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Balancing act: Boulder leaders look to grow housing in East Boulder while preserving industrial jobs

John Hawthorne-Brown, left, and Marisa Parrot, board a Jump bus at 55th Street and Arapahoe Avenue on Wednesday. City officials are planning a transportation hub at the intersection as it considers the future of the east Arapahoe corridor. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
John Hawthorne-Brown, left, and Marisa Parrot, board a Jump bus at 55th Street and Arapahoe Avenue on Wednesday. City officials are planning a transportation hub at the intersection as it considers the future of the east Arapahoe corridor. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Editor’s note: The story below has been updated to correct the role Shutkin Sustainable Living has in the development process.

Just east of 55th Street along Arapahoe Avenue, work soon will be ready to begin on the Waterview multifamily housing and commercial project. These kinds of mixed-use developments aren’t rare in Boulder, but they are in this part of town. Waterview is the first project of its type in the area.

East Boulder, and the east Arapahoe corridor specifically, is one part of the city that has yet to see significant redevelopment efforts. While the area supports about 18,000 jobs, many of them industrial, it lacks sufficient housing and amenities that would allow workers to live in the area.

“The problem is, we have more jobs than we have housing to support those jobs, particularly low-to-middle income jobs,” said William Shutkin, whose company, Shutkin Sustainable Living, is development consultant on Waterview to Denver-based Zocalo Community Development.

William Shutkin is developing Waterview, the first multifamily housing project in the east Arapahoe corridor in Boulder. As the city continues to develop, the future of east Boulder and the east Arapahoe corridor could be critical to addressing the city’s housing shortage and achieving its long-term goals of creating more-walkable neighborhoods and reducing commuter emissions — all while remaining attractive to businesses. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

As the city continues to develop, the future of east Boulder and the east Arapahoe corridor could be critical to addressing the city’s housing shortage and achieving its long-term goals of creating more-walkable neighborhoods and reducing commuter emissions — all while remaining attractive to businesses.

“I think the overall vision is really that east Boulder will continue to be a great place to start and grow a business, and we want to support that network by allowing more types of land uses — retail, restaurants, housing — new uses that would make east Boulder an even better place to have your business or to work,” said Kathleen King, senior planner for the city of Boulder.

King is part of the group working to create the East Boulder Subcommunity Plan, which will outline the city’s vision for how it wants the area — including east Arapahoe Avenue — to develop over the next several decades. A draft of the plan will be ready for community review in the fall.

Housing is one of the central issues the plan will attempt to address. When Waterview is complete, it will add 317 residential units and about 15,000 square feet of commercial space on vacant land at 5801 and 5847 Arapahoe Ave. That’s a start. But Boulder in general — east Boulder in particular — still will lack housing. For city planners, finding the best locations for new housing developments in the area is critical.

“We’ve been doing a lot of community engagement around this topic of redevelopment and housing, and also really asking the community about this part of town and its character and importance as an industrial center,” King said. “We’re being really careful about future decisions related to land because we have such limited industrial land. The community says they do value industrial land and places for industrial businesses to grow. There is an interest to introduce more housing to east Boulder but it has to be strategic. We’re trying to identify the locations where housing would provide the greatest benefit to the area but not disrupt a lot of those key business locations.”

Indeed, the city doesn’t want to chase the industrial users out of east Boulder and redevelop all of their land as apartments, restaurants and shops. The goal is to bring in mixed-use developments that complement the existing users, facilitate easier access to their businesses and give their employees places to live closer to work with more things to do.

“Part of our comprehensive plan is trying to serve and maintain the small businesses that are in Boulder,” King said. “The types of businesses that are in east Boulder today support a lot of diversity of jobs and incomes that aren’t found in other places in Boulder. That’s also an important aspect of the industrial areas.”

To facilitate this, the city may need to make zoning-code changes. Current Boulder code allows for residential and commercial construction in industrial zones, but certain restrictions make it difficult to get those projects approved. The requirement that residential construction in an industrial zone be on a parcel “that has not less than one-sixth of the perimeter of the parcel contiguous with the residential use that includes one or more dwelling units or contiguous to a residential zone or to a City- or county-owned park or open space” prohibits residential construction in many of the industrial zones along the east Arapahoe corridor.

When the East Boulder Subcommunity Plan is adopted, its major component will be an updated land-use map to help guide future zoning decisions. King said that many options are on the table to allow for more mixed-use developments in the area: rezoning some areas, modifying existing zones to allow for more uses and even the creation of new zone types.

“East Boulder is a pretty large area,” said Liz Hanson, planning consultant at Hanson Business Strategies who previously worked for 30 years for the city in planning and economic vitality. “You have large companies, and you have startups. There’s plenty of room to do a lot of different things, plenty of uses that would work well with residential. There’s lots of ways to mix uses, and I think this area is large enough to do it well.”

One area that city planners are considering as a potential location for new housing developments is the intersection of 55th Street and Arapahoe Avenue. That would fit well with the other planned future use for that intersection — as a central hub for public transportation for east Boulder. If the east Arapahoe corridor is to see future residential and commercial development, the area will need to become easier to navigate for the people who will work and shop there. Now the area has fewer public transportation options as compared with the rest of Boulder.

These sketches illustrate the existing transportation character of east Arapahoe Avenue (left) alongside a concept for Boulder’s 2040 vision for the corridor, featuring dedicated bus lanes and biking and walking paths set back from traffic. (Courtesy of Boulder)

“When you look at east Arapahoe today, it’s fairly disconnected without a lot of services,” said Jean Sanson, senior transportation planner for the city. “We’re really thinking about good connections of every type: pedestrian, bike, transit, car.”

The city is adopting a holistic approach to revamping public transit along the east Arapahoe corridor: sidewalks and multi-use paths along the road have numerous gaps. Bus transit infrastructure and services could be improved. The high speed limits can create unsafe driving conditions.

The city’s East Arapahoe Transportation Plan, adopted in 2018, lays out a roadmap for how Boulder wants to develop the corridor over the next few decades. For pedestrians and cyclists, bike lanes and sidewalks safely set back from the road; multi-use paths connecting with the rest of the city’s trail system; more signaled traffic crossings.

For buses, the city plans to add more routes and stops and upgrade infrastructure at existing stops. Bus rapid transit service will extend all the way east on Arapahoe to connect with Interstate 25, running every five to seven minutes during peak commuting hours. Buses would get their own dedicated curbside lanes.

For cars, slower speed limits could mean fewer accidents.

The goal for the corridor is to, by 2040, double the number of buses running during commuting hours, reduce vehicle miles traveled by nearly 15% and shorten ride times coming into Boulder so that using the bus takes the same amount of time as driving.

All of this would be supported by the creation of the new transportation hubs such as the one at 55th and Arapahoe. These will not be massive bus depots like the ones downtown and on Table Mesa Drive, but rather smaller centers that allow someone to get off their rapid transit bus and easily reach their destination either by walking, cycling or taking a city bus.

“55th and Arapahoe is going to become the central hub for people who work here today and in the future,” Sanson said. “If you work at Ball, the hospital, Flatirons business park, you need really good transit and good first-and-final-mile connections. We’re really talking about how someone can take bus rapid transit and then bike to have a really good connection to and from their destination.”

All of this feeds into one of Boulder’s main development goals: to create “15-minute neighborhoods” where people can access all necessary services within 15 minutes either through walking, biking or public transit.

Achieving those goals also takes time. The East Arapahoe Transportation Plan looks as far forward as 2040; when complete, the East Boulder Subcommunity Plan will have a similar timeline. Formulating these plans is time-consuming and labor-intensive. So is implementing them. When the city adopts the subcommunity plan, it will be just that — a plan. Bringing it to fruition will happen project by project, lot by lot. The hope is that development and transportation improvements will create a kind of feedback loop, where development leads to transportation improvements to access that development, bringing more people to the area and spurring more development and transit investment, Sanson said.

At Waterview, where site work is expected to begin later this year, with construction beginning in early 2022, Shutkin is hopeful that will be the case.

“We think our project will be a strong catalyst,” Shutkin said. “With luck, we’ll see many more projects like ours as older sites turn over and smart, sustainable developers who care about Boulder and its future as a vibrant, inclusive community, seize these opportunities.”

Given the burgeoning interest and the city’s vision for transforming the area, east Boulder could see a major transformation over the coming decades.

“I think that change can be scary,” Hanson said, “but in this case, change really can bring a lot of opportunity.”