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Guest opinion: David Friedlander: When did Boulder stop caring about equitable, sustainable housing?

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By David Friedlander

When ratified in 1978, the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP) was one of America’s most innovative zoning reforms. Conceived to preserve Boulder’s “attractiveness and individual character,” BVCP limited population growth to under 2 percent per annum and designated 30% of the city lands as public Open Space . This all happened when many municipalities were celebrating growth.

While Boulderites still enjoy the Open Spaces, the desire to protect the city’s “attractiveness and individual character” seems lost in the 1970s. I partly blame my family.

In 1992, my father Dan was recruited to run a Boulder tech startup. I now see our migration accelerated the decoupling of Boulder’s costs of living from local wages. Dad’s compensation was set by global standards, and migrants like us could buy big houses like our East Boulder McMansion. Locals making local wages couldn’t compete.

I graduated from Fairview in 1994 and left for New York City in 2001, eager to live car-free in a culturally dynamic place. Before moving back in 2020, I returned frequently, including before my dad’s death in July 2012, an event with enormous ramifications on Boulder’s future. Dad brought not only global salaries but global political sophistication to Colorado. His legacy includes suing Xcel to stop Pueblo’s Comanche 3 power-plant construction and stewarding Jared Polis and Joe Neguse to their present stations.

But Dad was no Democrat Party mainliner. Raised in Chicago by radical Jewish parents in a tiny co-op, dad’s childhood included regular FBI surveillance. His Democrat support was fueled by a mistaken belief that the party would protect the planet’s  endangered people and environment.

When my dad died, the state’s  upstart Democrats  lost their intellectual and moral compass. The party shifted its brand from environmental responsibility and economic equality to virtue-signaling in the service of unfettered growth. Polis and Neguse  weaponized their minority statuses to obfuscate bleak realities. The State still builds in its most climate-vulnerable areas. Housing costs keep exploding and causing record levels of homelessness. Colorado has one of the country’s lowest per capita spending rates on education and teachers. And despite its fields of diversity flags, the state still caters to the rich and white. Boulder’s African American population has held at 1% for decades.

My dad spent his final years fighting to convert the state’s grid to renewable power. Unfortunately, the amount of energy used to produce, distribute, operate and dispose of renewable power makes this approach to decarbonization counterproductive. Until energy demand is dramatically reduced, supply shifts will keep cooling vacant third homes and charging Teslas for single-occupant pharmacy runs.

Dad’s focus on renewables related to his housing hypocrisy. Though he rode his bike everywhere, he knew homes like the McMansion and the modernist mansion he later built atop Shanahan Ridge  were the reasons energy demand kept growing and why non-rich citizens were being “driven” out of town.

Land use reform is the phrase Colorado politics fear most. But, such reform would permit science-backed responses to current and future ecological and economic threats: curbing sprawl and intrusion in wilderness frontiers; and permitting the development of mixed-use real estate with diverse housing options and amenities within walking or biking distance. But Colorado politicians are too busy kowtowing to profiteers of land growth and carbon-intensive infrastructure.

I frequently run through Chautauqua park, where I’m reminded Boulder wasn’t always so unsustainable, uncultured and uncaring.

Chautauqua Societies were a popular social, cultural and spiritual movement into early-20th-century America, and their supportive infrastructure is evident at Boulder’s Chautauqua. Founded in 1898 as a summer education center, the complex’s communal greens, halls, restaurants and compact cottages were an idyllic setting for holidayers and Boulderites to connect with nature and each other. There was even an electric streetcar that shuttled people from downtown.

Chautauqua cottages are now used for $250/night-plus stays and the halls for private events like weddings and a recent Kenny G. concert.

Boulder could easily permit housing as awesome as early Chautauquas for residents to live year-round! Zoning is not a Flatiron, and can be easily modified. The BVCP was amended for Crossroads shopping mall in the 80s — why not amend it for resilient, affordable, culturally diverse housing today?

Unfortunately, politicians like Polis and Neguse lack the concern to change land use, even when Coloradans hit the streets en masse and the land burns. The rest of us lack their calm, perhaps because we lack Polis’ $500M net-worth to buffer us from rising costs of living, or Neguse’s acting ability, decrying these crises publicly but acting with lassitude behind closed doors. We lack the comprehensive benefit plans of elected officials. Our material and natural resources continually stripped, we fight on, fueled by our love of Colorado’s bounty and all it’s given us. For my part, I will keep using my love, expertise and family name to fight and challenge the notion the state must keep perpetuating its woefully broken status quo.

David Friedlander is a globally recognized housing innovation consultant and founder of Run Haus, a running and performance-oriented community platform. He lives in Boulder.

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