Debate over NRCD Block 5 alley continues
August 28, 2019
The ultimate disposition of the NRCD Block 5 alley inched closer to resolution last week with a public meeting hosted by Boulder County land use and transportation staff to discuss the results of a recent traffic study in the area and the proposed design guidelines for any future improvements. Though some 2nd Avenue property owners expressed frustration with the potential restrictions and the county’s ongoing process, consensus emerged on at least one major outstanding issue—the driving surface—and there seemed to be general—if grudging—agreement on how to move forward.
“When we do development, we have to make sure it’s in a way that is meeting today’s regulations and standards as far as air and water quality, and public safety,” said Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case. “Ensuring things are done in a way that aren’t going to have impacts on other people is what we’re trying to do.”
Approximately 20 community members gathered at the Left Hand Grange on Aug. 22 to hear from Case and county transportation engineer Mike Thomas and planner Jose Ruano about what they learned from a five-day traffic count conducted in June, and how they propose to handle the anticipated use.
Thomas started the discussion by summarizing the results of the study, which was conducted by a consulting firm between June 21 and June 26, and counted both vehicular and pedestrian traffic at driveways and intersections along the north side of 2nd Avenue, as well as vehicles on Franklin Street and in the alley itself. According to Thomas, those data points were then “calibrated” and input into a “trip generation model” that projected up to 339 car trips per day in the alley if 2nd Avenue curb cuts were eliminated.
“That’s if the usage around these buildings were maximized or at least optimized,” he said. The model, which comes from the Institute of Transportation Engineers, assumes full occupancy in the block’s mixed-use developments and a commercial to residential ratio of 80% to 20%. “So, when we’re talking about 300 cars per day using the alley, we see that as a potential. We’re not saying that’s actually going to happen, but we can only estimate at this point in time.”
To accommodate this rate of use in the alley and meet the county’s multimodal transportation standards, the proposed guidelines recommend “two 7.5-foot travel lanes and about a 5-foot buffer, which includes drainage improvements,” the latter needed due to what the county termed “unauthorized maintenance,” over the years. An illustration of the recommended conditions includes two drainage swales on either side of the 15-foot driving surface, “to capture [run-off] and keep it from running off the sides,” according to Thomas.
“In this particular case, the alley is actually sloped from the businesses down to the residences. We would have to look at how that’s corrected so water isn’t running into the residences.”
A portion of the buffer could also be used for pedestrian access, though this is not specifically mandated in this version of the recommendation. Instead, the guidelines suggest that “the reduced travel way will work to slow vehicles and allow pedestrians and vehicles to share the space.”
The guidelines don’t mandate a driving surface, but Thomas noted that asphalt is typically “more durable” and cleaner, and doesn’t require dust mitigation measures like gravel does. However, residents and business owners were united in their objection to paving the alley, even if they got there following slightly different paths.
“The feeder roots of a tree are out on the drip line, which are the outer branches,” 3rd Avenue resident Victoria Keen said, speaking against asphalt due to its negative ecological impacts. “If you’re paving right up to the edge of the alley, the surface is impermeable to water, so you’re cutting off the feeders, and then you start to get leaf burn.” Keen was strongly opposed to the use of magnesium chloride to control dust, which also found broad agreement from the assembled group.
That reaction from the residents came as a pleasant surprise to Niwot Business Association president Tony Santelli, who assumed they favored the costlier paving option. An estimate released earlier in the week by Anne Postle, owner of Osmosis Art & Architecture (290 2nd Avenue), put the cost of adding asphalt to the 600-foot alley at more than $200,000, not including ongoing maintenance.
The most stringent objections to the guidelines were directed at the 15-foot driving lane, which business owners contend is too narrow for two-way traffic that includes delivery and trash trucks. Thomas responded that this width tracks with conditions in the Block 1 alley west of Franklin, though this was disputed by Postle. In a written response sent to the commissioners following the meeting (which she did not attend), she urged the county to consider “a reasonable design” of two 9-foot lanes with a 2-foot drainage swale.
“We only have one opportunity to design this correctly. We must begin with correct assumptions. It should not be under-designed from the start.”
There was also considerable objection to the next steps in the process, which Case and Thomas acknowledged are not as straightforward. Thomas said the final guidelines will be released in September, and then the impetus shifts to the property owners to get the improvements completed.
“The county’s not going in and building an alley,” Case said, echoing Thomas’s point. “.... We were never under the direction to do that, or to fund it. That would be done at the time a parcel develops, or if there were some way to get funds from the LID or Niwot Business Association to build the alley, then the county would support that to these design guidelines.”
In other words, unless collective action is taken, the alley will remain as-is until a 2nd or 3rd Avenue property owner applies to the county for a development application or permit that incorporates Block 5 alley access. At that point, the property owner will be compelled through county review processes to bring the roadway into compliance with the design standards, with no financial support from the county.
That point got aggressive push-back from a clearly frustrated Cotton Burden, who felt that forcing individual property owners to pay for upgrades to county-owned property is unfair.
“It seems pretty clear to me that the county is taking no responsibility other than to dictate how it be done,” the local resident and developer said. “I wish our county would step up to its own responsibilities and build things for the greater citizenry, as opposed to trying to piece-meal the resolution of personal conflicts.”
A few additional topics were discussed, including snow removal and other maintenance, which also fall outside of the county’s purview. Some property owners also proposed a formal survey to determine the alley’s exact boundaries, though Thomas said the county wouldn’t pay for that either. In the end, the property owners left with a path forward to alley access, even if it still has a few hurdles along the way.