The unintended consequences of Boulder’s groundbreaking open space policies

Published March 2018

 

For the past half-century, Oakleigh Thorne has stared up at the iconic Flatirons — the three slabs of 1,000-foot rock that jut crooked-tooth-like across Boulder, Colorado’s western skyline — and he’s felt a stab of swelling pride.

 

As he should. Fifty years ago, Oak (as he likes to be called) won big by spearheading the citizen-led team that established Boulder’s “Greenbelt” — the swath of protected Open Space and Mountain Parks land that rings the city like a thick golden-green moat. Oak had even bought and then sold a parcel of land to the City to ensure the belt would close full-circle.

 

In his eyes, there was no way of knowing what that the seemingly progressive conservation methods he helped employ would do to the social and economic fabric of the community he loved decades later.

 

It was to keep the city from spilling out over the landscape,” he explains. Homemaking and protecting were fresh on Oak’s mind when he moved from the Northeast to pursue a zoology Ph.D at the University of Colorado Boulder. His thesis led him on walks along Boulder Creek, catching and breeding white-footed mice to study their nesting habits. With his hands among the dried leaves and roots of Boulder’s earth on a near-daily basis, he grew intimately familiar with the varied ecosystems that stretch across valley.

 

In the mid 1950s, during a post-WWII population surge that threatened the quaintness of the mountain town, Oak joined forces with with two CU Boulder professors and a handful of other young professionals to take action. As Oak recalls, they were asking the question: “What are we going to do to prevent the backdrop of Boulder from being developed?”

 

Hotels, they feared, would sprout along the mesas at the base of the Flatirons. Plans for a large church atop the southern sloping hill were already in the works. Developers and their gangly apartment complexes threatened the mountain views. The white rock formations out east needed safeguarding.

 

So, Oak helped the City buy up every square inch of the land surrounding Boulder and swear to its protection.

 

Around the same time, Oak lived with his family near downtown Boulder. In the mornings, the kids walked to Lincoln Elementary School. The mountains, just a glance away, kept watch over the city. The railroad tracks, Oak recalls, ran a block down from school, along Water Street; he remembers the small houses that lined it, the freight yard and the depot, the makeup of the elementary school — “It was a wonderfully integrated school. … There were a lot of Latino and African American families … Asian families, too.” He chuckles, remembering the school once asked his daughter to join a program because “they needed more white kids.”

 

While the rest of town ambled throughout the day, Oak turned to the CU professors, eager to help them answer their question. Leading up to 1959, he campaigned for one of their ideas — the “Blue Line,” a boundary mark that limited municipal water distribution above 5,750 feet, effectively preventing any buildings from taking root at the base of the Flatirons.

 

Then, in 1967, when citizens approved another of Oak’s missions — the “open space sales tax” — Boulder became the first U.S. municipality to tax themselves for the specific purpose of purchasing and preserving open space. It was with these funds that Boulder bought most of the Greenbelt that now rings the city.

 

Four years later, plans for a 17-story building threatened downtown, and the citizens led another mission to limit the height of buildings to 55 feet which is approximately the hight of the mature cottonwood trees common around the city.

 

Today, the height ordinance remains and the open space surrounding Boulder firmly stakes its city limits, preventing both outward sprawl and the encroachment of neighboring communities. No development is allowed on the protected land, which now exceeds 45,000 acres and houses more than 150 miles of maintained recreational and commuter trails. The quick access to greenery from any point in the city, coupled with the unobstructed mountain views, is, in large part, what makes Boulder Boulder; “No buildings [beyond city limits], that’s the nice thing,” Oak considers.

 

“I feel very proud of what we did,” he says with the reverence of a grandfather.

 

But then, within a matter of years of protecting that open space, development took an unexpected turn. The city stripped the railroad tracks, Water Street turned to Canyon Boulevard, the freight depot became a library, the neighborhood houses dissolved, apartments shot up, the college population doubled, and one side effect of Oak’s hard work, one that he never thought to consider, manifested right before his eyes.

 

When we passed the Greenbelt, and got the open space, and made Boulder so attractive, it started to shoot up the [cost of living],” he says somberly. People who could not afford the new apartments, those who had been living near the railroad tracks and attending school with his children, eventually left. “That’s the one thing we did not anticipate … It literally drove out that diversity that we had. That was one of the negative aspects of the Greenbelt and open space.”

 

Allyn Feinberg — who grew up in Boulder and now serves as co-chair of People’s League for Action Now (PLAN-Boulder County), a citizen advocacy group that formed early in the lobbying process for the Blue Line — says, “Really, the affordability of housing wasn’t on the radar screen of the City’s fathers.”

 

In the 50s and 60s, when Colorado’s Front Range was still predominantly rural, Boulder County was all about growth, she explains. The mentality was: “How can we get more business to locate here?” Attracting innovation, accruing sales tax, and carving a name on the national stage were Boulder’s top priorities.

 

A lot changed. Between 1950 and 1970, the population ballooned from 20,000 to 72,000; a turnpike was built, and academic and business expansions fleshed out the city’s innards. A steady influx of people were welcomed (mostly professional and white; Boulder’s population is now 90% Caucasian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Yet some things stayed the same. Term after term, citizens continuously voted to extend the open space sales tax and height-limit ordinances.

 

It was in the latter part of this era that Boulder’s first need for affordable housing surfaced.

 

Constrained laterally by the Greenbelt and vertically by the height ordinance, Boulder initiated a period of housing infill and re-use of present development to fit the newcomers in town. But when growth didn’t slow, subdivision construction began.

 

Thousands of building permits were issued in the mid-1970s before the Danish Plan, another citizen-led initiative intending to mitigate population and new building growth — “One of the first, and most widely emulated community growth management plans in the country,” according to the advocacy group Livable Boulder — limited new building permits to a 2 percent growth factor per year.

 

In 2000, the City published its first affordable housing goal: 10 percent of Boulder dwellings affordable for low/moderate- and middle-income households. By 2010, however, the City had only achieved 67 percent of the low and moderate income homes, which included shelter beds, and only 22 percent of the goal for middle-income households. In 2011, a task force convened to examine the situation. The group agreed to extend this 10 percent goal, but there were some who wouldn’t fully endorse it without including a provision restricting expansion of the current growth area surrounding Boulder.

 

Today, as the American Community Survey reports, the median household income for the Boulder metro area hovers around $75,000. That’s about $9,000 higher than the median Colorado household income, and nearly $17,000 greater than the U.S. median household income, indicating by some measures that the real estate bubble created by Boulder’s three-dimensional development restrictions has contributed to the influx of the wealthy and the outflux of others.

 

Between July 2015 and July 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau noted Boulder County gained 10 new residents a day, and according to the Boulder Affordable Housing Research Initiative, “home-ownership is out of the question for over 40% of Boulder’s residents.” There were two months in 2017 when the average single-family home sale price topped $1 million. Thus, more than 60,000 people who work in the city now commute from elsewhere each day.

 

Given current policies, Boulder is projected to reach residential and non-residential zoning capacity by 2080, according to city officials.

 

Allyn says as soon as the city identified a problem, they dutifully initiated policies and funding that were dedicated to affordable housing for low and moderate income residents. But many might argue it hasn’t been enough. “I would say we’re just like everybody else who has a booming job and real estate economy,” Allyn says. “The people who are in the service industry are getting pushed out of town; it’s that simple. And it is difficult to deal with.”

 

In short, she says, “I’m not sure there’s a … development that would’ve changed things much.”

 

The displacement of the workforce and the surge of wealth begs the question: do environmental values in Boulder trump community values like diversity and affordability?

 

Shae Frydenlund doesn’t believe for a second that the Greenbelt’s role in driving out diversity was an accident. “Preserving open space … was decidedly to insulate Boulder and to protect open space for the elite few who already lived there,” she says.

 

As a Ph.D. student at CU who specializes in economic geography and who has published research on Boulder’s affordable housing, Shae is well versed in the politics of privilege. As she sees it, the Greenbelt was a political move just as much as it was environmental.

 

While Oak’s intentions were to preserve the natural ecosystem, a different perspective regards open space policy as a group of powerful, privileged people who simply bought up the land surrounding the city and said, OK, only those who were either lucky enough to be here to share our original environmental ideals, or those who can afford to cross the greenspace and find a home in which to live can reside in our city.

 

Allyn, on the other hand, is cautious of throwing darts at any one target, though she admits housing and open space policies do seem to be related. “There are many, many issues that are interconnected,” she says, considering a growing city with a growing economy. “A lot of people think that if you didn’t have open space around Boulder that you would just build, build, build and have so much housing that you would make it more affordable.”

 

But the decades of Allyn’s city planning experience have taught her that isn’t exactly the case. “When you have a community that’s desirable, you can’t ever build enough,” she says, having learned from studying the housing situation in San Francisco. “The housing that you end up building has the same upward price pressures because more people want to live here than you can ever accommodate. … People in Boulder have said ‘OK, we’re not willing to give up our environmental values for just creating more stuff that isn’t going to be affordable.’”

 

There are ironies embedded within Boulder’s relationship with affordable housing and the environment, however, that Shae and her research haven’t overlooked. She points to the fight for co-operative housing to illustrate how she believes that insulation and the protection of a privileged community are motives buried underneath Greenbelt policies.

 

Until Feb. 16, 2017, co-op houses — residential homes with more than four unrelated people — were illegal in Boulder, despite the fact that co-ops are “the best, most environmentally efficient way to live in a city, period,” Shae explains. For instance, sharing a house leads to sharing appliances, cars, and physical space, drastically reducing an individual’s carbon footprint.

 

The law relied on citizen reporting to identify over-occupied houses, so some neighborhoods, particularly near the University, tolerated co-op living. But, in campaigning to eliminate the law throughout 2016, Shae says the residents of established neighborhoods closest to open space — where much of the older, more established Boulderites live, many of whom were active in the fight for the original open space policies — were almost uniformly opposed to the idea of co-ops in their neighborhoods.

 

It’s a thorny issue,” Shae says. “The demographic that claims to want to keep [Boulder] environmentally focused is the same demographic that is effectively blocking and even sabotaging one of the most environmentally conscious ways of life, because they see it as a threat to their property rights and lifestyle.”

 

This is part of the larger economic narrative that Shae studies in Boulder and around the world. “There are power dynamics at play shaping who wins and who loses in all housing markets,” and she cautions against letting those dynamics lead the housing situation in the city.

 

Instead of asking, How can there be a balance between environmental conservation and affordable housing? Shae insists, while moving forward, the better question is: “What power dynamics have emerged to create a society in which only the wealthy in Boulder and elsewhere have the guaranteed right to housing and access to open space?”

 

Allyn, like Shae and Oak, understands Boulder’s growing homogeneity and the outward flux of the working class is a pressing and unresolved issue. “If you don’t have that diversity of income, then you probably don’t have diversity of ethnicity, racial makeup, gender… [everything is] more limited if you only have a community that’s full of rich people,” she says. “Having a distribution of income across a spectrum is the critical thing for keeping a good community.”

 

This past October, on the day Oak turned 89, nearly 500 people gathered alongside him in a CU auditorium. Rather than sing to him though, he and the guests were there to celebrate a different birthday. The open space sales tax turned 50.

 

As the founding generation mingled over cake with a crop of future young professionals, the party was as much a celebration of the past as it was a dedication to the future of Boulder’s defining traits: progressive citizenry and environmental stewardship. These traits have shaped Boulder as an international voice in the environment, a booming economy and a desirable zip code.

 

But Shae can’t help but consider the injustice that bubbled up alongside that trajectory: when progressive thinking was solely applied to nature, the fate of certain human beings falling at the wayside.

 

By the end of 2017, Boulder determined 7.4 percent of its dwellings were affordable for low/moderate income households, with about a quarter of those units permanently so. Within the last few months — to help shrink the 2.6-percent gap between reality and the 2000 and 2011 10-percent-affordability goals — the City increased its inclusionary housing provision from 20 to 25 percent, requiring new residential developments must contribute the equivalent amount of 25 percent of their developments as affordable housing to the city. This, in tandem with the 700 affordable units under construction or in the approval process, means at the very least there are people who are listening.