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The architects of a plan to redevelop a portion of Boulder’s blighted and underutilized Diagonal Plaza shopping center support a rarely used mechanism to solve a tricky problem that threatens to jeopardize the proposal’s success.

With its mishmash of owners and zoning designations, the blighted Diagonal Plaza shopping center has proven to be one of the city’s most challenging redevelopment sites. (Boulder planning documents / Courtesy image)

The developers — a partnership between Boulder Housing Partners, Trammell Crow Co. and Coburn Partners —  told Boulder City Council members Tuesday that they favor the use of a special ordinance to waive certain open-space requirements that essentially make their project impossible.

At this point in the conceptual review process, there are two options on the table for the developers: The first option includes 177 workforce apartments within five buildings and with 9,942 square feet of amenity space, a shared deck and a clubhouse, and 58 permanently affordable apartments at the site of a shuttered Sports Authority and underutilized parking lot space at 3320 28th St., according to Boulder planning documents.

The second option matches the first but includes additional residential units with about 195 workforce apartments and 64 permanently affordable apartments. It also includes a fourth story on one of the buildings with an additional roof deck.

Under either option, the project would include efficiencies, one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

Here’s the rub:  Under the property’s zoning classification, open-space requirements would allow the construction of only 56 new residential units on the site — hardly enough to make a dent in the city’s housing affordability crisis.

There are a trio of options available to deal with this problem: a zoning change, a change to the city’s land-use regulations or a special ordinance that specifically waives open-space requirements at the project site only.

The first two options are time-consuming and would likely delay the project.

“There’s a bunch of hoops to jump through,” Coburn principal Bill Holicky said.

Boulder planner Elaine McLaughlin agreed that the approval process for those two options could be “onerous and challenging.”

A special ordinance, which is “generally intended to fulfill a policy” set forth by the city’s comprehensive plan, could be achieved in conjunction with the project’s development-review process, she said.

Councilman Aaron Brockett said a special ordinance represents the “clearest and most straightforward path” to success for the project. His colleagues nearly universally agreed.

The risk of using a special ordinance is the perception that council is giving the developer special treatment by essentially providing them with “spot zoning,” an oft-criticized practice in land-planning circles.

A special ordinance would not preclude council from exploring a zoning change or area plan for the entire Diagonal Plaza site in the future.

Diagonal Plaza, with its many empty storefronts and expansive, rarely used parking area, has long been a thorn in the side of city leaders, many of whom view the current proposal as a golden opportunity to improve the site.

Previous redevelopment attempts have been thwarted, in part because there are 14 different owners of portions of the plaza.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Holicky said of the complicated ownership situation.

Several members of City Council and staff have called the current proposal “catalytic” for redevelopment of the entire Diagonal Plaza site.

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