I won’t beat around the bush. The two growth-related initiatives that city of Boulder voters will decide on this fall are among the worst pieces of public policy I’ve seen, in almost 25 years of observing and participating in local policy-making.
This is important stuff. How a community evolves and changes, sometimes grows, is crucial to its DNA. It’s properly the single most important metric by which voters judge candidates for local office, and why a city like Boulder has dozens of professional planners to try and get it right. Boulder’s in a growth phase, which creates disruption for everyone, including me and my family. But if our response to it is wrong and enshrined in the city charter, we’ll do far worse damage than a few questionable buildings on 30th Street.
It’s important to remember that times weren’t always like they are today. In the past, most recently in the 2008-9 recession, we’ve had to cut human service budgets, reduce pay increases to police and fire, and we’ve struggled to provide good jobs. How would our responses to challenges like these have looked if city council were hamstrung by a charter filled with allowances for NIMBY vetoes and ill-defined calculations to determine the price of each new development?
But times are good now. Our entrepreneur-based economy is thriving, and traffic can sometimes be a challenge (although statistically it’s about the same as it was 10 years ago). Occasionally open space gets crowded as well, and the daily influx of automobile in-commuters overwhelms the city’s efforts to reduce its carbon load. So it can make some sense, as the initiative proponents say, to slow down to take a breath and decide what we really want, right?
Except that’s not what the initiatives would do. What they would do is create chaos and division. One (300) would divide neighborhood against neighborhood, the other (301) the business community against one segment of the population, which would hold all the strings. Both would make it difficult to site community benefits, things like affordable housing, day-care centers, firehouses, and shelters, to say nothing of good jobs. They would grind to a halt our progress toward achieving greenhouse emission goals, by placing a finger on the scale in favor of suburban-style, non-walkable, low-density housing (by far the least efficient in terms of energy and transportation usage).
And it gets worse. They’re also vaguely written, and expensive. “Neighborhoods,” the micro-vote initiative (300), doesn’t specify exactly where the neighborhoods would be, nor precisely what they could vote on. “Development,” the new development fee system (301), punts the central question — how these new fees would be calculated — to city staff, endless council meetings, and almost certainly long lawsuits. It’s like proposing a tax increase, in the charter (the city’s constitution), without saying who would pay how much. “Neighborhoods” would add to the cost by requiring all voters to pay for each neighborhood’s micro-vote. Every dollar spent on lawsuits and elections would be a dollar not spent on human services, police and fire, and other general fund needs.
In good times like these, cities like Boulder get “discovered” nationally, even internationally, and significant change happens. It’s true that if the citizens hadn’t cared in the 1970s and ’80s, we’d have never created this wonderful place to live. We are what we are because of the determination of Boulder residents to build the city they want.
But just as letting things go as they will (as many cities do) isn’t a smart strategy, neither is it wise to use frustration as a basis to blow up our planning system, leaving unintended consequences in our wake and bringing forth a future in which we’ll try to remember what on Earth we were thinking, back in 2015. Think what TABOR has done to state budgeting, and you get the idea.
Change for the worse is easy to see, and proponents of the initiatives see it everywhere. Change for the better is less obvious, as it often goes to community rather than personal goals. These are goals that require the city to come together, things like greenhouse gas reductions, a homeless shelter, a thriving start-up culture, or, long ago, a groundbreaking open space program. Sometimes it seems as though lately we can’t get past our own drive times, but there’s more to Boulder than that. Boulder is working; its people are doing amazing things.
Let’s work together to keep it that way.
Andy Schultheiss is a former member of Boulder City Council and currently executive director of Open Boulder. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org