The developers of the proposed Baseline Zero hotel and office complex say they want to create a model of sustainability that will inspire other commercial developers to new levels of investment in energy efficiency, on-site energy production and support for alternative modes of transportation.
"We wondered, with new construction, how much further could you go?" said Bruce Dierking, who is developing the project with James Loftus through a group organized as West Baseline Investments LLC. "We're not NREL (the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), but we could push it as far as a private sector building could go. And could we be a catalyst for others?"
But many residents of the nearby Martin Acres neighborhood believe the project, which pushes against Boulder's height limit and seeks deep reductions in the normal parking requirements, is inconsistent with neighborhood values and the intent of the zoning code.
And as a likely employment center that could draw commuters in cars, they said it creates as many sustainability issues as it addresses.
Lois LaCroix, who lives "149 steps" and four houses from the proposed development, calls it "a wolf in LEED clothing."
The project is currently at the concept plan stage and could yet change significantly before the developers present it for site review. The plans presented to the Planning Board in January call for a four-story, 180,000 square-foot office building on the western portion of the three-acre site at 27th Way and Moorehead Avenue and a four-story, 70,000 square-foot extended stay hotel on the eastern portion. Both buildings would have two levels of underground parking.
The building will exceed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum standards and achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, according to the plans. Some of the techniques under consideration to achieve that goal include extensive rooftop solar, on-site fuel cells that could provide power and hot water for the hotel, passive ventilation and cross-laminated timber made from waste wood rather than steel beams.
A creek runs through it
The Skunk Creek runs through the middle of the property. The developer says the creek, which currently enters and leaves the property in a pipe, will be restored as a natural wetland. Some neighbors worry about the possible displacement of flood waters, especially from the underground parking.
The site, which houses Baseline Liquor Store, a Grease Monkey quick oil change business and Boulder Gas, is zoned BC-2, a zoning designation that calls for community-oriented retail.
However, office space and hotels are allowed uses in the BC-2 zone, and the project is what is known as a "by-right" development.
However, the current site design would require several modifications of Boulder code, including:
A height modification to allow for four stories instead of three, with the office building to be 55 feet high and the hotel to be 50 feet. The current zoning does not allow buildings to be more than 35 feet high. The Boulder charter caps building heights in the city at 55 feet.
A 48 percent parking reduction to allow 375 spaces instead of 720.
Five access points to the site instead of the one allowed in the code.
Smaller front yard setbacks to allow solar panels to extend closer to the property line.
The height modification would require the approval of Planning Board, and the City Council would have the option of calling up the project for review.
PLAN-Boulder County, a group that advocates limited growth policies, usually doesn't weigh in on specific projects, but the group has taken a position in opposition to the plan as proposed.
"PLAN-Boulder feels that removing height restrictions has become too much of a routine thing," PLAN-Boulder member Raymond Bridge said. "It should be a big deal."
Dierking said he believes the site is appropriate for a taller building because it is right next to U.S. 36, won't block views from the Martin Acres neighborhood and is close to taller University of Colorado buildings, though those buildings were not bound by the city charter.
Concerns include issues of scale, overflow parking
For LaCroix, the project seems to be all impact with no benefit for the neighborhood.
She said the four-story buildings will dwarf the modest split-level and ranch homes of Martin Acres while the limited parking combined with the large number of people who would work at the building mean the neighborhood likely will be flooded with the overflow parking.
"The impacts on the neighborhoods are going to be terrible, and we don't get any benefits," she said. "We don't get anything local."
LaCroix said she would much rather the site be developed as shops and restaurants for the neighborhood. As it is, the neighborhood will be losing useful businesses like Baseline Liquor Store and Grease Monkey, she said.
"Right now, it looks terrible, but it used to be a thriving retail area," she said. "I would love to see some neighborhood retail because that is what the BC-2 zone is for."
Kimman Harmon, a freelance cinematographer who lives a few blocks away on 28th Street, said the project is simply too large.
"It doesn't hold true to the zoning," she said. "It doesn't give the neighborhood-serving retail that we need. It's just adding to the crowded feeling in Boulder now. I don't think it's going to be a win for us, us meaning Boulder. It's just going to be a big mess that we can't undo."
Potential boost to area's 'daytime population'
Dierking and his associates bought the site in 2008 along with land on the east side of U.S. 36 that is now the Baseline Crossing shopping center, which houses a south Boulder location of Amante coffee shop and the new Xfinity service center.
Dierking said he's taking another look at what retail or restaurant uses could be incorporated into the plan in response to the neighborhood concerns, but he doesn't see a huge unmet need for retail in the area.
He still has 2,900 square feet of space that aren't leased at Baseline Crossing and Basemar is just to the west.
Residents of Martin Acres say they would like to walk to a coffee shop but Dierking noted there are two in Basemar and one in Baseline Crossing.
However, the office building and hotel would increase the "daytime population" of the area and could create more demand.
"We're not opposed to retail, but we want it to be successful," he said. "Something that sits dark and empty doesn't help anyone. We don't want to do things that make existing businesses less successful."
Dierking said the decision to develop the site as office and hotel came from market conditions.
Boulder has identified a lack of "class A" office space as a significant economic limitation that is causing large employers to leave the city. The University of Colorado and in particular the law school nearby at Baseline and Broadway would generate clients for the hotel.
Dierking said part of the site review process will include an aggressive traffic demand management plan that will support the relatively small amount of parking.
The debate over whether building more office space will bring more commuters gets to a key political issue in Boulder. City leaders have pledged to try to reduce in-commuting — at least by car — both to reduce the city's carbon footprint and to alleviate congestion. But others — including Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum — have said the city gets a lot of benefits from being an employment center. The Chamber of Commerce has expressed concerns that the focus on reducing in-commuting could lead the city not to support new businesses in Boulder.
Chandler Van Schaack, a planner with the city of Boulder, said the Planning Board and staff have asked Dierking to look for some ways to incorporate retail into the project.
"We can't tell them they have to do that because it is a by-right use," Van Schaack said. "They are allowed to do the hotel and the office use. But our stance is that it would make the project more consistent with the comprehensive plan and certainly would make the neighborhood a lot happier (to include retail)."
Dierking said one possibility is a restaurant or coffee shop with a patio overlooking the restored (but unfortunately named) Skunk Creek.
Neighbors believe the sheer size of the buildings drive all the other concerns, but Dierking said that size is also what allows him to provide so many sustainability features while still covering his costs.
"If we do something that reduces the profitability by a third, can we do all the sustainability measures?" he asked. "Well, no. But we'll certainly try to work with the neighborhood."
Van Schaack said city officials are pleased that Dierking is proposing so many important sustainability features, but the project will still get significant scrutiny at site review.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or email@example.com