Jan Burton: End the kerfuffle over opportunity zones

This is the second of two columns regarding Boulder’s designated “opportunity zone.” The first one appeared in print on Dec. 7.

Boulder’s census tract 122.04 was designated by the state of Colorado as a federal “opportunity zone,” meaning that favorable tax treatment might encourage more investment.

Whether you agree or not with this tax program, it only makes sense to look at how it could help Boulder accomplish its most difficult challenges: affordable housing and affordable commercial space and associated transportation problems.

Nothing has been promised or mandated, and Boulder owes nothing to developers or rich investors. Even if we embrace the opportunity zone, we control our zoning and land use decisions, and we retain the long-standing 1 percent per year growth limit on housing units. We control our own future.

As Councilman Sam Weaver explained in a recent Hotline posting: “The stated reasons by the City for pursuing this designation … were to incentivize affordable housing, incentivize affordable commercial development, and to incentivize re-development of the Diagonal Plaza shopping center. These are all goals which are also contemplated by the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan, most especially creating more affordable housing.”

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To remind our readers, the city and county of Boulder spent almost three years and more than $3.5 million of direct headcount costs developing our 2015 Boulder Comprehensive Plan. It was an all-inclusive process involving thousands of Boulder residents, most of our boards and commissions, and adopted in 2017 by four public bodies, including the Boulder City Council and Boulder County Commissioners. Six of the current council members voted unanimously to adopt this Comprehensive Plan.

Why not look at the opportunity zone, then, as a tool to address the redevelopment goals outlined in the Comprehensive Plan?

  • It could provide funds that make more affordable housing possible to meet the needs of employees working in the city, particularly at several large employers located within the opportunity zone.
  • We could encourage more infill redevelopment along major commute corridors and provide creative transportation solutions, which would give people the chance to commute by walking, biking and transit. How many of the 60,000 cars could we get off the roads every day?
  • It might help revitalization of two underutilized areas that the Comprehensive Plan calls out for future development, the Diagonal Plaza and East Boulder industrial area. It took only 30 seconds for a Palo Parkway friend to visualize how Diagonal Plaza could become a neighborhood center, complete with restaurants, brewpubs, shopping and more. Centers like these throughout the zone can help us make real progress toward our “15-Minute Neighborhood” goals.
  • The public-private partnerships that opportunity zones can facilitate might allow for social services organizations to build and operate homeless housing or other services. I met with a youth homeless organization in the Midwest that is considering placement of a tiny home housing community in an opportunity zone.

The Colorado Office for Economic Development and International Trade has given best practice guidance for communities: Be proactive, act with urgency, think like an investor, and layer additional programs to accomplish local objectives. Acting with urgency is the opposite of slapping a moratorium on the area.

We have lurched from one moratorium to another, with the occasional emergency ordinance, over the past few years to address perceived development problems. This is very disruptive and expensive for those organizations and businesses trying to redevelop properties under these policies.

I have heard of one small project that had to undergo three separate revisions, costing $250,000, to comply with the continued changes in BC1 and BC2 zoning. As we speak, there are creative and eclectic building projects in planning and review that would be stopped under an opportunity zone moratorium. This is no way to run a city.

As Planning Board member and local architect Bryan Bowen recently said, “Whatever the next thing someone hears about, (the reaction is) ‘Oh my god, we should think about a moratorium’ … We react to something and we don’t ever actually get to the point of planning.”

City Council is poised to use the specter of national tax policy concerns as a bogeyman for blanketing a large part of our city with a redevelopment moratorium, fulfilling the goals that the most ardent anti-development supporters failed to achieve in their Proposition 300 and 301 initiatives. Instead, let’s ask the city manager to engage our urban planners and a small team in a rapid process to imagine how to make the most of our opportunity zone. This is a treasured asset that can help accomplish our Comprehensive Plan vision and goals.

Let’s end the kerfuffle over opportunity zones and get to the planning and the doing.

Jan Burton is a former Boulder City Council member. Email: Jan.burton111@gmail.com.

2019-01-11T14:47:04+00:00