2017 Planning Board Application

If you’re the type of person who finds these things entertaining, here’s my 2017 application to the City of Boulder’s Planning Board…

What technical/professional qualifications, skill sets and relevant experiences do you have for this position (such as educational degrees, specialized training, service on governing or decision-making boards, etc.)?

For the past five years I have served on Boulder’s Transportation Advisory Board (TAB). As a member of TAB, I have participated as a member of the city’s Form Based Code working group, the Greenways Advisory Commission, and the Transportation Maintenance Fee task force. As a private individual I also served on the Decision Analysis Working Group in support of the City of Boulder’s bid to create a municipal electric utility. Since 2012 I have been a member of the board of the Boulder Housing Coalition, a small local non-profit affordable housing provider. For the last 3 years I have served on the Executive Committee of Better Boulder, a local sustainable transportation and land-use policy advocacy organization. I’ve also served on several successful local ballot campaign committees, helping to secure funding for Open Space and transportation maintenance in the fall of 2013 with the passage of measures 2B, 2C, & 2D, and helping to defeat measures 300 & 301 in the fall of 2015. I have also spent many years living in housing cooperatives, participating in and facilitating consensus based governance at weekly meetings.

In the above roles I have performed staff oversight, organizational budgeting and strategic planning, public engagement and outreach, and facilitated countless meetings. My professional background is in the geosciences and energy policy. When appropriate I have used my data analysis skills to help inform the decisions made by the organizations I’ve been part of (e.g. this analysis of Boulder County property records in association with the cooperative housing ordinance). My policy analysis work has often involved communicating the implications of complex regulations to a broader public audience.

Have you had any experiences with this Board or the services it oversees that have sparked your interest in becoming a member of the Board, and, if so, please describe the experience(s) and what insight you gained. (shorter)

I have offered written and oral comments to Planning Board on many occasions. My input has been related to both quasi-judicial project review and matters of broader policy. As a member of the Community Cycles Advocacy Committee, I’ve helped craft feedback for Planning Board on the bike and pedestrian infrastructure elements of many projects.  As a member of the public interested in supporting affordable housing I followed the recent Housing Boulder process closely, and saw the role that members of Planning Board played in its oversight and direction.

Giving project level design feedback at various stages in the review process has taught me the importance of participating early in the process, when it is relatively easy for the overall site plan and character of a project to be altered substantially. For example, I offered detailed comments on the RĂŞve project in Boulder Junction when its concept plan was called up by City Council, and it was gratifying to see many of the urban design issues I brought up addressed in the final site plan.

My time on TAB and work with Community Cycles has highlighted the importance of attending to the details of implementing Transportation Master Plan (TMP) and connection plans in site and concept plan reviews. In many cases private developers are responsible for constructing transportation infrastructure, and the development review process is our only chance to ensure that the planned connections are made appropriately.

In the Housing Boulder process I saw that members of Planning Board played a large role in shaping public outreach and engagement. It became clear to me that the city needs to do a much better job of proactively recruiting feedback from residents that tend to be underrepresented in our public processes, including not only minority populations but also people under the age of 35 (half our population), renters (also half our population), students (nearly a quarter of our population), and families making less than 80% of AMI (about 40% of our population). Data from this 2011 demographic profile of Boulder.

Describe a situation where you were involved with a group and had to work through a disagreement or conflict among the members. What techniques or specific actions did you find to be most effective in mitigating or resolving the disagreement/conflict?

For more than the last year, I’ve been involved in organizing a bulk food buying cooperative serving Boulder’s housing co-ops. The process has been a long transition from an ad-hoc organization largely dependent on me, to a formal corporate entity with a board, budget, bylaws, and well defined procedures and division of responsibilities. Having witnessed the recent financial failure of The Second Kitchen and the Boulder Co-op Market at 19th and Pearl years earlier, I have been very protective of the nascent bulk buying cooperative’s finances. This led to some community members feeling that I was trying to monopolize control of the bulk food system, which resulted in some contentious meetings, and the organizational process stalling out at times. As a result I have slowly divested from all my food co-op responsibilities, except for the bookkeeping, and have encouraged other people to take on leadership roles, while also slowly helping to hammer out bylaws and push the transition to our first elected board. I have had long, challenging one-on-one conversations with other participants in the process. Some of them have been productive and helped me understand their criticisms of my leadership style, and I think I have learned to be a better listener because of it. In the end, most work seems to get done by people who are willing to continue showing up and participating, even when it’s boring or contentious, and even when the work feels unappreciated, because they believe in the underlying objective and have enough in common for it to continue being worthwhile to work together.

List all potential conflicts of interest you might have with respect to the work of this board, and explain how you think any potential or perceived conflicts of interest should be handled by Board members.

I currently serve on the following local organizational boards and committees: the Boulder Housing Coalition (BHC) Board of Directors, the Better Boulder Steering Committee, the Community Cycles Advocacy Committee, the Boulder Community Housing Association (BoCHA) Advocacy Committee, and the Catalyst Cooperative Board of Directors. In order to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest, and ensure that I have sufficient time and attention to dedicate to Planning Board responsibilities, if I’m selected to serve on the board I would resign from all of these positions except for Catalyst Cooperative (Catalyst is an employee owned data and policy analysis cooperative, and my primary employer). Due to my long standing association with the BHC, and the personal friendships I have with several board and staff members of the organization, I would likely need to recuse myself from Planning Board deliberations related to any BHC application coming before the board.

Most individuals applying to serve on Planning Board likely have some pre-existing policy or political experience in the City, which informs the perspective they bring to the board. I think that’s appropriate and desirable. It’s also important for board members to make their organizational associations clear to the public.

If members of Planning Board serve on boards or subcommittees of organizations which take positions supporting or opposing individual projects, I think they should recuse themselves from Planning Board’s quasi-judicial review of those projects. For instance, if I were to serve on both Planning Board and the Better Boulder Steering Committee, and Better Boulder took a position on an application to redevelop the Boulder Community Health site on Broadway, I would feel compelled to recuse myself from the project’s site plan review, rather than risk the appearance of the deliberations being influenced by inappropriate ex-parte communications. It seems simpler and safer to just resign from such positions while serving on Planning Board.

What do you think are the most important planning issues facing the City? What expertise or insight could you bring to the Board’s deliberations and recommendations and what books have you read, courses have you taken or experience have you had that have shaped your thinking about urban planning?

In the short term the most important issue Boulder faces is our housing shortage and the resulting lack of affordable options for people who work and go to school here, as well as for long time residents who would like to age in place. Folks who have been in Boulder for a long time, and have positive memories of the city they initially chose to live in are understandably concerned about the changes that might result from addressing our housing shortage — especially if we do a bad job of it. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that another kind of change will happen if we don’t address this issue. Boulder will continue to become more exclusive and less diverse, and will lose the funkiness that has made it special and the socially liberal norms that many of us take pride in sharing with the community. To me the people and culture of the place are more precious than the collection of buildings we have inherited from the late 20th century. If allowing our buildings to change can re-weird Boulder and help it be a forward thinking, inclusive place for the 21st century, I think it’s worth doing.

In the long term, a primary challenge facing Boulder and the rest of the developed world is the need to re-organize our infrastructure and social systems to provide a high quality of life with dramatically lower per-capita greenhouse gas emissions. Allowing Boulder to evolve into a more urban place — at least in some parts of the city — can address both our per capita climate impacts and our housing shortage, but only if we’re also willing to change the nature of our transportation system, and move away from dependence on private automobiles. Another city is possible.

My experiences on the board of a non-profit affordable housing provider, the city’s Transportation Advisory Board, and my professional work in energy and climate policy prepare me for addressing the nexus of issues described above.

Housing supply & affordability, cultural inclusivity, sustainability, quality of life, functional transportation systems, community economic vitality, and fiscal responsibility need not be at odds with each other. We can serve all of these goals simultaneously, but only if we are willing to change the physical nature of our city. We can accommodate many decades worth of growth within the existing height limit and growth boundaries if we are willing to build more traditional, compact, walkable urban places. Instead of prioritizing a large quantity of “open space” within the city, we need to focus on creating a high quality, pleasantly habitable public realm in between our buildings. If we do this first in parts of the city where the changes have few direct impacts on neighbors, and we do it well, it’s my hope that some existing neighborhoods will eventually, gradually invite similar changes in their own vicinity.

The following works have influenced my thinking on these issues over the years: Cities for People by Jan Gehl; Happy City by Charles Montgomery; Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson; The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup; Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton; Progress and Poverty by Henry George; The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air by David JC MacKay; Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil; Worldchanging & Carbon Zero by Alex Steffen; The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander; posts by Daniel Kay Hertz at City Observatory.

I have also been inspired by the positive examples of urban environments I’ve experienced while living in or traveling through small and medium sized cities in Japan and Europe.

Other than the Pearl Street Mall, identify the three most successful and the three least successful examples of planning, or the failure thereof, in Boulder. Please explain what elements contributed to these projects’ success or failure.

After many years, much contentious debate, and several failed proposals, the 5.8 acre Junior Academy site near Mt. Sanitas ended up accommodating only 23 high end detached single family dwellings in a development called “Trailhead.” This is an average of only 4 homes per acre, and it aligned relatively well with the desires of the immediate neighborhood, but provided few benefits to the broader community. Mapleton Hill hosts many examples of well loved though non-conforming historic density. Re-zoning the Junior Academy site to encourage small homes on small lots in a well connected grid, and small scale traditional attached dwellings would not have been out of character with the broader neighborhood, could have provided more modest market rate dwellings, and some opportunity for permanently affordable housing close to Boulder’s historic core. Alternatively it could have supplied substantially more cash-in-lieu to support affordable housing elsewhere in the city.

The Solana apartments in Boulder Junction are at the other end of the spectrum. They provide a substantial amount of housing in an appropriate location, but the buildings themselves are monolithic, relatively uninteresting, and appear to be of middling quality. While Boulder Junction design guidelines require that the buildings be oriented toward the public realm, in practice there are no major entrances to the building that open onto the street, other than the parking garage. A few individual ground floor units have street access, but common entrances are hidden behind gates in the courtyards, and the design expectation is clearly that residents will enter and exit via the underground garage. This design does little to create an active public realm or encourage pedestrian access. The site plan was required to be “permeable” but the interior courtyards are separated from the street by gates and stairs, creating large impenetrable blocks. The city also did not require that the small street immediately to the west of the project be dedicated as a public right of way and integrated into the Boulder Junction street grid. Thankfully this oversight was addressed in the site plan for Rêve, but the west side of Solana was not designed to be a place, and in an urban district like Boulder Junction all the spaces between buildings deserve to be inviting. Parking costs are in theory supposed to be unbundled in Boulder Junction, but what constitutes unbundling was not sufficiently defined by the city in advance, and so much of the cost of parking at Solana is being hidden within rents.

The East Arapahoe corridor is a major regional commuting connection, and provides access to many significant employers including the hospital, Ball Aerospace, and a variety of commercial and light industrial areas. It deserves a well thought out long-range plan that encompasses both land use and transportation changes within the corridor. When Envision East Arapahoe kicked off a couple of years ago, concerns about potential impacts resulting from land use changes in the area first resulted in a very narrow range of options being considered, and then essentially turned the process into a transportation corridor planning exercise. Planning transportation infrastructure in the area without simultaneously considering the potential for significant land-use changes — especially given the commercial zoning of most of the area, and Boulder’s shortage of housing relative to employment potential — seems short sighted, and likely to result in duplicative efforts in the long run.

Red Oak Park is one of many great examples of a 100% permanently affordable housing development done by BHP. They incorporated a large amount of design input from prospective residents — many of whom lived on the site prior to construction while it was a mobile home park — and as a result ended up with many duplexes and triplexes that feel like a relatively “traditional” neighborhood, but are modest in scale and share walls, reducing construction costs and energy consumption relative to fully detached dwellings. The orientation of homes around a central green allows kids to play within sight of many residents, making it a good example of family friendly density. The project was large enough to take advantage of low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) financing, and so made efficient use of the city affordable housing dollars that went into it.

In a similar vein, Wild Sage Co-housing in the Holiday Neighborhood is a great example of mixed-income, family-friendly multi-family housing. It is even more clearly oriented around a common courtyard than Red Oak Park, and the Wild Sage courtyard is entirely separated from motor vehicles, offering a safe and inviting place for kids to interact with plenty of community oversight. The common green serves the role of many individual yards and lawns, allowing the same need for safe outdoor play to be satisfied with much less space that’s more fully utilized than the yards in a suburban development pattern.  The mixed income nature of Wild Sage and Holiday more broadly, is the result of a density bonus that roughly doubled the amount of housing that could be provided on the site, in exchange for a ~40% of it being permanently affordable. This same model could be applied in other parts of the city — especially in eastern Boulder — and at the higher residential densities that are required to support some ground floor non-residential uses and pedestrian accessible neighborhood serving retail.

Some people have taken issue with the Pearl West development that replaced the old Daily Camera building downtown, but from an urban design perspective the new building is far more appropriate than the old one. The heart of the central business district is the right place for us to max out building height, and Pearl West creates a streetscape that is consistent with the walkable, historic urban core. The moat of surface parking that surrounded the Daily Camera building was completely out of place on Pearl and created a dead zone in what ought to be one of the most active parts of the city. The small plaza to the west of the building on Pearl has a lot of potential to be a great public space, if it’s activated — if people are invited to linger and interact there. So far it hasn’t seen much action, but hopefully as the weather warms up it will.  I also personally like the building itself. It doesn’t ape the historic buildings that surround it, but it uses traditional feeling high-quality materials (brick, glass, steel), and largely a traditional ratio of wall to windows, with the glass corners helping to break up the building’s façade, and keep it from seeming monolithic and boring at ground level, despite being quite large. One of the major criticisms leveled at the development is that it blocks views of the mountains. Boulder’s iconic Flatiron views are treasured by the community, but preserving those views universally would have a very high cost in terms of our ability to meet other community goals. In this case, I think swapping a downtown surface parking lot with a view, for a high quality walkable downtown district was a reasonable trade off. In other cases I think we should make a concerted effort to preserve a public view corridors. As with the shared common green at Wild Sage, a few curated and well framed views can be effectively shared and enjoyed by many people, without having large impacts on overall development potential.

Describe specific changes you would make to the City of Boulder Planning regulations, and explain why you would make the changes.

Our zoning code should do a better job of incentivizing the kind of housing we say we want to see built. For instance, imposing minimum on-site open space requirements per dwelling unit and capping the number of dwelling units per acre both encourage the construction of a smaller quantity of more expensive housing. The resulting open space is often poorly utilized, and fails to contribute to the public realm where it can provide community benefit. If we actually want to increase the supply of housing and ensure that it is relatively modest, we should make more, smaller units the most profitable thing to build. This kind of development understandably creates concerns about local traffic and parking impacts from nearby residents, and we should be willing to do whatever it takes to mitigate those impacts, rather than simply ruling out additional modest housing supply.

We should make much more use of density bonuses to incentivize the creation of permanently affordable housing. Done right, this is a scalable way to pay for affordable housing, while simultaneously increasing market rate housing supply. If that market rate housing is intrinsically affordable by virtue of being modest, difficult to expand, and unattractive to the wealthy (as the city’s recent housing study showed many types of attached dwellings are), this could be very good for both low and middle income residents.

Traditional row-homes can offer many of the amenities families seek, at lower cost, while using less land and energy. We should change our zoning to allow true rowhouses, built to their lot lines, rather than forcing all rowhouse style development to take the form of condominiums on a shared lot, which has negative financing implications.

We should make building awesome things easy, by expediting the approval of projects that make legally binding commitments to meet higher standards, and provide more community benefit. For example, this might mean some combination of meeting more stringent building energy efficiency standards, complying with a Form Based Code, providing a larger amount of affordable housing, or accepting a trip reduction ordinance. This would give developers the option of directing resources into improving the project instead of wasting money on carrying costs and the mitigation of regulatory risk, and would ensure that those additional investments are put into the things prioritized by the community.

If we truly value having more diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods, we also need to look at what kinds of housing are allowed in our existing low-density residential zones. It’s not surprising that virtually none of the city’s affordable housing is located in the RL zones. Currently housing in these areas is intrinsically expensive because land costs are high. Public affordable housing funds are thus most efficiently used in higher density zones where land costs can be spread across a larger number of housing units. However, the recent Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan Survey indicated strong community support for many types of residential infill within existing neighborhoods, including duplexes, cottage courts, alley houses, and ADUs. Allowing these and other “missing middle” housing types in existing neighborhoods can preserve or increase neighborhood income diversity, without dramatically altering the character of the neighborhood. If it were more profitable for property owners, residential infill could also discourage the construction of yet more large single family homes when properties change hands and existing structures are removed due to high land costs. It might be especially useful to combine density bonuses for affordable housing with residential infill.

Describe some changes to city policy and regulations that could reduce transportation impacts and improve the relationship between transportation and land use planning.

Mixed use development, where a variety of housing, jobs, and services are within easy walking distance of each other is the ultimate long-term transportation impact reduction strategy. However, it isn’t worth very much unless we pay attention to making walking for transportation a wonderful experience. This means making our streets feel both safe and interesting. It means making crossing streets easy. It means extending an invitation to people to walk and to linger in public space. If we want people to walk, our street design and construction standards and the frontage of the developments we approve should reflect that desire.

Less romantically, transparently priced parking is also powerful transportation demand management (TDM) tool. The city should remove our minimum parking requirements for a wide variety of land uses in areas where options other than driving exist. We should also require that parking costs be fully unbundled from other real estate transactions. Parking minimums artificially increase the cost of housing and commercial space, require non-drivers to subsidize drivers, push destinations within the city further apart, and create hostile pedestrian environments. At the very least, we should reduce minimum parking requirements to be in line with actual parking utilization rates observed in the parking study commissioned by the city last year. We should also keep in mind that during the ~40 year lifespan of a parking structure built today, it seems likely that autonomous vehicles will make much urban parking capacity unnecessary.

Removing off-street parking requirements and charging for off-street parking would undoubtedly raise concerns about parking impacts nearby.  We should be willing to expand our use of neighborhood parking permit (NPP) districts to help mitigate spillover. We should explore requiring developers to fund the operation of NPP districts within their area of impact, as those costs are potentially much smaller than the costs avoided by no longer being required to build as much parking on-site. These requirements could be implemented in the context of more general TDM districts, and coupled with trip reduction ordinances (as exist in Boulder Junction) to make the reduction of transportation impacts binding on developers.

We should continue to pursue regional arterial bus rapid transit (BRT) connections with nearby communities (e.g. along the Diagonal Highway and State Highway 7), and encourage commuter destinations to be located adjacent to those regional corridors, along with the kinds of services employees are likely to access during the day. In the medium to long term, it seems likely that Boulder will need to explore the creation of a local transit funding mechanism, as RTD does not appear willing to provide either the level of service we want, or a level of service that would be consistent with the tax revenue we send to them.

All else being equal, I would prefer that we encourage housing to be added in more central rather than peripheral locations. However, the annexation and eventual development of the South CU campus offers an unusual opportunity for housing at the edge of the city to be less auto dependent. All CU staff, faculty, and students receive EcoPasses, and a large portion of the folks who end up living in any housing developed on the south campus are likely to be traveling to a small number of CU destinations on a regular basis. The University also does a good job of pricing and managing parking. If a substantial amount of housing is to be built on the south campus, we should partner with CU to simultaneously enhance transit service in south and central Boulder, and help mitigate the city wide transportation impacts of their development.

Many people are challenging the buildings currently being constructed, questioning building height, parking reductions, intensity, appropriateness and design. What are your thoughts about the building and development that you see in Boulder?

As a community, we have many goals, and sometimes tension exists between them. We say we want housing that’s affordable, transit that’s frequent, and neighborhood serving retail, but we’re hesitant to accept the density required to support all those things.  We say we want abundant free parking and free road access, but we don’t want traffic. Part of the role of policymakers is to sort through these conflicting public desires, and come up with a solution that works well for as many people as possible, and that everyone can at least put up with. Obviously this is challenging, but I like to think that as a city we have enough shared values that it is possible.

I have no issues with the intensity of developments that we see, or with building heights as allowed by the city charter, or parking reductions. That doesn’t mean I think everything being built is good. We do a poor job of ensuring that buildings are lovable, and creating good public spaces between them. Sometimes this is because our own code gets in the way (as with the minimum open space requirements per dwelling unit in some zones) and sometimes we have good language in our code, but do a poor job of translating it into good buildings on the ground (as with our design guidelines requiring buildings to be oriented toward the street.) Developing a more broadly applicable form based code and using it as a way to expedite and ensure high quality development would be a good start.

Good development can serve our affordable housing and sustainability goals, make a wider variety of transportation choices viable, improve our quality of life and the city’s economic vitality, and still be profitable enough for developers that they actually build it. We can, and should, capture a significant portion of the value created through upzoning or other regulatory entitlements, but I see no reason to assume that this is a zero sum game.

The amount of concern a development raises depends dramatically on its location and surrounding context. Should we plonk down a 5 story, 300 unit mixed-use building in the middle of an RL-1 neighborhood? Of course not. Could the same building make sense in Phase II of TVAP, or between Boulder Junction and the East CU campus? Absolutely. If we want to meaningfully address our housing shortage, we’re going to have to allow a lot of housing to get built, and many of the best places to accommodate that housing are not within existing neighborhoods.  There’s plenty of work to be done improving the single-use superblocks in east Boulder, and replacing underutilized surface parking lots and arterial strip malls before we consider making substantial changes to existing neighborhoods. My hope is that if we do our job well, the new neighborhoods we create will be so loved that in time some elements of them may be invited into the established parts of Boulder. And if we don’t do our job well, then maybe existing neighborhoods were right to be skeptical of change.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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