published in the Boulder Daily Camera
April 28, 2018
By MARK WALLACH
Last Sunday’s Camera featured a column by former Boulder mayor Will Toor, in which he made yet another call for the densification of Boulder and the lifting of occupancy restrictions, this time in the name of environmental correctness.
You have heard similar arguments before. Last year, the theory du jure was that increasing density would provide more affordable housing. This, despite the obvious and inconvenient fact that increasing density has proven to provide a more affordable housing environment in precisely zero major urban centers in this country. Actually, the contrary is the case; America’s densest cities continue to become more expensive as they become denser.
That argument was tested and soundly rejected in last year’s council elections; the voters of Boulder clearly found the linkage between density and affordability to be specious. But let us not underestimate the diligence and creativity of our town’s growth advocates. Now comes the attempt to dress up the call for vastly increased development in a new, more appealing costume: We must become dense in order to save the environment!
Mr. Toor notes the many actions taken by Boulder to promote a better, cleaner environment, from our stringent energy codes, to our investment in open space, bike paths and public transit. And, whether or not you favor a municipally owned utility company, Boulder’s substantial investment in this endeavor certainly speaks to a commitment to clean energy and a seriousness of purpose to achieve an environment based on renewable energy. In fact, in many ways we may well be the most environmentally progressive city in America.
But none of this is enough for Mr. Toor. Unless we take the next step to achieve the alleged environmental benefits of dense living, we will have failed the planet and Mother Earth will weep. Why be merely cutting edge on the environment, when we can be pristine? All that is required is to sacrifice the type of neighborhood living that drew so many of us to Boulder in the first place. Replace single-family homes with multi-story townhouses and apartments; remove occupancy limits, up zone our neighborhoods, and enjoy the psychic satisfaction of a smaller carbon footprint.
Enough. Having tried and failed to convince Boulder that high-growth development is the path to affordable housing, now it is brought to us disguised as environmental progressivism. It is time to call it for what it really is: simply high-growth development. No more, no less. It is the business opportunity to construct more market-rate housing, more retail centers, engage in more commercial lending, generate more brokerage fees, etc., etc. It was not about affordable housing last year; it is not about the environment now. Mr. Toor’s organization, Better Boulder, has long been an advocate for vastly increased development, and his recent column merely mirrors that viewpoint.
If Mr. Toor wants to be an advocate for the development community that is his right, and good, prudent, well-designed development activity is certainly crucial to the future of Boulder. But he should stop hiding the impact of his policies behind the mythology that more development will create an environmental nirvana. Instead of trying to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he should at least have the candor to be the wolf.
The interesting question is why a former mayor of what has been described as the happiest city in America finds the municipality he used to lead to be such a deficient, defective place, one that simply begs for the radical makeover he espouses. But in his enthusiasm to recreate Boulder as a dense, urban metropolis, Mr. Toor treats the distinctive, almost unique environment that has been created in Boulder as some sort of urban studies project, and fails to recognize the costs of destroying the community we have built.
Fifty years ago, Boulder made conscious, intentional policy choices that shaped the city we know today: height limits, preservation of open space, limiting the boundaries and extent of development, and creating distinctive neighborhoods, many of which are single-family. We can now choose to honor and respect that vision, and value Boulder for those distinctive qualities, or follow the path advocated by Mr. Toor, and become merely another generic urban center. I choose the former.
There may have been a time when Mr. Toor was a leader of Boulder, but that was in the far and distant past. Today he represents the antithesis of the direction Boulder should follow into the future.