would be apartments, including efficiency studios up to 350 square feet and mid-sized apartments up to 1,200 square feet. The plan may also result in 150 new attached single-family townhomes and dozens of larger “live-work townhome style units.” These 2,200-square-foot residential units would be built in buildings also occupied by businesses.
Today, the East Boulder area is mostly privately owned and used by businesses. It is home to fewer than 500 residents, most of whom live in the San Lazaro mobile home community, a majority Latino community that sits just outside city limits. The plan calls for annexing the mobile home park into the city, which includes providing city water services.
Balancing business with housing
Exactly how much housing to allow and where to put it has been a balancing act. Councilmembers want to use the plan as an incremental step toward addressing the city’s housing crisis, while not encouraging people to live in heavily polluted or dangerous areas.
Members of the Boulder City Council, all of whom advocated for more housing in the plan, were somewhat divided over whether to allow people to live near the CordenPharma manufacturing plant due to potential health and safety issues.
In May, at the request of the international company, the council nixed 180 potential housing units from a block north of Western Avenue. In July, the city’s Planning Board voted to add the housing back in. The latest version of the plan allows for housing in the area.
The back and forth highlights the complexity of adding housing to a primarily industrial area. It is occupied by major businesses, such as Ball Aerospace, a manufacturer of spacecraft parts and military weapons, and the Boulder Municipal Airport, which is located in the northern section of the subcommunity. CordenPharma makes active ingredients in many over-the-counter drugs.
The plan seeks to keep many of these businesses in the area through land-use designations that allow for mixed-use development. It also seeks to preserve an industrial aesthetic, with large ground-floor openings and tall ceilings, by creating more granular “form-based codes.” The city may also require builders to reuse materials from buildings torn down in the area.
To preserve some of the city’s affordable commercial real estate, the plan calls on city staff to consider ways to expand affordable commercial space and use city property to create incubator spaces for local entrepreneurs. It also recommends creating an “East Boulder Business Retention program” to prevent businesses from being displaced.
The plan does not contemplate what to do with Xcel Energy’s Valmont power plant, which was once one of the West’s largest coal-fired power plants before it stopped burning coal in 2018. It is now the site of several coal ash ponds and the utility is developing a plan to monitor and reduce groundwater contamination.
Businesses in the subcommunity boundary employ about 17,000 people, according to city estimates. The plan is expected to add about 3,000 new jobs to the area.
To make it more pleasant to live in the industrial area, the city will likely require developers to build homes that mitigate noise and light pollution — as it does through existing design criteria. This could include soundproofing windows or more technical means.
A testing ground for new policies
The new land-use maps will be added to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan, the county’s long-range planning and development guide. The city council will now have to approve new zoning regulations based on the underlying land-use maps.
In the coming years, the city may also craft new regulations, making the location a testing ground for new policies aimed at increasing affordable housing, reducing the number of cars on the road, and mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Already, the city requires developers to build 25% of their housing units as permanently affordable or satisfy the requirement through other means, such as paying into a city fund used to subsidize housing elsewhere. The plan suggests creating “a menu of incentives” to encourage developers to build more affordable housing, but does not make specific policy recommendations.
Separately, the plan recommends creating parking maximums — rather than the more typical minimums — in some areas, in part to encourage more efficient use of land and multimodal transportation, such as taking the bus, walking or cycling.
To reduce the urban heat island effect, the city may require property owners to plant and upkeep trees. The city may also require owners of larger office parks to replace grass turf with drought-tolerant plants and grasses that reduce water consumption.
“It could be a great testing ground for improving tree health and improving some of the landscapes to be able to manage our outdoor water use,” Kathleen King, a city principal planner who helped lead the subcommunity planning process, said in an interview.