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Sunday September 15th 2019

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Does Boulder Have Too Many Jobs?


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Does Boulder have too many jobs? If you are out of work, then Boulder needs at least one more job. If you are a commercial developer then Boulder needs as many jobs as you can convince the planning department to let you squeeze onto your particular piece of land. If you are a real estate investor, including all of us who own homes, or if you are a newspaper, or a car dealer or a lifestyle publication (“Inspired by community”), then Boulder can never have too many jobs.

Boulder Junction, October 2015 (photo courtesy Ben Harding)

Boulder Junction, October 2015 (photo courtesy Ben Harding)

But, if you commute to work here and would like to live here, or if you just care about having a real community where nurses, teachers, firefighter and mechanics might hope to live, then the answer is yes, Boulder has too many jobs. According to materials produced by the city’s Department of Planning, Housing and Sustainability as part of the revision of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan, Boulder now has 2.2 jobs per household. By itself, that number may not mean much, but let’s put it in context. In previous draft documents, the planning department provided estimates that Boulder has twice the number of jobs per household as the Denver metropolitan area as a whole. OK, maybe that helps explain some of the reason that housing is more expensive here, but is a two-to-one ratio really that far out of whack? What about other areas?

Data about this are hard to find for the average person (like me), but a 2008 study by the University of California provides some information. Boulder has more jobs per household than any of the 15 California communities with the highest ratio of jobs to households. I guess, if I understand the report correctly, Boulder is already off the charts. The California areas that are closest to Boulder in this respect are Orange County and San Francisco, but those areas only have about 1.5 jobs per household. So, Boulder has one-third more families chasing the available housing stock than does San Francisco. And, San Francisco has the BART. Orange County, by the way, does not have oranges any more, except in museums.

What does the future hold? Will the market fix this? Will increasing density fix this? Can we build our way out? Again, the planning department provides some data. When Boulder builds its last office building and its last residential property under its current zoning “capacity,” what is called “build-out,” the city will have nearly three jobs for every household. This is twice the ratio for the most job-rich California communities.

More than fifty years ago Boulder set out to become a compact and, most important, a finite community, one that rejected the bigger-is-always-better model. This idea was opposed at the beginning, and has been opposed ever after by those who profit from growth, but also by people who feel that a community must grow to remain vibrant. That view holds that a town is either growing or it is decaying—a community and an economy cannot thrive without growth. Among the arguments against controlling growth is that limiting growth in an attractive place like Boulder will inevitably result in a wealthy enclave. If not rectified, the jobs/pop imbalance in Boulder will lead to that outcome, which will discourage other communities from trying to control growth. Much of the value of Boulder’s leadership in community planning will be lost or discounted. Lost as well will be the vitality of our community.

The “jobs/pop” issue is not new and it is not a surprise. People have recognized this problem since at least the 1980’s. Several attempts have been made to re-zone land to provide a balance, or to impose other processes that would lead to a better balance between jobs and dwellings. All have failed. Although I don’t believe the real-estate investment sector had a hand in the origin of the jobs/pop imbalance, it has consistently, energetically, and effectively opposed fixing it. That opposition has been effective in creating a current sense of inevitability fatigue about the jobs/pop issue.

I’m tired, too, but the stakes are high. Even at this relatively late date it is possible to fix this, but it will be hard and it won’t happen without the kind of foresight and gumption that once moved Boulder to do other hard things. Certainly, a form-based code, as pleasant as that sounds, will make no difference. Those who advocate increasing density in order to moderate the price of housing in Boulder need to recognize that the population of Boulder would nearly have to double at build-out in order to bring us just to the same relative demand for housing as San Francisco.  That would require 19 more Boulder Junctions.

Leonard May has proposed a few sensible things we can do to preserve affordable housing, but there is more that we can accomplish by working on the demand side of the housing supply-demand equation. I suggest that we re-focus our primary community-shaping efforts, and money, from Open Space, which has been very successful in creating a compact community, to an Urban Space program that would implement some of May’s ideas but would also put resources to a long-term program of converting commercially-zoned land (and even existing commercial developments) to multi-family housing. This will lead to a higher build-out population for Boulder, but in my view that will be well worth the value of recovering a vibrant community. While we are at it, we would have the perfect opportunity to build “15-minute” neighborhoods that will have many benefits.

Given the self-interest of current home owners (I am one) and that of the real estate, retail and publishing sectors, I can’t be too optimistic that Boulder will find a way to fix this. Maybe in 50 years Pearl will be as notorious as Rodeo Drive, and Boulder will have Maserati and Ferrari dealerships (“It’s the lifestyle”). If this future concerns you, if you have a shred of optimism, and if you want to at least try to move Boulder in the right direction, cast your votes to discourage development of new jobs and to encourage development of new housing. For me, that means voting for 301. As for candidates for City Council, I suggest first Leonard May, who has been most specific in his proposals, Tim Plass who has suggested rezoning commercial land to residential and Suzanne Jones who also recognizes the problem, which is the first step to a solution. Beyond them, I have no idea.

When I first wrote this, I suggested voting against 300.  I’ve now reconsidered and I will vote for this measure.   While I’m concerned that neighborhood referenda could block sensible ideas that would increase affordable housing (everyone will have to give a bit), I think the power 300 gives neighborhoods would be balanced by a new awareness of city-wide issues and (at least I hope so) a new responsibility and motivation to help find solutions to our most fundamental challenge.  That power could also be a positive force in overcoming opposition to those solutions from the development sector.

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