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Tuesday June 18th 2019

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That's what she said

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Rolling Back Expectations for the Diagonal Plaza


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A panel of volunteer experts from the Colorado branch of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) reported their impressions of the development prospects of Diagonal Plaza at a public meeting on January 20 and delivered a mixed message about the possibilities. One panelist cautioned that retail stores are growing smaller and commented that Diagonal Plaza lacks the potential to become a regional shopping center. Others, however, reported that King Soopers has indicated a strong interest in building a store ranging in size from 25,000 square feet to 125,000 square feet at Diagonal Plaza and advised that Wal-Mart might be a prime candidate to inaugurate a “green,” socially responsible, multi-use, pilot project there.

The meeting culminated a very quick, eight-hour study of Diagonal Plaza by the ULI panel, which had previously been plied with notebooks filled with information fromcCity staff members about this shopping center in particular and Boulder in general. Six Boulder City Council members and several members of the city’s Planning Board attended the meeting, along with dozens of others.

The panel noted that “parking drives all King Sooper’s stores,” that the grocery chain is not hospitable to structured parking, nor to residential spaces above its stores, but that it had expressed openness to new housing at Diagonal Plaza separated from a new store by a parking lot.

About 15 individuals and companies own property rights at the Diagonal Plaza and to date they have shown little interest as a group in redeveloping the shopping center, or even considering its redevelopment. The ULI panel observed that for any redevelopment to occur, either the owners will have to be motivated and mobilized to take action, or the city will have to intervene by using, or threatening to use, the power of condemnation. The panel recommended that as a preliminary step the city at least collect complete information about all the lease rights, fee interests, and other property rights at Diagonal Plaza.

The panel outlined three development concepts that might be implemented at Diagonal Plaza: “Main Street,” which features strong vehicular-pedestrian corridors; “Paseo,” which features a series of outdoor spaces; and “Community Destination,” which would use rooftops as public spaces and include major attractions, such as a play center.

It also proposed three development approaches: “non-dramatic,” “incremental,” and “dramatic action.” It appeared to favor the incremental approach, which included encouraging the property owners to cooperate in a redevelopment effort, seeking basic agreement between the owners and the city about redevelopment principles, conducting a “void analysis,” rather than a “retail leakage analysis,” and encouraging Boulder Housing Partners (the city’s housing authority), which owns a housing complex next to Diagonal Plaza, to re-do its holding there and perhaps precipitate wider-scale redevelopment. A “void analysis,” panelists explained, determines what significant, retail functions are missing from a community. A “retail leakage analysis,” in contrast, determines what goods and services consumers in a community are going elsewhere to buy.

One panelist advocated redeveloping Diagonal Plaza as part of a larger plan for 28th Street, with 28th Street, 29th Street, and Diagonal Plaza being envisioned as a “dumbbell” shaped district. Others noted that density provides benefits, but also entails extra expenses for parking structures, amenities, etc. “Value-oriented shopping” facilities are unlikely to be able to bear those extra expenses, they warned.

The panel mentioned several incentives that might be needed in order to stimulate redevelopment at the level of quality the city may demand. These included allowing a 55 foot height by right for mixed use projects, allowing heights above 55 feet for some buildings, reducing the 20 percent open space requirement, and reducing parking requirements.

The panel  predicted that redevelopment of Diagonal Plaza would take five to ten years and asserted that the pivotal question now is when is the right time to start. It also advised that “Boulder needs to do more work to decide what it does want, not what it doesn‘t want.”

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2 Responses to “Rolling Back Expectations for the Diagonal Plaza”

  1. Seth Brigham says:

    I’m not for a convention center but if it does happen I would prefer it to be on 28th or east there of…

    It would be madness to plant it on the hill or downtown, which seems to be the way City Council is pointing.

    Rather than a Wal Mart, the lesser evil would be a civic center or convention center at Diagonal Plaza.

  2. Eva Kosinski says:

    While I’m not sure why a panel of “volunteers” from the ULI should be listened to more than anyone else, I’m also sure this is very interesting, because some of the policies that have been turning away business for the past decade (SmartGrowth, green building, muti-use housing, etc) have been highly recommended by the ULI, and the City and County have listened with bated breath to their recommendations,sometimes to the exclusion of all other voices.

    When faced with a situation that really puts it all out there on the table (no incentives for businesses as rules and fees and taxes, and the ever-present years-long song-and-dance routine required by the planning commission, continue unabated), the ULI suddenly has no real creative ideas at all, falling back on it’s old tried and true buddy, condemnation.

    The owners are holding onto these properties for a reason. I don’t pretend to know what that is, but perhaps its something that might actually make money for the city, and someone should ask instead of continuing to use the same approach that’s failed them for so long — large-scale idealized plans that require a crowbar (that’s all eminent domain is, in the end) to enforce.

    I don’t see the point of a “retail leakage analysis” — just ask anyone you know who isn’t living in town why they don’t go to Boulder anymore. They will tell you trying to find a place to park is a hassle, and while there is some parking to be found, everywhere they look there are signs saying “pay here.” They go elsewhere. Paying an analyst to tell the City this is not really necessary, but perhaps they just don’t know folks outside of the city to ask.

    Balance is a critical element of sorting through the dichotomy of successful economics and environmental protection. Hard wiring rules without understanding how they affect the motivation to bring business in (and also assuming that every business interest is purely pecuniary/greed with no redeeming qualities) eventually takes a toll. If the City showed more interest in a real conversation with the owners, rather than bringing in volunteer strangers, they might get better results.

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