During a Boulder City Council meeting in September, Max Gould-Meisel used his two minutes of public comment to request a 15-second moment of silence. He said he wanted to grieve the University of Colorado’s plans to develop a South Boulder property known as CU South.
“All I can think about is how this cottonwood tree will soon be a light pole. Those ponds will be an asphalt parking lot. And this field will soon be porcelain toilets and bathtubs flushing away our most precious resource, water,” Gould-Meisel told councilmembers, who obliged his request.
The following month, a resident posted on NextDoor about driving along U.S. 36, where the city plans to build a concrete spillway, and hearing Joni Mitchell on the radio sing the lyrics “they paved paradise and they put up a parking lot” to her song “Big Yellow Taxi.” “If this doesn’t break your heart, you may be heartless,” the resident wrote. Dozens of people weighed in with heart and tear-face emojis and their own laments about the proposed development.
With the Nov. 8 election now less than a week away, perhaps the most controversial and well-financed measure on the ballot — whether to repeal the CU South annexation agreement — is ever present across social media platforms, mailboxes and email inboxes, and in everyday conversation with friends and neighbors.
Many residents have already made up their minds on how to vote. But some are still wrestling with how to reconcile any potential benefits from the development with the fear of losing the land they hold dear.
“I’ve been going back and forth, to be honest. I guess the biggest fear is losing this place,” Vicki Hunter, a retired political science professor at CU Boulder who was walking at CU South last week, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “It’s just such a jewel of Boulder.”
The 2021 annexation agreement between the City of Boulder and CU Boulder allows the university to build 1,100 units of housing for non-first year students and faculty, university facilities and officers, commercial and retail space, and a new multi-use path and bus station.
In exchange, the university is allowing the city to build a concrete spillway along U.S. 36 to reduce the risk of flooding for 2,300 residents who live in the South Boulder Creek floodplain. The project would create a floodwaters “detention pond” on some of the university’s property.
Talks of development have been ongoing ever since 1996, when the university purchased the land from a gravel mining company. But for years, the land has been kept open to the public, fostering a desire to keep it the way it is.
“People come here and run and bike. The recreation here is just awesome,” Chad Smith, a 48-year-old resident of North Boulder who was walking his dog on CU South last week, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “This feels like the last bastion of Boulder.”
What kind of development is allowed
So far this election season, local campaigns on both sides of the CU South fight have poured more than $200,000 into consulting, postcards, yard signs and newspaper ads in an effort to persuade voters to their side. Much of the campaign messaging is speculative about what might happen to the property were the measure to pass or fail. (If the measure passes, the university has said it will “re-evaluate future use of the site.”)
To underscore just how charged the debate has become, signs placed at the CU South property seeking to explain the annexation agreement in recent weeks have been taped over with papers stating “Get the Truth Not The P.R. Spiel” with a link to the pro-referendum website. The university said some signs have been “ruined by vandalism in recent days” and it is planning to increase police patrols in the area.
The annexation agreement, a legally binding deal signed in September 2021, lays out a vision for development and what kind of new construction, broadly, is permitted.
Any development would be “primarily residential,” with an estimated 1,100 housing units intended to serve faculty, staff and non-first year students. The university will set aside five acres for an estimated 110 deed-restricted “low- to moderate-income” affordable housing units, accounting for about 10% of all the new housing. (This is less than the typical 40-50% affordable housing the city requests through other larger annexation agreements.)
The university is also allowed to build facilities, such as classrooms and offices, as well as a sports arena seating up to 3,000 people, a public running track and a dog park. One of the stated goals of the agreement is to create a walkable neighborhood, so the deal allows restaurants, bars, retail, studio space and a daycare center.
With some exceptions, building heights would be capped at 55 feet (the city’s restricted height limit) and on the western side of the property, no taller than the rooftops of the homes along Chambers Drive, which are lower than the city’s limit. The agreement prohibits any occupied buildings in the 500-year floodplain, which covers the southern half of the property near South Boulder Creek.
To control the amount of traffic, the university will be required to periodically count the number of cars coming and going from the property from South Loop Drive, on the north side, and Highway 93, on the south side. The annexation agreement halts further development if the traffic exceeds 5,550 daily trips per day at the more busy South Loop Drive entrance. The agreement also requires the university to build a bus stop near the center of the property and a 12-foot-wide multi-use path along its western edge.
In exchange for this development, the university allows the city to build a flood mitigation project along U.S. 36. The flood project is designed to reduce the risk of flooding for the 2,300 residents who live in the 100-year South Boulder Creek floodplain. Those homes have a 1% chance of flooding in any given year.
It includes the construction of a dirt berm along the edge of East Moorhead Circle up to what is now the parking lot where people park to walk their dogs. The berm would then tie into a reinforced concrete wall, roughly 2,200 feet long and up to 10 feet tall, extending south along U.S. 36, according to a July 2022 preliminary design report.
Some of the strongest support for the annexation agreement comes from residents who live in the South Boulder Creek floodplain who for years have called on city councilmembers to protect them from the next flood. Frasier Meadows, a retirement community that flooded in 2013, is one of the largest donors to the campaign fighting the referendum.
Stacie Ward, who was walking the CU South property last week, said her home in the Keewaydin neighborhood flooded in 2013. Even so, she said she’s concerned about the development.
“Voting yes,” Ward said, “puts the burden on [CU Boulder], if they really want this, to come up with something to be more acceptable to the people in Boulder — not just the needs of CU to continue to expand.”
Hunter, who was discussing the referendum with Ward on their walk, said she was still deciding how to vote. She said she supports more housing for faculty and staff. (According to the university, about 33% of its 9,983 employees live in Boulder.)
But she also worried about the proposed commercial development.
“I feel like I’m going to go home and vote no again,” she said, referring to her waffling position on the ballot measure. “This is the least black-and-white issue I have ever encountered on a ballot locally. It’s just so complex.”
Clarification: The story was updated on Nov. 4 to clarify that the parking lot where people park to walk their dogs is not an official “dog park parking lot,” as previously stated.