The Huffington Post recently hosted a public forum on Boulder’s affordable housing challenges. Among other causes, the forum’s panelists called out our restrictive development policies. As Boulder Councilwoman Jill Adler Grano explained, Boulder was planned as an “urban core surrounded by open space.” But while creating a beautiful “island paradise,” we’ve also instituted policies that limit housing and commercial density, causing our island property to become expensive.
Yes, in alignment with predictable market forces, height restrictions, low-density zoning, and onerous development requirements have collided with increased demand from those who want to move to our island. The response has been a call for even more regulation to artificially constrain the price of new commercial and residential development and seemingly a new “emergency” ordinance every month to address the consequences of our own regulatory actions. We then rely on increased development fees and other exactions to correct the ensuing imbalance.
In other words, we’ve tried to engineer paradise, only to face the inevitable consequences of the tangled web we’ve weaved. Studies of such zoning policies also show they undermine our community’s inclusivity values. (See recent actions in Minneapolis to eliminate single-family housing zones that perpetuate segregation.) In order to achieve our community’s social, environmental and economic goals, we should work with the market, not quixotically against it.
For example, a City Council majority recently approved some of the country’s highest linkage fees on commercial development with the intention of funding affordable housing programs. The result is to drive up rental rates for small businesses at the same time they face rising property taxes, making it more difficult for them to keep their doors open. Ironically, Council now is considering regulations to prevent developers from building ground-floor residential units in commercial zones. This seems at odds with providing more housing options, while also diminishing the opportunity to create new customer traffic for desired businesses.
All the while, there’s the disturbing attitude exhibited in a recent City Council Hotline post: “Our ongoing community land development is a collaboration between the residents’ desires as communicated by City Council and the private sector desires as communicated through development applications.” With all due respect, I hope Council fully integrates the interests of well-intentioned business leaders who help support our economic vitality (many who are residents of this community) in their decision-making. It’s not one versus the other: It will take all perspectives coming together to strike the right balance in support of community goals.
Developers — whether they are the architects and construction teams working to add a room to your house or design office space for one of our innovative businesses — already are operating within one of the nation’s most restrictive, complicated and costly regulatory environments. There’s certainly a need for thoughtful guidelines to address important issues from public safety to energy efficiency and design.
Yet, with every new regulation or fee we constrain the creativity and innovation that could deliver even more valuable benefits for our community. And this is aside from the current trend to stifle any redevelopment activity through “short-term” moratoriums that stretch from months to years.
I make these points having recently joined with hundreds of Boulder citizens to celebrate the life of Virginia “Gingy” Patterson. In her eulogy, Rev. Mary Kate Réjouis described the lesson that Patterson once imparted when she laid a ceramic carrot on Réjouis’ desk: “You get more out of people with carrots than a stick.” Rather than continually working to regulate our way to paradise, City Council should consider incentivizing the things we would like to see in our community.
What does that look like? Consider adopting policies that encourage development which advances community goals. We could, for example, streamline our notoriously onerous development approval process for desired redevelopment projects. We could also offer bonuses for naturally affordable higher density units in targeted locations. Finally, we should welcome creative financing mechanisms, like “opportunity zones,” that facilitate the very goals we established in our Comprehensive Plan.
Just like every reader of this op-ed and every business I have the privilege to represent through the Boulder Chamber, I want this community to maintain its charms and high quality of life. At the same time, there are challenges we need to address on our beautiful island. So instead of reflexively passing moratoriums in the face of rumored development evils or running to the imagined safety of some new regulatory restriction, let’s consider Patterson’s carrot and see how much easier it is to take that road to paradise.
John Tayer is president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber.