If you go
What: Boulder City Council study session
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday; University Hill discussion scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Boulder Municipal Building, 1777 Broadway
More info: To read the memo on University Hill reinvestment and see the rest of the agenda, go to bit.ly/1meNf1v
Editor's Note: The article has been changed to reflect that Conscious Coffees sells fair-trade coffee and that Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe opened in late 2010.
When Brian Buckley and Kate Hunter opened Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe in late 2010, they knew they needed to be near the University of Colorado and its literary community if they were going to make an all-poetry bookstore succeed.
Almost four years later, between the books and the poetry readings and the fair-trade coffee from Boulder-based Conscious Coffees, "We have a unique cultural and artistic space that seems to attract enough people from Boulder and the Front Range and the country to sustain itself."
The University Hill neighborhood has been part of that success, but when Buckley looks up 13th Street from his location at the corner of 13th and Pennsylvania Avenue, he sees too many empty storefronts.
"We love the Hill," Buckley said. "We have met the best neighbors, the other business owners, the students, the faculty, but we do wonder what is going on between the city and the university to leave such a historic commercial stretch untended. ... Right now, we're seeing stagnation."
The Boulder City Council has made revitalizing University Hill one of its top priorities, and it plans Tuesday to discuss strategies for achieving that goal.
The city plans to hire someone with experience in urban redevelopment for a two-year term position to serve as a coordinator for those efforts.
In a memo to the City Council, Boulder officials described recommendations including using city reserve funds to pay for things like trash pickup and snow removal for a two-and-a-half-year period, using a potential "pay-as-you-go" capital program to fund streetscape improvements, and creating some sort of arts or innovation district to attract new businesses and provide ongoing funding for new initiatives.
If the City Council places a short-term tax to pay for capital projects on the November ballot and voters approve it, some $700,000 could be set aside to make Pennsylvania Avenue between 12th and 13th streets an "event street" that could be closed off for festivals and arts events. Another $500,000 could go toward "gateway" features, public art that would mark the transitions between the commercial and residential areas.
City could fund services for 2.5 years
In addition to working on street environment, the memo identifies two "big ideas."
One is the residential services district, a special taxing district that would pay for quality-of-life services such as picking up litter and shoveling sidewalks. The idea first surfaced several years ago as a way to deal with the difficulty of making landlords who don't live in the buildings they own — and students who don't own the buildings where they live — take responsibility. Property owners would agree to tax themselves and simply pay for those services.
But the idea floundered because of the difficulty of assigning financial responsibility in an equitable way, as well as concerns over the cost, legal technicalities around forming the district and the tax-exempt status of properties owned by fraternities and sororities.
Now, city officials are recommending that the city simply pay for those services, most likely through a contract with the Ready-to-Work program, which provides job training to homeless people, for two and a half years and see if it makes a difference.
If the city has a successful record to point to, there might be more interest in working through the challenges of creating a residential services district, said Molly Winter, director of the Downtown and University Hill Management Division and Parking Services for the city.
"The city is not saying we're going to step up and take the lead and keep investing the funds forever," she said. "It will give people a better idea of how this can operate and what we can learn from it."
The program would cost $95,000 a year, and city officials suggested the money could come from reserve funds.
Arts and innovation district
The other big idea is an "innovation/creative/arts district" on the Hill.
An innovation district is "envisioned to transform the Hill from solely a student-services center to an area focused on creativity in the broadest sense ... " the memo said.
That district could collaborate with the university and create incentive programs for businesses, officials said.
There are a variety of ways the district could be governed and funded, including a special taxing district or a nonprofit corporation.
Councilman Andrew Shoemaker, who lives on the Hill and made addressing its problems a cornerstone of his campaign, said the city should start experimenting with different ideas.
"The thing about the Hill is we can't really lose," he said. "It's already in pretty bad shape. We can be really creative and think outside the box and try some things that have never been tried in Boulder before."
Shoemaker said hiring a coordinator will help the city maintain momentum on improving the Hill.
"There's a lot of good ideas, but there is nobody focused on vetting the good ideas among the stakeholder groups and pushing these ideas forward," he said.
Buckley said he would love to see more cultural and arts events, more university programs and clubs with offices on the Hill and more diversity of businesses, not just for students but for all generations.
Sitting outside Innisfree, Joe Bryan, an assistant professor in geography at CU, described the bookstore and Terra Thai as his main hangouts, though he lives in south Boulder.
"Both of them have managed to nail the fact that this is a college neighborhood and still provide a great space," he said.
He lamented the loss of Jones Drug, though he understood the economic logic.
"That took out a huge part of the Hill that everyone could use," he said.
Bryan said he hopes the city can keep the Hill vital without changing its fundamental character or making it too upscale.
Shoemaker has been a proponent of bringing more office uses to the Hill and frequently points to Grenadier, the ad agency that opened in August 2012 near 12th and Pennsylvania as an example of the kind of edgier, creative businesses that might do well there, while bringing a year-round adult presence (with some disposable income) to the neighborhood.
Winter said zoning changes to encourage more diverse uses are one of many ideas the city will consider as it develops its strategy.
Jeff Graham, a partner at Grenadier, said the company chose the Hill partly out of a contrarian nature and partly out of sheer pragmatism. Office space is available for $10 less per square foot on the Hill when compared with downtown.
"On balance, we've loved it," he said. "Our employees enjoy being up here. ... Having 10 places to grab a sandwich is one of those small, day-in, day-out things that makes life better."
His "biggest beef" is aggressive parking enforcement. Clients will come for a meeting, and even as the ideas are flowing, they have one eye on the clock to avoid a ticket.
Graham said he supports the idea of the coordinator as a single contact point with an investment in improving the Hill, and he likes the idea of regular cultural events.
And he sees a lot of room for improvement.
"The way people would describe it right now is an open-air landfill," he said. "I get the concern. Do you want to go to the point of gentrification and homogenization that strips all the funky character out? Absolutely not. But could we get a lot cleaner and more hospitable to people who aren't students? Yeah. I think we can get a lot better, without stripping the character from the neighborhood."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.