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|August 7-13, 2008
Home sweet mobile home
Residents of Boulder’s Orchard Grove fight to save the city’s most diverse community
by Erica Grossman
A lot can be inferred about Boulder’s outward image with a quick glance at cars parked near the City Municipal Building at Canyon and Broadway. “Celebrate diversity!” exclaims one bumper sticker, while two cars down another states, “Coexist,” spelled out using a variety of religious symbols. They are warm-hearted, well-intentioned sentiments that one sees on bumpers throughout the city.
But walking around the neighborhood in which these cars are parked, it can be difficult to find anyone who doesn’t fit into the stereotypical mold of the upper-middle-class white citizen, en route to work, dinner or the gym. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, academics, seniors, immigrants and globetrotters of a variety of races, religions and income levels convene in a manufactured home to discuss whether or not the City of Boulder has a place for them in its future. These are the residents of Orchard Grove Mobile Home Park, a quiet community of about 425 people on 32 acres of land located at the intersection of 30th and Valmont streets.
Of concern to them is an imminent land deal that seeks to turn the property they rent for their mobile homes into condos. Combined with the mobile home park’s zoning and infrastructure issues, every Orchard Grove resident faces possible displacement from their homes in the near future.
It’s hard to imagine Orchard Grove’s current landscape replaced by the concrete and bustle that new development might bring. The area is home to grass, gardens and trails and is surrounded by a variety of trees — willows, cherry, cottonwoods, maple, pine — many of which are 80 years old. On hot summer days, children inner tube down the stream that runs through the property. The area also shelters a wealth of wildlife. Great horned owls, white-tailed deer, foxes, jackrabbits, snakes, ducks, hummingbirds and woodpeckers can all be seen in Orchard Grove’s riparian habitat.
“I feel like I live in paradise, and I can afford living in it,” says Ellen Napodano, a resident of Orchard Grove.
Her sentiments are echoed by Laurissa Eifler, another long-time resident.
“This place is really sublime,” she comments. “I can honestly say that absolutely everybody in the 17 years that I’ve lived here who have come to visit has said, ‘I would live here in a heartbeat.’ We have a beautiful situation here.”
But what is paradise for Napodano and Eifler is an eyesore to others — and an opportunity for profit.
The beginning of the end
The destruction of mobile-home parks and the subsequent displacement of their residents is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, many parks across the country were sold to developers who wanted to find other uses for the property. The result was always the same: manufactured homes were demolished in order to build alternate forms of high-density, high-value housing on property suddenly considered desirable.
The outcry from mobile-home park residents prompted the creation of several nonprofits. These organizations in turn put pressure on cities to create special zoning restrictions where manufactured homes had been built. Cities, by enacting a specified use for such lands, could preserve the low-market affordable housing provided by mobile-home parks while protecting residents from possible displacement or homelessness.
In 1985, Boulder followed that national trend. City Council approved the creation of a Manufactured Housing-Established (MH-E) zoning district and attempted to apply that distinction to all of the mobile-home parks that existed within city limits. Their efforts were successful for only half of the six parks in the city, leaving three with their original zoning, including Orchard Grove. Orchard Grove’s acreage remained classified Medium Density Residential-Developing (MR-D), leaving it vulnerable to any sort of future redevelopment.
Why wasn’t the land protected in 1985, when rezoning procedures were put forth to address this exact issue?
Minutes from the Sept. 17 and Dec. 17, 1985, City Council meetings on the issue show that the city approved agreements with Lou Nuttle, owner of the Mapleton and Orchard Grove mobile-home parks. Nuttle had pleaded with the city for his property not to be rezoned and won his battle.
But he didn’t do it alone.
In an effort that appears contrary to their interests, several residents of the Mapleton and Orchard Grove parks also expressed concern over the rezoning. City sources told Boulder Weekly that this was provoked by a letter from Lou Nuttal to the mobile-home park residents in which Nuttal said he would raise rents if the property was rezoned to MH-E. The city had to be convinced not to rezone if residents wanted to keep the rents down, according to these sources.
According to a copy of the letter, obtained by Boulder Weekly, Nuttlal writes, “If this change in zoning occurs... we will maximize our profits from the dictated use of ground” and “our policy of allowing residents to sell their mobile homes in the park will be changed.” The letter continues to instruct residents that in order to live in the park under its then-current philosophy, they should contact City Council members and vocally oppose the rezoning.
“As I understand it, [the 1985 residents of Orchard Grove] received a letter from their landlord, Lou Nuttal, indicating that if the park were to be rezoned, it would be difficult for him to keep rent down, and if they didn’t want that to happen they should go and tell City Council,” says Angelique Espinoza, Boulder City Council member.
Other council members have relayed similar information, including Macon Cowles who says it’s his understanding that Orchard Grove “wasn’t rezoned because the owner threatened to retaliate then against the residents.”
For years, residents were able to enjoy their community with low rent increases. But now, with redevelopment occurring in the area surrounding Orchard Grove, the mobile-home park has caught the attention of those who believe they have a better use for the land.
The new urbanization
In 2006, the Twenty Ninth Street Mall was completed, replacing the former Crossroads Mall. Twenty Ninth Street, with its many high-end chain stores and restaurants, brought an influx of commercial density and traffic to its location in Boulder. The area now bustles with new buildings and new commerce.
In addition to this redevelopment, recent RTD FasTracks proposals indicate that a new commuter-rail connection will be installed at the nearby intersection of 28th Street and Iris Road. Tacked with it is an arrangement known as the Transit Village Area Plan — a map of marketed redevelopment for a 160-acre portion of land that will cater to future commuters. These combined factors have placed surrounding areas like Orchard Grove on the property goldmine radar.
But the city hadn’t expressed any intentions for Orchard Grove to change with its surrounding landscape.
The Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP), a joint guide for land use adopted collectively by a variety of city and county boards, designates 27 acres of the Orchard Grove community as MH-E. The BVCP is meant to reflect the community’s desired long-term usage of land, and City Council and the city of Boulder have made efforts to see that the city’s decisions and proposals comply with its provisions. The Transit Village Area Plan does not include Orchard Grove in its redevelopment agenda.
“I think any land-use decision is always made within the context of surrounding areas,” states John Pollak, co-director for the city of Boulder Housing & Human Services department. “On the other hand, this land was intentionally left out of the Transit Village Area Plan.”
In other words, as far as the city was concerned, the Orchard Grove Mobile Home Park was there to stay.
A contract for change
In spring of 2008, several Orchard Grove residents took notice of engineers and land surveyors assessing the property on which their homes sit. When these residents began to ask questions, one thing became very clear: Orchard Grove was for sale, and their homes and their neighborhood were at stake. But the bidder had intentions beyond the purchase of the land; his goal was to redevelop it.
Documents show that the Orchard Grove property is under contract for sale by owner Lou Nuttle to developer and longtime Boulder resident Jim Chanin. The price tag is $15 million. Chanin and his company, Chanin Development, originally set their sights on the property with the intention of removing the park’s existing infrastructure and replacing it with new, urban housing. According to a July 25 report submitted by Chanin Development to the City of Boulder concerning the “Orchard Grove dilemma,” this new housing would be a medium-density residential project in which mortgages of for-sale “affordable units” would range in price from $90,000 to $150,000. In contrast, many manufactured homes that already exist on the property range in price — averaging about $5,000 — with a current pad rent of $350 per month.
Chanin’s submitted proposal, however, did not leave current residents completely out of the picture. There are currently 216 mobile-home units on the Orchard Grove site, and Chanin’s design of redevelopment included 216 affordable housing units prioritized for Orchard Grove residents, either for sale or for rental. In order to acquire those units as government-stipulated “permanently affordable housing,” however, each household must apply through the city and await approval. It’s a complicated process based on targeted median incomes, and the result doesn’t always end in assisted home ownership. In those cases, the city redirects applicants to partake in affordable renting.
“Generically speaking, the pricing is set based on what is affordable to the target population, and in home ownership we are generally targeting roughly 60 to 80 percent of area median income,” notes Pollak. “That translates, for a two- or three-person household, roughly in the 40,000 to 55,000 dollar household income.”
Pollak adds that with the aid of organizations like Habitat for Humanity (a nonprofit for which Chanin served on the board of for several years), targeted household incomes for potential affordable housing purchases may be lowered.
But despite these inclusionary measures, many Orchard Grove residents were outraged at the thought of abandoning their homes to Chanin’s vision and voiced their opinions by initiating meetings with City Council, holding facilitated discussions with the public, writing letters to the city and staging protests where the mantra, “Save Orchard Grove,” was repeated to anyone who would listen.
By late July, Orchard Grove had become a battlefield. And the soldiers who want to preserve their homes and the property on which it sits are calling for City Council to rezone the affected 32 acres. This, many residents say, is the first step in saving what they believe is the last true community in the city.
To zone or not to zone
“I don’t want these people [current Orchard Grove residents] forced out, and I don’t want them hurt,” Jim Chanin says. “But what makes me the saddest is that the most vehement of all these folks who are writing all the letters and protesting and wearing pins don’t have the most needy folks’ best interests in mind.”
The “most needy” individuals that Chanin refers to are at the bottom of the income-earning scale within the park. But not everyone agrees that their interests aren’t being represented.
“We have seniors on fixed incomes. We have Section 8s. We have disabled individuals and low-income families that are performing three or four jobs per household,” notes Richard Carey, an Orchard Grove resident and activist for the property’s rezoning. “This is where they live, and it’s also a beautiful place. We want to keep it that way.”
But Chanin asserts that new development will help those disenfranchised groups the most by providing permanently affordable housing in lieu of the current “artificially low” rents in existence.
“There are very low-income residents now that will be priced out of the market if [Orchard Grove] gets rezoned as MH,” he says.
In other words, rezoning also carries the potential to displace residents — only by means of increased rent rather than bulldozers.
The issue lies in the fact that according to recent surveys, the Orchard Grove property’s infrastructure is in dire need of repair. Estimates from Wyatt Construction conclude that the approximate cost of infrastructure repair per unit is $32,000, which includes replacement of the domestic water and sanitary sewer systems. These estimates, according to Chanin’s Orchard Grove Situational Summary, are based upon “experience with Mapleton Mobile Home Park infrastructure replacement project.” The outcome of this assessment might result in drastic increases intended to cover the cost of repairs and replacements.
It’s a concern shared by others not associated with Chanin, as well.
“Rezoning the park is no guarantee that we will be able to save [the residents’] ability to live there,” notes Espinoza. “The reality is that there is a huge infrastructure that is going to have to be replaced pretty soon, and someone is going to have to come up with the money.”
But, she continues, the consequences of rezoning should be weighed carefully for “residents to decide which risk they prefer.”
The voice of the people
“This community has been very forceful in the point that they want to stay intact,” says Cowles.
Espinoza echoes that statement. “Nobody there wants to leave — that’s the message we’re hearing from them loud and clear.”
Chanin, however, isn’t convinced that those sentiments reflect the desires of the bulk of Orchard Grove community members.
“I don’t know if that’s a majority of the residents,” he says. “I’ve spoken to quite a few people who don’t feel that way at all. And for that I say there needs to be some compromised position found so that as many people can achieve their goals.”
But a stroll through the Orchard Grove site indicates otherwise. A “YES” sign hangs from nearly every home’s street-facing windows, endorsing a desire for City Council to rezone the property to MH-E. And a knock on any of the doors is usually met with a profound resistance to possible redevelopment.
“I choose to live here,” notes Eifler. “There is a distinct element in that we have people who have not necessarily bought into the mortgage American dream, who have other things that they want to enrich the world with. If I had a massive mortgage to pay, I wouldn’t have gone to India to finish my degree. I would be paying off bills.”
Eifler, with many others, dismisses the stigma often associated with mobile-home parks. Orchard Grove, she says, is an ideal community.
“This is such a beautiful green gem, an oasis of peace and harmony right in the middle of Boulder,” says Jeanette Tully, an 85-year-old resident who has lived in her Orchard Grove home for 19 years.
Tully, like many of the senior residents of the mobile home park, plans to live the rest of her life on the Orchard Grove property, where she can maintain a close relationship with her neighbors and continue to harvest her vegetable and flower gardens.
When asked where she would go if her home were removed or destroyed, she answers, “The cemetery.”
An uncertain future
City Council is set to have its first reading of the proposed ordinance to rezone 27 acres in Orchard Grove on Aug. 19. The follow-up reading and public hearing will continue on Sept. 2. An additional five acres of “common space” under consideration will also be analyzed at the end of August. Once decisions about zoning are made about all 32 acres on the property, Chanin, Nuttal, residents and the city can begin a negotiation process for the future of Orchard Grove, contingent upon the vote of City Council. Until then, an uncertainty hangs over the heads of many residents. But while the solutions are yet to be determined, one thing remains clear: Orchard Grove is worth saving.
“I feel strongly about this,” says Tully. “Orchard Grove is the microcosm for the community that is American. This is my chosen place. I came here because I wanted to be here. To take this park would be like cutting a piece out of America.”
Tully, a self-described “navy wife” whose son is due to embark on his third tour in Iraq with the U.S. military, believes that Orchard Grove is a melting pot that must not be scraped away by bulldozers or construction.
Her sentiment is shared by many non-residents, as well.
“This is an unusually well-integrated, diverse part of our community,” comments Cowles. “It’s a combination of people that are young and old, who are of all races, speaking a variety of languages that have a tightly-knit community. There are people there who are able-bodied and people who are disabled, and they look out for each other. It’s a neighborhood that has poets and professors and car mechanics and taxi drivers and it’s a very rich cultural asset to our community.”
Carey describes Orchard Grove as the “poster child for what Boulder claims it wants to be.” He also believes that the first step to saving the community rests in the rezoning of the property. At that point, it’s speculated, citizens can begin to make their own informed decisions on what to do next.
“There’s something here about self-determination, about dignity, about pride in ownership and those are things that you can’t ignore,” concurs Espinoza.
If on Aug. 19, the city makes the decision to rezone Orchard Grove, its residents will begin to assess their futures for themselves.
Whatever the outcome, if the current population of Orchard Grove can be kept from displacement, Boulder might have the opportunity to truly celebrate diversity.
To stay updated on events related to the future of Orchard Grove, visit www.saveorchardgrove.com.
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