Affordable housing project in Gunbarrel raises trust issues with city planners
December 23, 2020
Boulder Housing Partners is now free to close a real estate deal to buy a property for an affordable housing project in Gunbarrel. But concerns about the development were centered more on the process of the land use change, rather than whether it's a good site for affordable housing.
Last spring, Boulder City Council allowed the city planning staff to move forward with a proposed land use change after the deadline had passed. At the council meeting last week, citizens and some council members were still expressing concern about the decision to bend the rules, saying it had the appearance of preferential treatment for government proposals versus those by the public.
The purchase of property at 6500 Odell Place by Boulder Housing Partners was contingent on changing the land use designation from mixed use to residential. The city council recently approved the change as part of the midterm update of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP).
"We support what's going to be done there, but it's important to follow the process. It is a concern," said Council Member Rachel Friend at the meeting. Council Member Adam Swetlik agreed, saying the project seems like a good one, but how you get there matters, "I understand things pop up and you have to jump on them but there is a balance there with the public trust, for sure."
The three residents of Gunbarrel who spoke at the hearing all thought the site near Spine Road and Lookout Road was probably suitable for affordable housing, but took issue with the process. "I was very concerned about the irregularities about how this managed to slip into the BVCP midterm update. I think it sets a very bad precedent," said Kit Fuller.
Council Member Mary Young asked questions about whether there are certain exceptions in timing that are made for staff-initiated proposals. After a long pause, Senior Planner Jean Gatza said, "I don't know if we've really had them before."
Young said that, in the end, the decision is "on council." She said they made the decision because affordable housing is a top priority and that council has that authority to make exceptions unless an issue has to do with a law or ordinance.
"When we make a decision or give direction to staff, that direction or decision should stand," said Young, adding that if community members have an issue with anything that comes before council, they need to get involved from the start. "People should understand that they need to engage earlier to have an effect."
The planning department proposed the land change on behalf of Boulder Housing Partners, the housing authority for the city. The opportunity to buy the property came up after the deadline for public submissions for land use changes had passed, according to Senior Planner Jay Sugnet.
Council Member Mark Wallach defended the timing, "These things, they come when they come and they can't be held in stasis forever. There were simply time limitations."
Allowing the exception struck a nerve with some Gunbarrel residents who feel the community is not given the same treatment as Boulder proper. Resident Donna George asked why neighbors of a similar land use change in north Boulder were given a survey asking for their input while Gunbarrel residents were not. Planner Gartza said all the proposed land use changes in the midterm BVCP review had ample opportunities for public input and that the north Boulder project was near a school, warranting additional input.
George worries that the land use change for Odell Place is another example of government telling the Gunbarrel community what needs to happen, rather than having the community share ideas and work in partnership. "The comp plan has become something more that the staff authored rather than the community bringing it in. It's just like done, you didn't offer options to the citizens in the area, what they might want to see in that area, nothing," George said.
Gunbarrel resident Julie Dye said she wants a more holistic approach to development than chipping away. "It's time for a true subcommunity plan before rubber stamping a development," she said. She wants to see Gunbarrel get some of the same amenities as Boulder proper. "It should not be that the closest playground is a 48-minute walk across the Diagonal [Highway.]
Several council members agreed it's time to create a new subcommunity plan for Gunbarrel. The current plan is nearly 30 years old, according to Council Member Young. She expects that to happen within the next five years, though other council members indicated they would prefer sooner than later.
"I think the primary thing council and staff can do for Gunbarrel residents is prioritize their subcommunity planning process so they can have their voices heard in a comprehensive way, not just when a single parcel pops up for development," said Council Member, Swetlik, in an email to the Courier. "This can rebuild a lot of trust through a dedicated and robust public process. Their subcommunity is an extremely important and different part of Boulder, and it needs the attention and community amenities that more central Boulder has access to."
Boulder is currently working on a subcommunity plan for the east part of the city. Gunbarrel is one of the areas that will be considered for the next subcommunity plan, though that decision has not yet been made.
For now, the affordable housing project on Odell Place will move forward. The next step in the planning process for the one-acre site will focus on zoning, which will determine details of the project such as building height, density, which would be between 20 and 35 units, and parking.
Parked cars already line Spine Road daily, indicating there is currently a tight supply of off-street parking in the area. Several residents asked questions and made comments through emails to the city and comments on BeHeardBoulder.org, concerned that more residences could add to parking problems. It's not clear yet whether on-site parking will be required of the development.
Boulder Housing Partners Director of Real Estate Laura Sheinbaum tried to reassure citizens and council members that they will listen to Gunbarrel residents, "As with all of the BHP projects, once we start the process to develop, we will run a robust community engagement process."
Gunbarrel residents will be watching to see if their opinions will be given serious consideration. "I believe you can have citizens and government work together," George said, "But the government has to truly listen to the citizens."