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|December 4-10, 2008
Back to Letters
Let the people decide on mixed-use
by Paul Danish
I haven’t had much to say to Matt Applebaum in recent years. I doubt if I’ve exchanged more than a couple dozen words with him since 1996.
The reason for this chill goes back to an exchange we had after a meeting of the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG to its friends) shortly after I became Boulder County Commissioner in 1995. At the time, I represented Boulder County on the DRCOG board. Matt represented the City of Boulder.
The subject was mixed-use development, the sort that integrates housing and commercial uses in the same neighborhood and sometimes in the same buildings. The subject had been discussed by the DRCOG board that evening, and we continued the discussion in the parking lot.
I told Matt that I had been supportive of the idea for years, but had recently changed my views on it.
I said I had sat through two or three dozen public hearings on “mixed-use” or “new urbanist” projects over the years. I listened to architects, developers and planners tell me how cool their projects were and what a boon they would be to their neighborhoods.
But the one thing I never heard was the residents of those neighborhoods coming forward and saying “Gee, what a great idea. We’re really looking forward to having this development in our neighborhood.”
Indeed, most of the hearings were torches and pitch-fork affairs, in which neighbors who had not talked to each other in years banded together to storm City Hall or the County Courthouse to prevent the collapse of civilization as they knew it.
“At some point you have to ask yourself, ‘Does the community really want this stuff?’” I said.
Applebaum responded that that mixed-use development was the right thing to do and that Boulder ought to push for it regardless of what neighbors thought.
“That’s not very democratic,” I said.
“I don’t have much use for democracy,” he said.
It was at that moment that I realized that I didn’t have much use for Brother Applebuam or the mixed-use horse he rode in on. It was, as they say, a clarifying moment.
Still, he had a point. Politicians aren’t going to waste much time standing up for constituencies that don’t yet exist (i.e. the putative residents of putative mixed-use projects), especially when doing so involves getting crosswise with constituencies that do (i.e. “the neighbors”). So if mixed-use and new urbanism projects were ever to become a reality, elected officials would have to, uh, rise above democracy and stick a finger into the populist eye.
My point was that, no matter how desirable a particular public policy might be, it is incumbent on the part of elected officials to pay a decent respect to the opinions of those who elected you — especially if they have said “no” a couple dozen times. Hell, they might even be right.
In the years since Matt and I had our dispute the question of whether Boulder should embrace mixed-use, densification and new urbanism has never been resolved.
The city finally found one neighborhood willing to accept mixed-use projects — downtown, where there were no neighbors — but, when it attempted to push into other neighborhoods, it often encountered bloody defeats on the frontiers. The battle of Washington School is a particularly timely (and lurid) example.
As for the mixed-use projects downtown, they have their pluses and minuses. On the one hand, people are willing to pay extortive prices to live in them. Obviously, somebody did something right.
On the other hand, the commercial spaces in those buildings appear to have been something less than a screaming success. Obviously, somebody did something wrong.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find both Walnut Street and Canyon Boulevard — and by extension Boulder itself — a lot less attractive and livable than before the mix was in. It used to be that you could see the mountains from Walnut Street and bask in sunlight on winter days. Now, Walnut is just a slightly claustrophobic canyon lined with overbearing architecture, and the north side of Canyon Boulevard between 9th and 15th streets is about as welcoming as the Berlin Wall.
In retrospect, I’d much rather have the sun, mountains and parking lots. I suspect I’m not alone in this.
According to a story in Tuesday’s Camera, the City Council is going to re-examine the question of whether it has gone too far in encouraging mixed-use by granting downtown developers “density bonuses,” the ability to cram more development onto a site if they include residential units in their project.
These days I live in Longmont, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. But I think Boulder would be a lot better off if the City Council were to take a year, have a full-dress (and un-manipulated) community dialogue over whether people want things like mixed use, new urbanism, densification, in-fill development, affordable housing, more or less regulation of development, or any new growth at all.
And then it ought to put some charter amendments on the ballot that, one way or another, would bring some closure to the conversation. Think of it as one of the uses of democracy.
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