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Boulder officials question logic behind watering down Alpine-Balsam plan

Council, Planning Board see need for more educated public on land use

The old Boulder Community Hospital Building at the Alpine-Balsam site in Boulder.
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Since the dust stirred by intense debate over the Alpine-Balsam area plan has settled, public city leaders have questioned Boulder council’s rationale for watering down the project.

City council last week approved 6-1, with Councilwoman Cindy Carlisle dissenting, a vision to bring hundreds of housing units, many affordable, and municipal offices to the city-owned former Boulder Community Health hospital site.

But it severed a crucial aspect from what was pushed forward for the surrounding 70 acres of mostly private land to a potential later phase.

Council, after bitter opposition and fearful comments from dozens of residents of the neighborhoods near the former hospital, declined to make city staff-proposed land use changes meant to orient future redevelopment throughout the area toward mixed use and medium density housing structures.

The move sparked criticism.

Council members Lisa Morzel and Bob Yates instructed staff planners to keep their land use proposals handy, hinting at a chance of their adoption as plans for the city-owned hospital site come to life.

Despite having voted for it Councilwoman Mary Young bashed the plan’s approval at last week’s meeting and in the days since, labeling it a concession that achieves little other than quelling neighborhood jitters, at least temporarily.

“It just doesn’t seem to me like it was strategic,” Young said in an interview. “… That’s the definition of an area plan, you expand it outside a single parcel, into the future. The outcome of attempting to do it that way was a compromise that comprised the area plan.”

Councilman Sam Weaver acknowledged resident uncertainty over the implications of the land use proposals was the motivating factor for council’s balk. Council declined to change course from the lighter package of regulatory updates after a later meeting brought out more than a dozen neighborhood supporters of higher levels of density throughout the area who requested reattaching the larger land use proposals.

It was at the request of council that staff included the commercial areas known as Ideal Market and Community Plaza in their planning effort. Staff at several points during public hearings tried explaining their proposals wouldn’t have necessitated new development, and stressed it was unlikely to occur, especially at the shopping centers, any time soon.

“I know as professional planners you’re probably disappointed that we took off some of the land use change, but that was something that was very confusing for the public to digest what the implications of those were,” Weaver said.

Young suggested council and city staff need to improve at how they inform the public of the potential impact of land use tweaks.

“The concept of that and how things would change over time is challenging to communicate,” Young said. “I thought it was a decent plan.”

Planning Board member John Gerstle was out of town and unable to attend a meeting at which some board members expressed ardent disappointment in the council leaving out the land use changes, and criticized the resulting product as a one-property area plan, a product planners generally avoid.

Gerstle agreed it was dismaying to see the area plan move forward without a larger package of land use shifts, and also recommended members of the public with concerns surrounding planning efforts better educate themselves about possible results of changes before making up their minds.

“It is necessary for the public to understand what is actually likely and being proposed and what are the limits of what could happen,” Gerstle said. “And then it is council’s and Planning Board’s job to take the response to a proposal and place it in its appropriate context.”

Gerstle believes the land use package Yates and Morzel asked staff to keep ready won’t be examined again until the new council, set to be determined by November’s six-seat election, is in place.

But he declined to say whether he believes the proposal will, or should, remain largely unchanged when brought back.

“It would be inappropriate to assume that there will only be minor changes,” Gerstle said. “It’s not that I have a preconceived notion about how that area plan should look. I wouldn’t start from scratch, I think it’s reasonable to use the work that is already done. But I wouldn’t want to presume on the outcome that would result from taking this up again in several months.”

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