Currently, no bars or restaurants in the commercial area of University Hill are open past 10 p.m., according to an August 2023 City of Boulder memo. Credit: Hope Munoz

Boulder’s historic University Hill neighborhood, especially its once-thriving commercial district across from main campus, has long dealt with economic stagnation. The Covid-19 pandemic only made things worse. While the causes are complex, one likely factor is the city’s own laws that have pushed businesses out or created high barriers to entry. 

One law, for instance, requires bars to close at 11 p.m. and generate most of their revenue from food sales. Nowhere else in the city does such a restriction exist.

“Why are we making it so impossible for them to succeed?” Boulder City Councilmember Tara Winer said during a city council meeting on Aug. 10, where staff presented on Hill revitalization efforts.

In 2013, councilmembers passed the law to address “concerns with alcohol overconsumption” and effects on “commercial investments,” according to a city staff memo. The ordinance, which was written into the city’s zoning code, applied to the University Hill General Improvement District, or UHGID (pronounced YOU-jid). The district encompasses practically the entire commercial area on the Hill.

The UHGID commercial area can be seen outlined in black. Source: City of Boulder Memo on University Hill Commercial Revitalization

An upshot of this ordinance, the city has suggested, is that late nightlife in UHGID is largely non-existent since the restaurant and bar industry depends on alcohol sales. That means relatively few people hang out there. And no new businesses want to open.

“Today, there are no restaurants, brewpubs, or taverns within UHGID that stay open after 10 p.m,” according to the city memo. 

Some on council now want to repeal the ordinance and create a more level playing field as the city seeks to bring nightlife and businesses back. Several councilmembers said the regulations not only hinder businesses on the Hill but also encourage students to have parties in residential areas. This potentially worsens tensions between students and longtime Hill residents over issues like noise and trash.

“The code limitations on liquor licenses on the Hill never made a lick of sense to me. I would actually fast-track that one,” Councilmember Rachel Friend said of repealing the ordinance. “I would really prefer that our kids are using substances, honestly, in front of trained staff than in basements.”

“Why would we treat these businesses any differently from the rest of the businesses in our community?” Councilmember Matt Benjamin said of the current ordinance. “We’ve deliberately handicapped any business that currently exists or wants to exist on The Hill. That’s unconscionable.”

 Cheryl Liguori, CEO of Z2 Entertainment, which operates the Hill’s Fox Theatre, said the “regulatory barrier is very unfair.” 

“Nowhere else in the state do you have to have 50% of your sales in food,” Liguori said. 

The conversation over the liquor ordinances is part of a larger, multiyear effort led by Boulder’s Community Vitality Department to revitalize the Hill. The city is still at “step zero” of this process, Reegan Brown, the senior project manager of community vitality, told Boulder Reporting Lab. 

The next steps for any potential ordinance change are unclear. Councilmember Mark Wallach said in a Hotline post after the meeting that more data is needed to draw any conclusions or take actions on the liquor ordinance. 

Two new hotels and a parking lot also targeted

The UHGID is one of Boulder’s main commercial districts. It was established in 1970 to help property owners buy land for extra parking. They did this by taxing themselves.

In its memo to city council, staff painted a bleak picture of UHGID’s financial health. In 2022, property tax revenue was only $32,415, much lower than the property tax revenue of other general improvement districts in the city’s commercial areas, it said.

Meanwhile, over the past year, sales tax revenue in the district has declined more than 3% at a time when it rose, on average, over 10% in downtown Boulder and 7% citywide. In 2022, more than half-dozen businesses closed — including longtime shops like Albums on the Hill. The commercial vacancy rate in UHGID is 14%. 

“UHGID has suffered for decades from an increasingly homogenous business mix that fails to attract a sufficient number of regional customers to achieve sustainable economic vitality,” the memo states. 

There are just under 70 businesses within the Hill commercial district. They fall under these business types. Source: City of Boulder Memo on University Hill Commercial Revitalization

Longer-term efforts to revitalize the Hill are already underway. 

Over time, the city is expecting an economic boost in the area from two new hotels coming to University Hill — The Hill Hotel and the Limelight Conference Center and Hotel. The hotels are expected to bring year-round visitors to an area that empties out when students break for summer. The Hill Hotel is set to open in spring 2024 and the Limelight Conference Center and Hotel in 2025. 

“We really did need something more, like The Hill Hotel, that’s giving us an opportunity to revitalize,” said Bonnie Dahl, co-owner of The Fitter, a smoke accessory and clothing shop off 13th Street. Dahl and her sister started their business in 1973. She said she’s watched the Hill lose its vibrancy over the years. 

“I think what we’ll see is more of the right types of businesses coming to the Hill, if that can happen. Because we have not been able to attract that in a whole lot of years,” Dahl said.

Before presenting to council, the city worked with the Urban Land Institute, an organization that helps communities with land-use decisions, to come up with recommendations for what to do with UHGID. 

One piece of land UHGID got in 1970 was the 14th Street parking lot near College Avenue. It’s the only property left that UGHID owns in the commercial area. UHGID recently sold its other significant property and parking area, the Pleasant Street lot. The sale was made to make way for the construction of the Hill Hotel.

ULI put together a panel of experts that focused on what to do with the 14th Street lot. It looked at longer-term options, including building stacked parking levels, retail businesses like a grocery store, something that doesn’t exist on the Hill, or housing units for CU Boulder faculty. It also suggested possibly building a food hall or social club on the lot. 

These ideas, if approved, are several years from implementation. 

On safety, the panel recommended “activating” alleyways, or turning them into lively community spaces. They referenced a 2018 alley plan, commissioned by the city and conducted by land planning service Russel + Mills, which called for lighting in the alleyways and the creation of outdoor seating areas while still maintaining pathways for cars. 

Source: Russel + Mills, University Hill Alley Enhancements Plan Final Draft, Aug. 18 2018

As for project funding, Teresa Pinkal, the city’s senior manager of economic vitality and business services, said the $2.7 million from the city’s sale of the Pleasant Street lot will be used. 

“That funding is available for redevelopment,” Pinkal said. Actual budgets haven’t been determined.

‘I hope it’s a place people want to visit again’

Efforts to revitalize the Hill will not move forward without opportunities for the public to weigh in, Brown said, including from students. 

Chase Cromwell, CU Boulder’s student body president, said, overall, he thinks the city should engage students more on Hill issues. More than that, he said: “The way that we solicit student input matters a lot — the language that we use as community leaders, as government leaders.

“When we demonize students, and we say that the alcohol changes are going to lead to massive student misconduct, we are discouraging students from participating in that process.”

When it comes to the liquor ordinance, Cromwell believes ultimately “it makes sense to listen to the business community.”

“The ordinances exist to try and curb a lot of student activities,” he said. “And they may make sense in practice, but when [the Hill ordinances] really limit what these businesses are able to do — when you have to totally stop operations that early on — that results in limited food options late at night.” And that has negative consequences for businesses and the neighborhood, he said.

But he also doesn’t foresee any “dramatic effects” if the liquor ordinance is overturned. “Probably more than anything, what you’re going to see is extended food service hours.”

Among his main interests and focuses: a grocery store on the Hill.

“That’s what I hear a lot from students. The closest real grocery option is the Safeway on Arapahoe or the Target all the way on the other side of town,” he said. This “makes it really hard to not have a car,” he added.

Nick Ayala, meanwhile, owner of SLCT, a vintage clothing shop on the Hill, told Boulder Reporting Lab that the commercial area in particular could benefit from more than just increased commercial activity, but a greater presence from the city’s sanitation and police departments. 

“I hope it’s a place people want to visit again, like even people who live in Boulder,” Ayala said. 

Hope Munoz is a summer 2023 Community Reporting Fellow for Boulder Reporting Lab. She is a senior at CU Boulder. Munoz can be reached at

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1 Comment

  1. One thing that isn’t being accounted for is the loss of some of the historic homes along Grandview Ave., locations that include the site of the Media Archaeology Lab. The MAL is an important cultural institution whose home will soon be razed to the ground so the university can build a tacky hotel that subsumes this quiet and historic neighborhood on the east side of Broadway. I’m disappointed that these kinds of cultural institutions are considered expendable in the name of “cleaning up” a neighborhood the university itself has badly neglected.

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