From left, Harris Derman, Tim Nguyen and Mike Thieme walk down Broadway on University Hill. A planned hotel and underground parking would displace the businesses in the background.

Boulder will begin negotiating a possible sale of a parking lot to accommodate a proposed 189-room hotel on University Hill, a project billed as a way to reinvigorate the commercial area.

City council members gave staff the go-ahead Tuesday to begin negotiations with Hill Hotel Partners over the 62-space lot on Pleasant Street, which has previously been estimated to be worth $3 to $4.5 million, with the qualification they are not bound to approve the contract when it comes before council.

Denver-based Nichols Partnership is developing the project, which is slated for the southwest corner of University Avenue and Broadway. As proposed now, it will have 189 hotel rooms, 10,500 square feet of retail space and a 50-space, below-grade parking garage. The city has backed away from participation in the project, including taking off the table a publicly financed 200-spot parking garage on the site.

“You’ve heard about this project several times, and it has evolved over the time,” City Attorney Tom Carr told council Tuesday. “The city support for the project has disappeared almost entirely — I think, entirely.”

On Tuesday, council members agreed to direct staff to proceed with negotiations, though some voiced opposition to the project and questioned whether it needed city land to continue.

“This isn’t a boutique hotel,” Councilwoman Lisa Morzel said. “I don’t know why they need our city land. If they want to go forward without the city land and reduce the size and the massing of this thing, then I’m open to talk, but I’d also like to hear from the public on this.”

She also took issue with the fact that the matter has not yet had a public hearing — it will before council approves the contract — and with new details contained in a confidential memo to council. The proposed project no longer has the $6 million feasibility gap developers cited in January, which is positive, but the scope has changed quickly, she said.

“This memo is all confidential so I’m not going into detail, but the numbers have changed really fast in terms of what they need or what they don’t need,” Morzel said.

Councilwoman Mary Young also said she would like to see third-party analysis that the project could work without the city land. Councilwoman Mirabai Nagle criticized the project as a “ridiculous” spot for the proposed density.

Young and Morzel also said Nichols Partnership had not engendered much trust. Morzel pointed to their work at Pearl West as an example.

“Let’s just say there is not a lot of trust there,” Morzel said. “There’s not a lot of confidence that they can build a tasteful building that will fit into the context of the Hill.”

For his part, Councilman Sam Weaver highlighted a study that said the parking lot is one of the more lightly used lots on the Hill, and the infusion of cash from its sale could be used for the “constantly underfunded” University Hill General Improvement District.

“We have an asphalt surface parking lot that’s not being used particularly well,” he said. “What’s a better use of it?”

He also said rounds of Planning Board and council reviews will give the city a chance to weigh in on the proposed project and get answers to council questions.

“The point is that — now that the city’s pulled completely out of it — this is a development review,” he said.

Councilman Bob Yates later added: “We have a lot of discretion in those things.”

Meanwhile, Councilman Aaron Brockett and Mayor Suzanne Jones pointed to the business owners in the area who’ve repeatedly told council they are struggling and that the hotel could bring much-needed traffic to the area.

“This is the best chance to get the disparate owners of this site to come together,” Jones said. “There is fatigue and almost concern that we are not hearing them.”

The Hill Boulder organization on Monday released a six-minute YouTube video entitled “Help the Hill.” In the video, business owners, residents and other community members mourn the vibrant Hill of years past and extol the virtues of a hotel as a way to bring life back to it.

“Just about everyone who has been involved in the Hill has arrived at this idea that we need an anchor tenant,” former councilman Andrew Shoemaker said in the video. “What better way to accomplish that than a hotel?”

Dakota Soifer is chair of The Hill Boulder, as well as owner of Cafe Aion. In a Wednesday interview, he criticized the opposition on council to the project in the face of support for it by working groups and business owners.

“It’s very hurtful and honestly erodes a lot of my trust in our public institution,” he said. “… They just make these decisions because they’re anti-growth.”

He described the stream of foot traffic that leaves the Hill around 9 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, bound for Pearl Street, and the stream that returns around 2 a.m.

“No one really hangs out up here anymore,” he said. “There’s that missing critical mass to entice people to come up and spend the time.”

He said the project has hung in limbo for two years, but Tuesday’s council nod was a small positive move in a long process. “It’s a small step along the way,” he said.

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