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That's what she said

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Modest Steps for Uni-Hill


By

Wholesale redevelopment of the University Hill commercial area appears to be off the table as stakeholders focus on clean up and code enforcement.  At a PLAN-Boulder forum last Friday (May 14, 2010),  a panel consisting of Molly Winter, executive director of the University Hill Commercial Area Management Commission, Stephen Walsh, architect and principal of the New Hill Company, Mike Boyers, a Hill commercial property owner and redeveloper, Ron Roschke, pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church and member of the Hill “Ownership Group,” and Bill Shrum, owner of Shipping on the Hill, chairman of the University Hill Commercial Area Management Commission, and member of the Hill “Ownership Group,”  talked about possibilities for the redevelopment of the University Hill area.

Stoffle's sandwich shop or cafe at 1100 13th St., Boulder, in 1932 (Carnegie Branch, Boulder Public Library)

Molly described the Hill as “the zipper” between the University and the town, and, alternately as the tiny interface between the enormous “tectonic plates” of the University and the town. She said that two meetings of the Boulder Planning Board in February, 2009, generated the creation of the Hill “Ownership Group,” which has met since September, 2009. The “Ownership Group” is intended to unite the various interests that have a stake in the future of the Hill around a plan for its renewal.

At the City Council’s retreat in January, 2010, the Council asked the Ownership Group for a list of Big Ideas.  Seven Big Ideas were presented to the City Council at a study session on April 27, 2010, and the Council expressed enthusiasm for two of them:

  • forming a general improvement district covering both the commercial part and some of the residential part of the Hill to remove snow, trash, weeds, and graffiti;  and
  • creating an arts district.

The Hill “Ownership Group” is developing detailed plans to implement these two ideas, which it expects to submit to the City Council this fall.  Molly cautioned that the Hill does not want to replicate the Pearl Street Mall and wants to establish its own identity.

She remarked that underground parking has been proposed by many people, but that the three existing surface lots on the Hill—two owned by the Commercial Area Management Commission and one by CU—are each too small to accommodate underground parking.  Properties would have to be aggregated in order for underground parking to be built.

Stephen said that the New Hill Company acts as a consultant to redevelopers on the Hill and is not itself a profit-making entity. It produced the Hill Commercial Context Study based upon the views of nine stakeholder groups, and the Study was presented to the Boulder Planning Board some time ago. He claimed that the City Council’s recent instructions have de-railed a serious redevelopment effort for the Hill. He asserted that the current zoning designation, BMX (Business Main Street Transitional) needs to be replaced with an overlay zone that allows for higher density. This change would encourage current property owners to either sell their properties to redevelopers or redevelop the properties themselves.

There are now 60 property owners on the Hill, Stephen said, and that number should be reduced to about 20. Projects should be large enough to provide underground parking and an integrated commercial heating and cooling system. He claimed that the historic fabric of the Hill was represented by Buchanan’s, the Flatirons Theater, two old rooming houses and the facades on the east side of 13th Street, and that those should be preserved.

Mike explained that he is a member of two partnerships that own the former Kinsley’s Building and another building he called the Players’ Club, also known as Nick’s. His firms are restoring the Player’s Club to its condition circa 1959, and Kinsley’s to its original condition circa the early 1950’s. He said that his firms will charge only the going rental rate on the Hill and not raise them. They have been contacted by several “high-quality” retailers who are interested in long-term leases.

Mike said that property owners can now command handsome rents and have no incentive to refurbish their buildings or redevelop them. He asserted that “a bit more density” would allow redevelopers to offer the kind of prices that would entice the current owners to sell out. He advocated a “carrot and stick” approach—the “carrot” being higher density and the “stick” being tougher City building code enforcement. He also called for more parking through a partnership and for liquor licenses for a few “quality operators” who would stop serving liquor by 11 p.m. He surmised that a community development corporation might have to be established to buy and redevelop particularly difficult properties.

Ron called universities “laboratories of the future” and said a cultural district might enable the border between the University and the city to become a creative, exciting area. He referred to a building in Minneapolis called the Loft as a possible model. It is occupied by writers, printers, graphic designers, etc.

Bill expressed frustration about the frequent studies of the Hill in the past which led to little or no action. He reported that his Shipping on the Hill business pays rent of $32 a square foot. About a year ago his building was vacated by the Fire Department because of a suspected natural gas line break. After investigation, the Fire Department discovered that a sewer line had been broken anywhere from six months to five years before then and that methane had built up under the building and finally seeped through into the occupied areas. Bill said he and the other tenants of the building were flabbergasted when the building’s owner appeared and quickly demanded that they repair the sewer line.

Bill called for more rigorous City building code enforcement, asserting that strict code enforcement would drive out the more negligent landlords. He also noted that the three existing surface parking lots on the Hill are almost never full, and contended parking lots accessible by both right and left turns off Broadway are needed.

After the presentations by the panelists, one audience member commented that rents in the Hill may be too high for artists to pay. Nancy Blackwood emphasized the importance of left and right turn access to the Hill from Broadway. Chuck Howe bemoaned the closing of the Faculty Club at CU and insisted on the need for a good  restaurant on the Hill to which faculty and staff members could take guests.

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2 Responses to “Modest Steps for Uni-Hill”

  1. Steven Walsh says:

    Thanks for the write-up Alan. A few corrections and additions:

    “Stephen said that the New Hill Company acts as a consultant to redevelopers on the Hill and is not itself a profit-making entity.”

    STEVEN WALSH: We are not a non-profit, and we work as hourly consultants to property owners. We do not own or intend to own any property and we are not incentivised by redevelopment profits. Our work on the Hill is in addition to our other professional pursuits and is primarily a service to the community and neighborhood we live in and love. We formed The New Hill Company in order to provide a funding mechanism to pay for national caliber urban design, planning, traffic engineering, environmental sustainability, and civil engineering consultants who produced our report (The Hill Commercial Context Study).

    ” It produced the Hill Commercial Context Study based upon the views of nine stakeholder groups …”

    STEVEN WALSH: Those 9 groups are CU students (Greek and non-Greek), CU Student Leaders (UCSU Tri-execs), CU faculty, CU administration, Hill faith-based organizations, Hill residents, Hill merchants, the City (UHGID Board). These folks have a direct interest in the future of the Hill. All workshops were publicized and open to the public, and were attended by members of City Council, Planning Staff, other interested citizens, property owners, etc. And the management of our process included city staff.

    “… the Study was presented to the Boulder Planning Board some time ago. He claimed that the City Council’s recent instructions have de-railed a serious redevelopment effort for the Hill.”

    STEVEN WALSH: Actually, the Council’s instructions were for staff to develop a work plan to promote revitalization of the Hill — it was their top Planning priority for the last two years. I stated that with all due respect, it is our opinion that the staff’s response was to create an Hill “Ownership Committee” which is essentially a restart of the very public and thorough process our study already conducted. The “de-rail” I mention is a reference to the fact that staff is essentially starting over with the same process on a much smaller, less public process that will take years to reach consensus and whose results will fall far short of what is required to revitalize the Hill. An arts district and maintenance district are just two of hundreds of benefits a revitalized Hill will enjoy only AFTER the underlying source of its problems have been addressed. The City’s own studies prior to our effort, and which we built upon in the HCCS (Ross Report, PUMA Study), state that the key is economic incentives to current property Owners (not merchants).

    ” He asserted that the current zoning designation, BMX (Business Main Street Transitional) needs to be replaced with an overlay zone that allows for higher density. This change would encourage current property owners to either sell their properties to redevelopers or redevelop the properties themselves.”

    STEVEN WALSH: Overlay Zoning (http://www.plannersweb.com/wfiles/w318.html) is a tool that leaves the underlying zoning alone (in this case BMS-X) and creates an incentive for property owners to do what zoning does not force them to do. In the case of the Hill, it would allow them to build slightly higher density and mixed use in exchange for aggregating their properties to a large enough parcel that would allow for underground parking and an economy of scale that would pay for high efficiency, high quality buildings

  2. Steven Walsh says:

    By the way, anyone may download and view the Hill Commercial Context Study (HCCS) at:

    http://public.me.com/swalsh

    Please note that unless the report is READ in full, the photos and illustrations alone will not reveal what it will take to see meaningful change on the Hill. I have heard it takes about 45 minutes to read from beginning to end.

    Kind regards,

    Steven Walsh

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