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.

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Rêve: Dreaming of a Human City

ReveTitleA couple of weeks ago a large development dubbed Rêve (“dream” in French) became the first project to get called up by Boulder’s City Council at concept plan review (see the concept book for the project here).  Rêve would occupy a 6.7 acre site on the southeast corner of Pearl Parkway and 30th St., just to the west of the Solana apartments.  Much of it would extend south beyond the boundaries of the Boulder Junction area.  I offered some comments to City Council on the project, as someone who would like to see more human scale, rather than auto-oriented development in Boulder.  If we’re going to be able to do that anywhere, it seems like it ought to be Boulder Junction (formerly the Transit Village).  Once we get the BRT up and running, it should be highly transit accessible.  It’s surrounded by regional employment centers — the expanding east CU campus to the south, the new Googleplex to the east, and who knows what else eventually as the area builds out… or rather, builds in.  Also, despite being part of “east” Boulder, Boulder Junction is really quite centrally located within the city as a whole.  As I wrote recently both here and in the Daily Camera, I think that if it’s done with a particular focus on the human scale, and with less accommodation than we’re used to for automobiles, development in the area need not have substantial direct impacts on existing residential neighborhoods in the city, in terms of parking spillover, traffic congestion, and viewsheds.

I’m not opposed to the overall intensity of the development. In fact, I think it could be much better for people on the ground with a higher FAR.  Improving the project at the current or higher intensity hinges on doing a better job of curating and cultivating the spaces between the buildings, turning them into great outdoor rooms and corridors, and wholeheartedly turning them over to human beings.  This is just a matter of focusing on traditional (like, thousands of years old) urban design.

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No Vision for East Arapahoe

Typical East ArapahoeI went to the Open House for the city’s Envision East Arapahoe project last night. This process was originally supposed to look at transportation improvements and potential land-use changes along the East Arapahoe corridor. But based on the presentation from and some conversations with staff, it sounds like they’ve scaled the project back on the land-use side to only considering what the best split between employment/retail/housing would be for the 4,300 jobs they estimate could be out there under current zoning but which haven’t been built out yet.  When you compare that number to the existing ~34,000 jobs in the study area, it’s clear that no change in the character of the corridor is going to be considered.

Which is amazing, because it’s horrible for the most part now.  People who have to walk and bike through the area use words like “hellhole” and “wasteland” and “disaster area.”  But I guess Motordom seems to think it’s just fine as is.

The city has apparently been inundated with “Don’t make it like Boulder Junction!” comments, and so have been scared off from doing anything substantial to the land use.  Of course there’s still lots of flowery language about bike and pedestrian amenities, but they’ll be of little use if there are no destinations in the area to speak of, and it continues to have a giant freeway running through the middle of it.

At this point it feels like the best outcome within these constraints might be to stop throwing planning resources toward land use changes at all (including the 4,300 jobs/housing/etc) but get a real BRT line along Arapahoe, so that if/when we come to our senses on land use, the transit trunk line capacity is already in place to potentially support redevelopment without creating a traffic disaster.

It would be nice if there was at least one scenario modeled in all this — if they’re going to continue putting staff hours into it — that included substantial changes to the zoning.  Just to see what it looks like in terms of VMT, GHG emissions, potential street cross-sections, etc.

It would also be nice if the superblock between the east CU campus and Boulder Junction got special treatment, and were looked at with an eye toward knitting those two urbanizing areas together into one cohesive whole.  It’s miserable to walk or bike through now, built to very low intensity with a ton of surface parking, but it could be a wonderful mixed use district served well by the new transit hub and in easy walking distance of the University.  Restaurants, lab and office space for university spin-offs or startups, some housing, etc.  More than any other part of the Arapahoe corridor, that place seems to have a context that demands some re-envisioning in the shorter term.

The whole package goes to Council tonight (Tuesday, 10/28) for their feedback.

Is profit driven affordable housing possible?


Last week at the Better Boulder Happy Hour (B2H2) we tried to talk about affordable housing.  The little nook at the Walnut Brewery was so packed that it was hard to even have a face-to-face conversation with folks, let alone do any kind of presentation that didn’t sound like an attempt at crowd control.  Which is good I guess… but not exactly what we’d planned.  I think a good chunk of the attendance was due to all the buzz generated by last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and the talk of a citywide development moratorium.  Anyway, it was a learning experience.  We want these events to be informative, but also to get people talking to each other, and have it be more fun and social and network-building than a brown bag seminar or lecture that’s mostly going to appeal to the Usual Suspects, who are already engaged.  We need to get more “normal” people to show up and engage on these issues.

In any case, Betsey Martens, director of Boulder Housing Partners (the city’s housing authority) got up and said a few words to the assembled crowd.  She made a point which is in retrospect obvious, but that got me thinking anyway.  The costs of creating additional housing in Boulder (or anywhere, really) can be divided up into three categories:

  1. Hard development costs — the cost of actually building the housing.
  2. Soft development costs — e.g. the financing and permitting costs, carrying costs associated with regulatory delay, organizational overhead, etc.
  3. The cost of land.

She pointed out that you can do all the work you want to reduce hard and soft development costs — using standardized designs, prefabricated buildings, streamlined permitting for affordable housing — but ultimately those optimizations just nibble around the edges of affordability.  The real driver of housing costs in a desirable place is the cost of the land, which is pretty irreducible.  If you’ve got a funding stream (as we do here from our inclusionary housing policy), then you can buy up a bunch of land and create housing on it, but there’s still an opportunity cost to be had for using the land inefficiently — the same money might have created more affordable housing.

The obvious way to attack this problem is to spread the fixed land cost across more dwelling units.  You may not be able to reduce the price of the land, but you can share it with more people, decreasing per unit costs, and increasing density.  Naysayers are quick to point out that all the density in Manhattan and Tokyo has not made them cheap.  A common response is that they’re cheaper than they would have been if they hadn’t been more densely developed, but I’m not sure this is really the right answer (even if it’s true).

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Hamburg’s Car Free Greenway Network

Grünes Netz - Stadt Hamburg

There have been a bunch of links floating around recently about the German city of Hamburg’s plans to “go car free” in the next 15-20 years.  For example this BBC Future article which references this post on Inhabitat, which then points to Arch Daily which finally links directly to the actual city planning site from Hamburg (auf deutsch of course).

Unfortunately, these seem to be just click-bait headlines.  As far as I can tell (and I don’t read German) the real point of the plan is to create an extensive, connected network of bike and pedestrian greenways that provide easy access to the entire city, without requiring users to interact with motor vehicle traffic, “eliminating the need for cars.”  Which is awesome!  But also very different from “going car free”.  There are plenty of cities where cars are generally unnecessary, but some people still choose to use them some of the time, and I don’t see why Hamburg would end up being any different after the implementation of the greenway plan.

The Fight Against Small Apartments in Seattle

A bizarre account of the NIMBYs fighting against tiny apartments in Seattle.  They fear that small living spaces must necessarily end up filled with sketchy-ass meth-heads.  But it turns out they’re more often young professionals, retirees, and other completely normal folk who either don’t want or can’t afford the canonical American Dream of yesteryear… and would rather live downtown and have access to the city.

Sustainable Transportation in Freiburg

Complete Streets

I recently came across an interesting article by Ralph Buehler and John Pucher about the city of Freiburg, Germany and its transportation system and planning since WWII (when it was 80% destroyed by Allied bombing raids).  The city isn’t so different from Boulder, Colorado, but it’s a lot further down the path to sustainability that we are.  In fact, their transportation mode split today is roughly what Boulder has laid out as our long-term goal in our Transportation Master Plan: less than 1/3 of all trips are made in cars.  Fully half of trips are done under human power (23% walking, 27% biking), with another 18% via the city’s 4 tram lines and many feeder buses.  The transit system covers 90% of its operating costs from the fare-box, with most people buying monthly flat-rate unlimited use passes for around $50.  Around 2/3 of all citizens and all jobs are located within a 3 minute walk from a tram line, and the trams run every ~5 minutes during peak hours.  Households in the US spend about $8000/year on transportation, or $2700 more per year than Germans do, and it ends up being a higher proportion of our overall household expenditures (19% vs. 14%).  You might think that that’s just because the government is spending more on their behalf, but actually their total governmental spending is also lower — $460/year vs. our $640/year.  All this, and Freiburg’s per capita transportation GHG emissions are only 29% of the US average.  So the idea that a high-quality, low-carbon transportation system has to be expensive is a myth.

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Cool Planning in Boulder

I spent the day at a workshop organized by the city with Smart Growth America and Otak, looking at how cities in the US can change their transportation and land use policies to create more livable, healthier, less carbon intensive, more fiscally sustainable communities.  Otak put together the Cool Planning Handbook for Oregon a couple of years ago, laying out the basic toolkit

It was nice to spend the day with a bunch of other Boulder folks, talking about our Actually Existing city, and not just abstract concepts.  We looked at huge printouts from Google Maps, and marked them up, with the current centers of activity and best potential locations for re-development along walkable, bikeable, transit accessible lines.  For instance…

  • The more intense development of the CU East Campus, to the point where it rivals the Main Campus in terms of square footage, with student housing and classroom space, in conjunction with the build-out of Boulder Junction and the Transit Village Area Plan just to the north will potentially create an eastern urban center of gravity for the city
  • Both the east Arapahoe corridor and East Pearl/Pearl Parkway will potentially knit that eastern urban core into the existing older core — the University, Uni Hill, and Pearl St… if we can create human scale connections between them, and mitigate a lot of the surface-parking blighted strip mall wastelands between them today.
  • Table Mesa, Basemar, The Meadows shopping center and the Diagonal Plaza could all be much better neighborhood hubs.
  • NoBo needs a grocery store.  Will it get one as the Armory and other planned infill goes in up there?
  • Could the service-industrial spaces along North 28th St. and East of Foothills Parkway between Valmont and Baseline be transformed into a walkable version of itself?  Lofts over light industrial spaces?  That kind of land use (which we do want to keep in the city!) doesn’t have to be such a sprawling mess.
  • What would it take to fully develop the Broadway corridor, both north and south, to provide the neighborhoods to the east and west of it walkable access to amenities without invading their space too much?
  • How can Colorado and 30th St. be made part of the new walkable core in the next 10-20 years?
  • How can transit oriented development (TOD) in Gunbarrel tie that outlying chunk of the city in with the core?

We talked about needing more buy-in from the origin end of a lot of our in-commuting trips — how do we get the L-burbs to give people access to the transit that can get them to jobs in Boulder?  Can they do TOD?  Can we have get better bicycle park-n-ride facilities?  And then, how do we make more of the city accessible to in-commuters that are coming on transit?  Can we get real BRT on the Diagonal?  On East Arapahoe?  All the way up and down Broadway?  What would it take to make the East Boulder office parks work for people who aren’t driving?  Where do they have lunch?  Or go to the dentist?

The day didn’t turn out to be a very contentious discussion.  After describing a particular policy option, our hosts often noted that we already had that policy in place.  From a technocratic point of view, there’s a lot of agreement on what we should be doing.  Our problem is actually getting it done — funding it, and building the political support and leadership to change the city.  And we need to change the city, if we are to have any hope of addressing climate change in a serious way.  East Boulder will never be walkable, and will never have decent transit service at its current intensity of use.  Similarly many of our single-family residential neighborhoods are too large and too diffuse to support any kind of non-conforming infill mixed-use — there just aren’t enough potential customers within the 5-minute/500m walking radius to justify adding new businesses.  We talk a lot about supplying amenities for pedestrians and cyclists and transit riders, but we don’t talk very much about actually supplying the pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders themselves!

My suspicion is that there’s a lot of latent demand for the kinds of things we talked about today, from people who are less engaged in the public processes.  University students are famously transient, but the population as a whole is persistent.  Younger professionals and the highly skilled technological workforce we have are somewhat more persistent, but they’re still prone to moving for career and family reasons, and that makes it hard to get them to participate in processes that often last 5-10 years (which is too long anyway).  A lot of the “interested but concerned” people who would like to ride their bikes if the infrastructure felt safer aren’t connected with bike advocacy… because they don’t currently bike.  A lot of people who would like to live in a slightly more urban environment aren’t engaged because any individual who brings that up in polite conversation hears something to the effect of That’s Not Boulder from the powers that be, and maybe they weren’t planning on living here for 10+ years anyway.  We need an organization that gives those people a voice, and that can be urged to vote in a bloc if need be.

There’s a kind of painful irony in the fact that the last time Boulder was transformed in short order was when we built out all of our sprawling superblocks.  The backlash against that and a lot of other mega-projects changed the way planning got done — here and elsewhere in the US — and made it much easier for a vocal minority to stop things they didn’t like.  That same bias toward hearing vocal opposition rather than broad silent support has paralyzed us.  Doing nothing is better than doing actively bad things, but we need to do more than nothing.  We need to un-do the bad things we’ve already done.

So I want another workshop, and here’s what I want it to cover:

  • How do we build political support for smart growth policies?  What community organizing tactics and strategies should we apply?  Who needs to apply them?  What regional and national organizations can support us in that?  Who are our core constituencies, and how do we activate them?
  • How do we fund all this work?  It was pointed out that public investment spurred the re-development of the Holiday neighborhood and NoBo, as well as the ongoing work in Boulder Junction, while a lack of public investment helped contribute to the land-use disaster that is the 29th St. mall.  If we don’t have a big tract of city land we can leverage, what can we do?  Long term, what’s the best way to reduce the per capita cost of building and maintaining the city’s infrastructure?
  • Assuming we’re going to get to climate neutrality by 2050, what does the city need to look like?  How will that transportation and land use system be different from what we’ve got now?  How many people do we need to have in the city to make it work?  What are the quantifiable waypoints between here and there?  What if we wanted VMT to be 80% lower in 2050?  What would that city look like?  What would Boulder look like if it had the population of Zürich, Switzerland (which is about the same area as Boulder) or the same area as Delft, in the Netherlands (which has the same population as Boulder)?  What if we un-developed a lot of the sprawling eastern areas?  What if we removed the Foothills Parkway?  These might not be the right changes, but they’re the right scale to be discussing.  Incremental adjustments to an urban form that sprang from the suburban building boom of the 1950s and 1960s won’t get us where we need to go.

Another City is Possible: Cars and Climate

Last week I taught a class at the University of Colorado for a friend.  The class is entitled Another City is Possible: Re-Imagining Detroit. She wanted me to talk about the link between cars and climate change. As usual, I didn’t finish putting the talk together until a couple of hours before the class, but it seemed like it worked out pretty well anyway. In fact, I actually got feedback forms from the class just today, and they were almost uniformly awesome to read. As if I might have actually influenced someone’s thinking on how cars and cities interact, and how cities could really be built for people. It makes me want to figure out a way to teach on a regular basis.  Here’s an outline of what I said, and some further reading for anyone interested.

What is a car?

For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “car” I mean a machine capable of moving at least 4 people at a speed of greater than 80 km/hr (50 mi/hr). This means cars are big (they take up a lot of space) and cars want to go fast (though in reality they go at about biking speed on average, door-to-door, in urban areas). Cars as we know them today are also heavy, usually in excess of 500 kg (1000 lbs) and numerous, because they’re overwhelmingly privately owned. These four characteristics in combination makes widespread everyday use of automobiles utterly incompatible with cities that are good for people. Big, fast, heavy, numerous machines are intrinsically space and energy intensive, and intrinsically dangerous to small, slow, fragile human beings.

The Takeaways:

  • Tailpipe emissions are just the tip of the iceberg — the vast majority of the sustainability problems that cars create have nothing to do with what fuel they use, or how efficiently they use it. Amory Lovins’ carbon-fiber hypercars could run on clean, green unicorn farts, and they’d still be a sustainability disaster.
  • The real problems that come from cars are the land use patterns they demand, and the fact that streets and cities built for cars are intrinsically hostile to human beings. In combination, sprawling, low-density land use and unlivable, dangerous streets functionally preclude the use of transit, walking, and biking as mainstream transportation options. In a city built for cars, you have no choice but to drive.
  • The good news is that another city is not only possible, it already exists. Very modest density (about 50 people per hectare or 10 dwelling units per acre) is enough to drastically reduce car use, and make low energy transportation commonplace. In combination with good traditional urban design, these cities are extremely livable, healthier, cheaper to maintain, much more sustainable, and much safer than our cities.
  • The bad news is Peak Oil is not going to save us. There are a whole lot of unconventional hydrocarbons out there in the oil shale of the Dakotas, the tar sands of Alberta, the ultra-heavy crude of Venezuela’s Orinoco basin, and the ultra-deep water reservoirs off the coast of Brazil, etc. We’d be crazy to burn them all, but hey, maybe we’re crazy. And even if we did run out of oil, it’s entirely possible to electrify our cars for everyday urban use, even with today’s mediocre battery technology. If we want a different kind of city, we’re going to have to choose to build it.

Continue reading Another City is Possible: Cars and Climate

Cars and Robust Cities Are Fundamentally Incompatible

A writeup by The Atlantic Cities of a paper in the Transportation Research Board journal of the National Academies looking at the effects of parking on the vitality of urban centers.  It’s found that the detrimental effects of dedicating urban real-estate outweigh the potential benefits of making it easier for drivers to access your central business district.  Those cities that stopped adding parking to their urban cores after 1980 were found to have more jobs and higher incomes on average than those that continued adding parking.