Category Archives: Commercial Issues

Municipilization Election Stand-Off – Carpe Diem

December 31, 2011

50.4% – 49.6% (13,353 – 13,141): the margin of “victory” in Boulder’s municipalization referendum (occupation tax extension) on November 1st was 2011’s top Boulder story. We’re a progressive and well-educated town, but consensus on the way forward eluded us, even as more violent weather events occur world-wide and rapidly warming polar regions scream out for aggressive climate change-slowing solutions. I’d wager greater than 85% of Boulder’s voters agree on the City’s climate action goals. Our debate is about means and methods, and how to get the most bang for our bucks, sooner than later.
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Menu Food Labeling

August 20, 2011

This feels like creeping incrementalism to me – “nanny state” going one bridge too far. Just because a thing can be required does not mean it should be. Government has to know its limitations. Restaurant owners and chefs can (do) seize this opportunity to distinguish themselves, and the meals they prepare and serve, by sharing such information voluntarily. People can then make responsible choices.
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Conservation Makes Cents for Xcel

April 30, 2011

Recent polling showing citizen “uncertainty” concerning whether to establish a municipal energy utility and toss Xcel should surprise no one. It’s complicated. Should the City spend hundred(s) of millions of dollars buying Xcel’s pipes and wires? Should we, instead, invest the money rehabilitating structures (commercial and residential) to reduce our consumption of natural gas and electrons? Admittedly, all energy is not created equal. Some, including most “renewables,” are sustainable. Others borrow from the distant past, squandering a diminishing supply of solar energy stored in carbon-based fuels to support profligate lifestyles today.
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Economic Resiliency: A Do or Die Proposition

March 26, 2011

“Economic resiliency” is a term we’re hearing more often of late. Auto manufacturers in the midwest are shutting down and laying off workers because the earthquake in Japan disrupted the supply of engine parts. Semiconductor chip prices are jumping for the same reason. The Middle East’s “Jasmine Revolution” is increasing oil prices and driving ethanol production, which competes for fields of corn — raising food prices.

Some of the challenges Boulder must address to achieve economic resiliency include a shortage of workforce housing, the need for more year round local agricultural production, and the ability to withstand temporary manufacturing supply disruptions, which may become permanent. When the price of oil rises high enough, “outsourcing” goes away, because the price of transport exceeds the savings realized from less expensive labor and less restrictive environmental regulations overseas.

Boulder would be well-advised to examine our local economy for vulnerability to supply disruptions. “Just-in-time” inventories work great until the flow stops. What raw materials, parts or products do we depend upon now that may become unavailable or unaffordable when predictable, probable disruptions occur? What is Boulder’s back-up plan? It is unwise to ignore the warnings current events are firing across our bow.

The essence of effective long range planning is anticipation of probabilities and preservation of options. If we assume we will always be able to afford what we need to survive after it has traveled half-way around the world to return to us, we may find that our “resiliency” was an illusion.

New Year’s Resolutions, circa 2011

January 2, 2011

Let’s take ourselves less seriously, set aside our historic community feuds, extend our planning horizon, and begin the process of saving our species. Mother Nature doesn’t care about us all that much. At this point, Mother Earth can support microbes and cockroaches more easily than humans. Where is Plan(et) B? The dinosaurs had it done to them, but we’re doing it to ourselves; and we think we’re the intelligent ones?

We hope we can save ourselves by tinkering around the margins (i.e., buy a Prius, install solar panels, insulate, grow your own vegetables, install low flow shower faucets [been there, done that]), but what we really need to do is restore turn of the last century streetscapes. You know,: the walk to work, bike to school, say “hi” to the neighbors at the corner grocery store, take a train to the big city once in a while world that is the definition of nostalgia now, but was all we needed to survive without cheap oil in its day.

We need modernity’s antibiotics, birth control and Internet, but we also need to wean ourselves off of outsourced manufactured goods and 3,000-mile salads in favor of home-grown food and home-made stuff that isn’t dependent upon $50/barrel oil for its creation or $3.00/gallon gasoline for its transport. We can expect those prices to double or even triple in the next 5 years, but so what if they don’t? What makes you happy? Less driving? Shopping closer to home? Follow your bliss in 2011.

End Boulder’s Auto-Dependency

December 18, 2010

In 1994, the City began its first “subcommunity” plan in North Boulder. The notion was that the best way to unwind Boulder’s auto-dependent, post-WWII human settlement pattern was to focus on discrete areas of Boulder that could become “primarily self-sufficient” – places where residents would be able to work, shop and play closer to where they sleep without having to drive their car everywhere to do almost everything. Sixteen years later, the automobile still reigns supreme.

We keep kicking the tough decisions down the road (literally). How can we establish walkable neighborhoods? The City should inventory and map residential rental housing. Unlike owner-occupied homes, these investor-owned dwelling units are “in play” for land assembly purposes — an essential first step in the neighborhood and subcommunity center development process.

Transferable residential development rights (TDRs) need to be re-calibrated so that a development right in the County can be traded for 5-7 affordable dwelling units in Boulder. TDRs can then be used to support development of walkable mixed use (WAMU) centers within our existing, sprawling residential areas. The TDR concept should be evolved further to include transferable commercial development rights. This would allow commercial development potential existing in remote areas to be concentrated along transit corridors, nodes, and neighborhood and subcommunity centers. Ultimately, zoning maps need to be created with water colors, not highlighters and sharpies. Interface areas should “bleed” into each other. Large tracts of homogeneous single use zones are inherently auto dependent, the cartographic antithesis of a truly sustainable future.

Budget Cuts Redux

September 4, 2010

The chickens have come home to roost. Boulder is no longer the regional shopping center for Boulder County. 39% of the City’s revenues come from sales taxes. More than 50% of Superior’s Costco credit card purchases are paid by cardholders with City of Boulder zip codes. It’s not just the economy, stupid. We’ve lost (given away?) retail market share, and it ain’t coming back.

We also have too many of our revenue streams sequestered in City expenditure lockboxes. Therefore, some of the sales taxes we do collect can’t be reallocated. Community leaders have so far been reluctant to put a referendum on the ballot that would release these community resources for use in funding a wider variety of current budget priorities. We may not be broke, but with our hands thus tied, we may as well be.

If we were a business, middle managers would live in fear and existing, non-performing assets would be sold or made available for creative joint venture partnerships. Consolidation of departments can reduce labor costs, and the new budget includes a few of these long-justified efficiencies. More are needed. Some of you may remember the “Performance Industrial Concept,” which was proposed in the mid-1980s as a way to make better use of our less valuable open space (some of our acquisitions include less than pristine, heavily used land). With long-term leases, redevelopment of carefully selected sites could make productive use of these assets a possibility again, without removing them from our portfolio. It’s worth another look.

500-Year Flood Land Use Regulation

August 28, 2010

When Boulder Creek is full, Barker Dam is overflowing, and thunderheads are growing behind the Flatirons like a Doug West painting, flood experts will tell you the chance of the 100-year flood remains “once in a hundred years,” by definition. Even with our state of the art monitoring systems, we will only receive about 20-45 minutes of notice before the big one hits.

We’ve chosen to regulate land use based on the 100-year event. It could happen within our lifetimes, or within the expected life of the structures we build. The characteristics of the 500-year flood are quite different. Like some of the water in the 100-year flood, its water won’t remain within the river channels formed in Boulder long before settlers arrived. It’s not a mile wide and an inch deep (more like 1-3 feet in most places), but one look at the maps will show you that a whole lot of Boulder is going to get wet. It won’t stay wet for long. Services will be interrupted, but they may return to normal in a few days. Our flood will not be like the ones in Iowa or New Orleans. It’s more like a toilet flush.

Identify the properties at risk. Floodproof infrastructure. Plan how to direct people to higher ground. Segregate hazardous wastes. Relocate the elderly and the disabled (eventually) to move them out of harm’s way. Get insurance. When the sirens go off, turn off the power to prevent fires. Let’s not get carried away

500-Year Flood Regulation, long version

August 28, 2010

I have had a morbid fascination with the 100-year flood ever since I was a city prosecutor working in the Justice Center in the early 1980’s. I called the flood folks on a day in early June when the banks of Boulder Creek were full, Barker Dam in Nederland was overflowing, and thnderheads were building like a Doug West painting west of the Flatirons. “What is the chance of the 100-yuear flood today?” I asked. “Once in a hundred years,” I was told. I thought the odds would shift when conditions were right, but, other than flash flood warnings, our state of the art monitoring systems will only provide us with 20-45-minutes of notice before the big one hits.

Climate change is increasing the risk of violent storms, but until the warning sirens go off, by definition, the 100-year flood remains a 1 in a hundred year risk. So also with the 500-year flood, except, of course, it will occur once every 500 years. We’ve chosen to regulate land use based on the 100-year event, which makes sense. It could happen within our lifetimes, or within the expected life of the structures we build.

The characteristics of the 500-year flood are a bit different. Like some of the water in the 100-year flood, its water won’t remain within the river channels formed in Boulder long before settlers arrived. It’s not a mile wide and an inch deep (more like 1-3 feet in most places), but one look at the maps will show you that a whole lot of Boulder will get wet. It won’t stay wet for long, and the vast majority of people will be able to stay out of its way.

15-20 other people attended the 500-year open house on 8/24/2010, plus 5 or so City staff members. If implemented, the regulations proposed could impact many aspects of our lives that are yet to be considered (i.e., is a 1 in 500 year event a sound basis for regulation? how might our built environment be altered by creation of barriers to prevent any property damage that might result? is the shallow, but extensive pool of shallow water spilling out beyond the 100-year regulatory flood plain destructive enough to warrant significant intervention? how do Boulder’s flash floods [with dissipation in a matter of hours or, at most, days] differ from the flood characteristics that have recently been observed in Pakistan, China, New Orleans and Iowa, and what should that tell us about the nature and extent of regulation required? Does it make sense to build “fixes” that may or may not last for 500 years, so we can be protected from a harm that may exist for 2-3 days? Is there any urgency to do something? Is it reasonable to require that comments from the open house be submitted within 2 weeks [on or before September 6th!]? Does this provide sufficient feedback for such a potentially dramatic shift in planning principles? etc., etc., etc.)

Budget Prioritization in a Representative Democracy

July 31, 2010

The wonder is, “hasn’t Boulder been doing ‘priority’ budgeting all along?” People who are in position to know have assured me that this new approach is better than the old one. The public was asked to define what matters most, the consultants provided a model, and the departments did the ranking. With 443 “services” to rank, how much do you need to know to effectively balance them? Many of the City’s services are delivered to citizens whose voices are seldom, if ever, heard in City Council’s chambers. Who will speak for them?

The real budget challenge for the City is finding keys to the lockboxes created by decades of tax referenda. Each popular package comes with tightly-defined earmarks. It’s like running a household with 41 separate checking accounts, but you can’t use money set aside in one of the accounts for “vegetables” to buy “shoes.” The money’s in Boulder’s accounts, but there’s no flexibility to use them for other purposes. The day should come, hopefully soon, when an omnibus restructuring of all Boulder’s accounts will be placed before the voters.

Ours is a “republic,” a representative democracy where we choose others among us to gather the information needed to make smart choices we simply don’t have the time to parse ourselves. Let’s untie our leaders’ hands and then hold them accountable. Trust them or toss them. Direct democracy is an oversold, unwieldy illusion. Prioritization is an elected representative’s primary responsibility.