After an hours-long discussion and with the clock nearing 1 a.m. Wednesday, Boulder City Council voted 6-3 to temporarily ban development of office space and demolition of apartment buildings in a broad eastern swath of the city designated as a federal opportunity zone.
Council members Bob Yates, Aaron Brockett and Jill Adler Grano dissented.
“With this moratorium, we just turned an opportunity zone into an opportunity-free zone,” Yates said. “There’s so many unknown unknowns, I don’t know where to start. This moratorium is super indiscriminate. The unintended consequences are mind boggling.”
The ordinance, passed on emergency, prohibits the creation of any additional floor area, as well as any demolition that results in the removal of any multi-family or commercial floor area.
There are exemptions for housing communities under four acres; larger housing developments can be permitted if they provide all the required affordable units on site. Property owned by Colorado nonprofits also is exempt.
Many other avenues were discussed and tabled for later: Several council members proposed rent protections for mobile home communities and additional affordable housing requirements. Grano suggested exemptions for properties that, by definition, do not qualify for opportunity zone funds.
What, exactly, those might be, are still in flux: The federal program — whereby capital gains taxes can be deferred, reduced or eliminated when invested in opportunity zones — is still being developed. Councilwoman Mary Young and others were hopeful that Boulder could take advantage of the program, perhaps establishing a local opportunity fund to invest in things like mobile home infrastructure.
Mayor Suzanne Jones pointed out that, while an update of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan was just completed, the development rules that will codify its vision are not yet in place. Those are scheduled for undertaking in 2019 and 2020.
“We have rules we need to update,” Jones said. “As Macy’s just illustrated. They put in something based on the old vision and we need to have the new vision in place.”
Councilman Aaron Brockett contended that process is further delayed by the time that will be spent on the moratorium.
“Those projects keep receding farther from the horizon,” he said. “I’d rather be working on those than up here at 1 o’clock working on things that aren’t emergencies.”
Macy’s intention to turn its Twenty Ninth Street store into office space accelerated growing concerns about opportunity zones, though the retailer is not making use of the opportunity zone funding. A site review application was submitted this week, and several representatives for Macy’s and mall owner Macerich were among the 30 speakers during an extended public hearing — and accounted for some of the night’s more colorful exchanges.
“(The) existence of (the) opportunity zone had nothing to do with Macy’s decision to redevelop,” said Chris Shears, an architect working with the department store. “(We’ve been) working on it for a little under two years.”
Councilman Sam Weaver responded by asking Shears if he had read the recently updated comprehensive plan, specifically, its goals to preserve retail, increase housing and curb office space.
“I have,” Shears said.
What does it say in there about the desires of the community? Weaver asked.
Said Shears: “I couldn’t quote that.”
“I can,” Weaver replied, suggesting that Shears should “review the desires of the community with your clients. I would appreciate it if you would do that.”
“I would hope you would entertain some ideas associated with the challenges of redeveloping a big box,” Shears said.
Weaver repeated this routine twice more, to representatives for the mall and Macy’s, including Eric Komppa, a developer who has been working with the retailer for 18 months. The decision to redevelop was made in summer 2017, he said.
“After thorough review of all viable alternatives and under the context of current zoning, our team concluded that adaptively reusing the building was the most viable, cost-effective, long-term strategy,” Komppa said. “Any alternative uses” — including housing, a professed desire of council — “would require demolition and a rezone.”
“You also have the option of selling to an opportunity fund (who will make use of opportunity zone incentives) if we give you too hard of a time,” joked Councilwoman Grano.
The overwhelming majority of public speakers were in favor of the moratorium. They questioned Boulder’s need for such a designation, intended to spur redevelopment in areas less-attractive to development, and supported council in taking a time-out to shore up the city’s regulatory defenses.
Mike Marsh, a PLAN Boulder County member, gave examples of other cities embarking on similar paths or trying to find a way to have the designation removed. Council and community members directed staff to explore if it was possible to shirk the 10-year designation.
“The number of ‘I don’t knows’ in the staff presentation is a pretty good indicator that we need a pause,” said Adam Swetlik, also of PLAN and part of Boulder’s Housing Advisory Board. “We probably can’t regulate our way to paradise, but we can use regulation to continue to help nonwealthy people live in Boulder.”
“If we don’t manage it,” said Marsh, “it’s going to manage us.
The handful of speakers opposed to the moratorium, meanwhile, focused on the quick action by the council they felt was a subversion of the public process. Any development will be subject to Boulder’s rigorous public planning process.
“From a federal, economic perspective, the opportunity zone is not a very good policy,” Eric Budd said. “But from a local perspective, it’s our job to do the most to get the most out of our federal policy, and that’s what I believe is happening here. We have a comp plan, we have zoning to prevent development (we don’t want). Please use those tools. Don’t use the hammer of the moratorium.”
Council earlier in the night advanced another land use change that will require some type of first-floor retail in Boulder’s larger shopping centers. Several speakers made note of the fact that it was second council action of the night based on the fear of redevelopment rather than actual plans.
“The moratorium council strikes again,” said Boulder Chamber President John Tayer, following the early-morning vote, “without any real understanding of the impacts that they’ll have.”