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|December 11-17, 2008
Use it or lose it
When the land at 9th and Canyon was redeveloped, the city set aside a piece of property for civic use. Thirteen years later, the only thing there is a slab of concrete.
by Jim Lillie
Exuding a genuine confidence that one might not expect from an arts administrator navigating the harshest economic times since the Great Depression, Nancy Geyer, executive director of Boulder History Museum, smoothly guides her guest to the first stop on a tour that’s meant, in part, to demonstrate the museum’s potential to relocate to a new, yet-to-be-financed — much less designed and built — facility “in the heart of downtown.” Exactly where has yet to be determined, Geyer says, as she’s keeping all of her options open.
But one site in particular has her attention, just as it has had the attention of several other civic groups for the past 13 years: the “civic pad” site located at the southeast corner of the St. Julien Hotel development, which the city set aside in 1995 as part of a revision to its plan for a pair of empty lots at 9th and Canyon. One of those lots was owned by the city; the other was eventually bought by the company that developed the present hotel.
Far from serving its intended civic use, however, the civic pad — a raised concrete slab overseen jointly by the private/public association between the St. Julien Hotel Partners and the City Council-governed Central Area General Improvement District (CAGID) — has seen nothing but controversy and foot traffic for the entirety of its existence. And if no one succeeds in gaining the necessary approval to build on it within the next 11 or so years — an undertaking that is the financial responsibility of the entity that
takes it on — the very real possibility exists that the civic-use designation of the site might forever disappear.
The land itself comes rent-free with a 35-year lease, according to Geyer, so it’s the “air rights” that are at issue at the moment. But decades-old controversy and construction headaches aside, it’s hard, at first, to see why anyone would want to move the museum downtown. The front of the house is all but bare of artifacts, except for a couple of wooden packing crates containing the previous week’s exhibition, and a lone gingerbread house, which has arrived well ahead of the following weekend’s scheduled Winterfest. To the right of that room, there’s even less to look at, other than the built-in woodwork that’s original to the museum’s University Hill mansion, which was built as a private home in 1899. A back room the size of most modern residential laundry rooms serves as a modest bookshop showcasing Boulder’s history as well as a few of its authors. And across the hall is the slightly larger Discovery Room, where kids are offered a couple of hands-on opportunities reminiscent of those once found at the now-defunct Collage
Children’s Museum, where Geyer previously worked.
“You can ring this bell,” she says, reaching underneath a fake bovine’s chin to demonstrate, “and Pansy moos.” Which, for a duration that seems longer than any cow at altitude could muster, Pansy does.
Upstairs doesn’t get any showier. The original stained-glass staircase window is a sight to behold, and a few artifacts belonging to Mary Rippon, the University of Colorado’s first female professor, provide a more immediate sense of historical authenticity. So do a few placards and photos illustrating Boulder’s mining and agricultural past. But that’s about it.
Then, Geyer steps into her office, sits down in her desk chair and does what, for a person in her position these days, seems unthinkable. She dreams. Not just ordinary, dime-a-dozen dreams, but 8-, 9-, 10- or even 15-million-dollar ones. And she seems perfectly serious about realizing them, economic downturn or no.
“For three years now, we’ve been trying to evaluate how best to serve the community and how the community would like this museum to represent Boulder,” she says. “While the early history is very valuable and important — and we have 7,000 square feet filled with boxes of artifacts in our storage facility — there is so much more to Boulder and to our community’s history than mining and agriculture. Things that have happened since the ’50s, with science and technology and natural foods and the outdoors and all the Olympic athletes. And the innovation — the remarkable people here, the education. All of the amazing things that go on in this community, and not just in the past but today.
“We need a museum that represents a broader spectrum of Boulder’s history. One that represents the essence of Boulder. A place for dialogue, for people to come and share their stories, and be able to hear what’s going on in all these corners of our city that people have no access to. There’s amazing research going on at the university. There’s incredible stuff going on at NIST and NCAR. The natural-foods industry in Boulder is the mecca for the country. All of those pieces have roots in our history, and they’re all going on today. So we’d like to have this place where you could sit on a bicycle and pretend you’re riding in the Red Zinger Classic back in the ’70s. A really dynamic, happening place, where people could bring their relatives and friends and say, ‘This is why I’m proud of this community, this is why I live here, this is what it’s all about.’”
• • • The history of the civic pad is a long and complicated one. A master’s thesis-length document still wouldn’t cover the whole story or succeed in setting all the stories straight. This is mostly due to the fact that, while the basic parameters and guidelines for the civic pad haven’t essentially changed since they were put in place back in 1995, certain details were never thoroughly clarified — like how the lease arrangement might be modified if it took more than a couple of years to get approval for an organization to build on the site, or whether the process would be automatically revisited if no project came to fruition after, say, five years. And although various individuals, organizations and officials did their level best to get some of those details worked out, none were successful in moving a project forward. Trying to figure out why isn’t easy when memories of the 13-year struggle are understandably as fuzzy as the details individuals worked so hard to solidify.
According to newspaper reports published 20 years and a couple of downtowns ago, in the fall of 1988 one developer’s dream of building a $29-million luxury hotel at the corner of 9th and Canyon was shattered by word of a scandal linking his name to that of a drug smuggler, merely because the two had done an unrelated land deal a decade or so earlier. A short time later, the developer attempted to revive the project by joining forces with a San Diego hotel financier, as well as hotel giant Sheraton, but the deal again fell through when plummeting California real estate prices prompted the developer’s newfound partners to rein in their respective interests.
In 1995, City Council modified the plan to include design guidelines for the site, as well as requiring that 20 percent of the gross floor area be committed to civic uses. As stipulated in the 9th and Canyon Condominium Declaration, the Association — a legal partnership between the St. Julien Hotel Partners and CAGID, not a condo association in the sense of actual living units — has the right to lease the civic pad at the southeast corner of the site until Jan. 1, 2020, after which the civic-use pad will revert to the owner of the hotel. Any organization that hopes to build on the civic pad must first win approval from the owner of the hotel unit and CAGID.
And, according to Chuck Palmer, thereby hangs a tale.
Palmer, who at one time was willing to pledge as much as $3 million of his own money in order to get a civic-pad project off the ground, heads up a Boulder-based umbrella organization of 34 dance groups known as the Village Arts Coalition (VAC).
“They’re all independent,” he says. “We provide space at nominal, often hourly cost that many of them couldn’t afford to maintain on their own, and we also offer an umbrella insurance and liability policy that many of the groups find to be even more valuable.”
In 1999, VAC proposed to build and occupy the civic-pad site, with Collage Children’s Museum as partner, and the plan was endorsed by the City Council.
“Collage had a good following and did a lot of work,” says Palmer.
But in 2002, the Collage Museum withdrew from the proposal due to lack of funds.
For a brief period in 2002, the Boulder History Museum considered taking Collage’s place with VAC and was approved as a civic user.
Later that year, however, the BHM withdrew from consideration; while the museum’s interests were certainly well-intentioned, says Palmer, he isn’t sure how serious the group was at that time about moving forward with a multi-million dollar build.
In 2003, the city received a proposal from a group called Boulder Odeum — a nonprofit entity founded by Bruce Porcelli of St. Julien Partners — to build and operate 20,000 square feet or two floors of meeting space in cooperation with the St. Julien Hotel and to complement the Village Arts Coalition. The VAC also came forward with an expanded proposal for the entire building. During December and January, the city promoted and was the primary funder of a design process to investigate the possibility of both organizations sharing a 37,000-plus square-foot facility. Ultimately, the effort failed due to “incompatibility of uses.”
To hear Palmer describe it, that’s putting it mildly. The story he tells — and it’s a complex one — more resembles a “meandering path” strewn with proposals and counter-proposals, hardball negotiations, changes in concept that at one time included a convention center stretching across the airspace over 11th Street to meet up with construction on the civic pad and, in general, enough they saids and we saids than anyone cares to remember — if, in fact, anyone can recall with any degree of certitude.
Complicating matters further was the notion of how to best use something called Tax Increment Funding (TIF), a funding mechanism, allowable under state law, which permits the difference in tax revenue before and after urban renewal-designated development to be used to fund some aspect of the project. Palmer maintains some portion of those monies should have been used to help fund any sort of project on the civic pad, as well as sustain its tenant organizations. Instead, the monies went toward the costs associated with building a 656-space parking garage underneath the hotel, with the hotel paying for and using 100 spaces and the city keeping and operating the rest; any shortfall in parking revenue and costs for the city to operate the garage are covered by the TIF, says Molly Winter, Downtown and University Hill Management Division and Parking Services director. Winter says that because public parking is a public benefit, the TIF has been properly applied.
Not exactly, says Palmer.
“When the city said that 20 percent of the site had to be set aside for civic use, they didn’t say it had to be funded by nonprofit
organizations,” he says. “They simply said 20 percent.”
However, according to Winter, “If people are under the impression that the city was going to provide funding, that was never promised or guaranteed. That was never part of the deal. The issue all along has been finding an organization that has the financial wherewithal to construct and operate [a facility] over time.”
The proving of which, strictly speaking, is more the responsibility of any organization that wants the site, and not the responsibility of the hotel partners or CAGID to solicit. Then again, if the process that’s in place hasn’t resulted in anything being built there in all this time, how well is that process working?
• • • In April 2004, according a city of Boulder memo, a second task force met to consider further proposals, including one, supported by the City Council, which combined the civic-use area with a proposed conference center located “on the second floor of privately owned adjacent properties. However, discussions ended when the private property owners withdrew their property from consideration… in November 2005.” (Those properties today are a mixed-use building on the former Trios site at the corner of Broadway and Canyon and a luxury condo development currently being constructed over part of the old Oasis Brewery site.)
St. Julien’s Porcelli, for his part, acknowledges that there have been several proposals to build on the site but that adequate funding has always proved to be the primary obstacle to getting something approved and constructed. He also says that the hotel owns the actual concrete pad, while the city owns the parking garage underneath, with both entities having joint approval over what gets built in the airspace subject to the civic use restriction. It’s only the use of the pad, in his view, that expires if nothing is built there by 2020. Which, no matter how one slices it, still means the hotel owners would then be free to use the space as they see fit — subject to existing planning and zoning guidelines and any other city approvals.
“We’ve always been supportive of a civic use,” he says. “We’re just part of a team that helps approve what a civic use is according to the guidelines that are already set out in the condo declaration and the civic-use lease. It’s a big space. It’s not like someone can come along and pitch a tent — the civic-use tent. [It would be] a fairly expensive building, and that’s the biggest holdup for anyone.”
As much as each has a different take on the guidelines concerning the civic pad, neither Winter nor Palmer — nor the BHM’s Geyer, for that matter — disputes an item of concern in the lease agreement, which stipulates that if nothing is built on the civic pad site within the next 11 years, the civic-use restriction is automatically lifted.
“You would hope that wouldn’t happen,” says Geyer, who adds, “We are looking to go into partnership with [CAGID/St. Julien Partners], and we want to make that an amicable arrangement. We will do our part in terms of putting together a compelling plan, and if there are constraints that prevent us from doing that, then we would probably say, ‘Maybe some of [the 1995 guidelines] need another look.’ But we’re not at that point yet.”
As for ensuring provisions are in place for extending the 35-year lease, Porcelli says, “I’m one party at the table, helping to decide how things are structured. I’d have to look at the whole picture. You’re picking out one variable and saying, ‘Is this doable?’”
When pressed for his specific opinion on what he would say if an organization asked to rework the parameters regarding the lease and its renewal, Porcelli politely declines comment. But he does agree it’s about time something happened to get things moving at the site.
“We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of man hours, as have others committed to civic use,” he says. “There’s been a lot of effort put into it to date, and we’re still supportive of the use — if something makes sense and somebody has the funding and the use can be economically viable going forward.”
In the meantime, Geyer and the BHM continue to evaluate several downtown sites, of which the civic pad is but one. The museum has, however, held several meetings with various officials, public and private, in order to review the civic-pad process and to identify both existing and potential problems as well as possible solutions — including a few that Palmer encountered and fought over years ago, but most of which he wasn’t able to win: Changing the urban renewal plan to downsize the 37,000-square-foot requirement to better suit the BHM’s financial picture; determining whether renting part of the space, most likely the ground floor, to commercial use might be permitted in order to supplement the BHM’s cash flow, especially during the first few years of occupancy; and implementing a process that would extend the lease term beyond the 35 years that Palmer was initially successful in obtaining.
“Thirty-five years is still short if you’re building a $10-million building,” says Geyer. “You would hope they would just say, ‘OK. You’re a good tenant, and you built this building and you can renew the lease for another 35 years. But that’s not [yet] clear.”
To his credit, Palmer, who was able to secure a different space for VAC that “worked just as well, if not better” than the space
downtown, doesn’t sound bitter.
“I would like to see it work,” he says of the possibility of a civic-pad build, even if it means seeing another organization benefit from his early work and ideas. “The Museum is a good idea. I would rather have a 37,000-square-foot building with 10,000 square feet of commercial space, even with a sunset clause that says the commercial part lasts only 15 years, with another 2,000 square feet of lobby that ties the space together,” he says, as long as it helps a community organization like the BHM get in and survive.”
Winter is understandably careful to point out that “civic use” doesn’t necessarily mean “nonprofit” and also maintains that while the guidelines for the civic pad have always been straightforward, the private/public partnership is taking another look at them, as a city memo confirms.
“Everybody would like more,” she says. “More arts facilities, more parks and recreation facilities, more open space. Boulder has a lot of great ideas. Not all of them get done.”
Geyer, not surprisingly, is ever the optimist.
“I think the city would very much like to see something built on that site, something that is a community asset,” she says, “Everyone needs to decide whether this is a good or bad idea. If someone comes with a proposal that doesn’t fit all parameters, and it’s a good proposal, then it’s time to reconsider and take another look at what was decided however many years ago.”
She continues, “One nice thing is that we have a trust that supports a fair amount of our operating costs right now, which is a blessing for us. Collage [Children’s Museum] had nothing of the sort. So they would have been operating from scratch in terms of trying to raise money, even once they did their capital campaign, in order to keep the operation going. We at least have a bit of a buffer there. It wouldn’t cover all of our operating costs, but a fair bit of them. We’re just in a better financial position, in terms of operating a museum. We would still need to do the capital campaign, and given the economic climate, we’re a little on hold. We still have the planning, and the vision, and I believe we’re going to make it happen.”
If her prediction comes true, it’ll be a sure sign that the battered economy has improved significantly. Which in itself might have the effect of sending Pansy the High-Altitude Cow positively over the moon.
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