Monday, August 20, 2007

The Washington Street School Debate Rages

by Osman Parvez
---- Here's more open dialogue occurring around the Washington Street School Re-Development Project. This continues from my previous post.

From Greg Sherwin:


Hi John and Washington School Neighbors,

Thank you, John, for taking the time to share your “neighborhood” perspective about Wonderland Hills, BVSD, the City government and yourselves as Washington School neighbors. I am receiving an education.


The gift that you have given me, and ultimately perhaps yourselves, is detailing your reasoning for your chosen course of action to try and kill this Wonderland Hills proposed development of this site. I can now offer another perspective that may give you pause to reconsider your chosen cause of action.


Please remember, as I explained in my first letter, that I personally have nothing to gain from any outcome. My only interest is to support the highest good of the Boulder community.

First, to review…..
I hear, in short, that you generally believe that Wonderland Hills has had a financial choice of “compromise” to work more closely with the neighbors, than they have so far, “to mitigate the (neighborhood) impacts”.

I hear that you believe that Mr. Leach has personally ignored neighborhood interests by “treating us like we really don’t understand our own neighborhood”.


I hear that you believe that the BVSD’s adding $700,000 onto the City’s appraised valuation is “ unusual” and that BVSD “thinks the property is worth more than that without the (historic) buildings.”


I hear that you believe that “the price (of the property) is clearly too high as evidenced by the declining community benefit”…..that, “If the neighbors succeed, the competitive price will almost certainly go down.”


I hear that you believe that it (Wonderland failing) will “….give the neighborhood backed plan a much better shot.”. By this, I assume that you believe that the neighborhood will even have a shot to present an alternative plan? Can I assume that you intend to also have the larger Boulder Community benefits (e.g. public meeting space, the same affordable housing offering, community minded cohousing type occupants, environmental upgrades, 21 elder friendly units, and the historic buildings) with your alternative “neighborhood-backed” plan?


I hear that you believe that there were originally 15 “middle income affordable” units available to buy.

I hear that “Pretty much all we ask is to be heard after being either shut out or ignored in the entire process up until now.”


I hear that you believe that “We aren’t selfish….and that “we are not willing to passively sacrifice the heart, identity, character and stability of our neighborhood for a cupful of broader community benefits…”


From my perspective, I believe that all of your above mentioned beliefs are incorrect or at least distorted enough to lead you to a course of neighborhood action that could result in outcomes that may well undermine your stated and unstated intentions 18 to 24 months from now…..just as, you said, failing to act 18 to 24 months ago you didn’t see what would be unfolding right now and missed the opportunity to pursue “more constructive (vs destructive) solutions”. I believe that your current plan to kill this Wonderland proposal will certainly undermine the larger Boulder community interests while concurrently actively sacrificing "the identity, character and stability" of your neighborhood.

Let me explain:


* First and easiest to respond to, I believe that there were only 8 (not 15) moderately priced affordable units in Wonderland’s proposal at the time of contracting.


* I believe that Wonderland financially compromised about as far as it could, during the first year, to meet the City’s “Community Benefits” criteria and still build an affordable cohousing community. Therefore, it appears to me that, since then, this developer has had little or no added financial capacity to compromise further to accommodate the neighborhood needs and still keep it’s commitment to the cohousing design. As a long time Boulder citizen and neighborhood developer, I believe that Mr. Leach understands neighborhood issues very well. I don’t believe that he/they were ignoring your interests. To keep the motivating (to them) affordable cohousing concept alive they appear to have had no other choice. They certainly expressed their concern about your needs at our cohousing community meetings.


* I heard (but may be wrong) that the BVSD independent appraisal came in $700,000 higher because that appraisal was based on the property being offered for sale without the existing school building and library…..i.e., the property is worth more to most buyers/developers without the school and library. That may be why it appraised for more than the city’s appraisal who included the restoration of these historic buildings. Why don’t you ask BVSD to see their appraisal. If what I heard is true, the only way for BVSD to get their asking price, at that time, would have been to destroy these historic buildings. If what I heard is true, than Wonderland Hills is being asked to pay $700,000 more than other developers would have been asked to pay for land that included these historic buildings. As one result, Wonderland has $700,000 less financial latitude to accommodate your neighborhood wants.


* Whether or not this property was priced too high when Wonderland put it under contract, it may be worth that price by the time the cohousing community idea is trashed.


Here is my imagined alternative development scenario:
Do as Wonderland or another typical developer might do. Do a simple calculation and multiply the allowable Floor Area Ratio (FAR) for this property by $500 to $600 per sq. ft., reduce the number of market rate units to 19-20 large quality townhouses plus the 5-6 houses on the back half of the property, add more garages, reduce the affordable housing 20% requirement from 8 to 5 (perhaps, tucked into the school house basement and part of the first floor, if the school house is still there), eliminate all 5 of the moderately affordable units, eliminate the 7,000 to 9,000 sq. ft. of available public community space, use the old library as an exclusive spa/workout room for the development occupants, eliminate approx. half of the underground parking space, increase the average size of each townhouse to perhaps 2,500 to 3,500 sq. ft., increase the size of each of the east side houses from approx. 3,000 sq. ft. to perhaps 5,000 sq. ft., increase the prices of each of these luxury properties to between 1.3 to 2 million dollars, do all of this within existing zoning laws and tell me whether you think you neighbors would even have an opportunity to propose any other neigborhood backed plan if the cohousing fails.

* Under the alternative development scenario that I imagined above, do you think that Wonderland will walk away from it’s non-refundable 10% down payment, if it can develop the property in this alternative, profitable, way or resell it to another developer who can? Consider the nearby 9 Brownstones that all just pre-sold for approx. 1 to 1.4 million each? Of course, Wonderland would probably have to trash it’s cohousing community idea…..it’s driving “community benefit” passion to do this risky project in the first place. So, if you are successful in your plan of opposition, you will be more likely get rid of the cohousing community possibility and other larger community benefits rather than getting rid of Wonderland Hills. Is this what you want?


* Under that same imagined scenario, while there would probably be less population density (not less structural density) and less cars (which the neighbors want), there would also be less parking, much less affordable housing, little or no available public community meeting space, possibly no historic buildings, less elder-friendly housing, less environmentally friendly “green” structural components, more privacy barriers from the neighbors (you), and less community-oriented (cohousing) folks to bless your neighborhood [all of which “cupful” the new cohousing community (your new neighbors) and the larger Boulder community would suffer from].

Of course, your neighborhood property values would probably also increase causing more of your neighbors to sell their homes as scrapers to larger more expensive home buyers and cause the apartment buildings, such as the one located across Cedar, to be scraped and rebuilt as high priced apartments (thus, again, reducing affordable housing in downtown Boulder). I saw all of this happen in Aspen.

Would the neighborhood quality of life, as you say “the identity, character and stability” of your neighborhood, that you cherish and are fighting for, remain the same under this scenario? Or, would individual neighborhood property owners become motivated to move and take profit at the expense of the neighborhood and the larger community interests, as happened in Aspen, Vail and downtown Boulder?


* Would your already existing street parking problems be resolved by eliminating this cohousing project? I believe that the city will have even less motivation to institute the neighborhood parking permit policies that it would have if it knew that more parking density might result from the added proposed public community space.

* Maybe part of your problem is that your stated main objective is only “to be heard”. If that is the case, the city and Wonderland has provided plenty of public hearings for you to be heard. I believe that you want something more than this. If so, what specifically do you want that “isn’t selfish” and what are you willing to do, other than eliminate the existing cohousing community possibility and the so called “cupful” of other larger Boulder community benefits offered by the current proposal, to achieve your wants?


Furthermore, if you think that you are not being heard now with this developer who needs city cooperation for zoning changes, how much do your think your active neighborhood group will be heard if the next developer doesn’t need any city approval for zoning changes…..regardless of the size of your group?


In summary, if the above alternative development scenario, which appears, on the surface, to be economically achievable under existing zoning, happens, it appears that some of your short term neighborhood complaints might be alleviated. However, in the longer term, I believe that “the identity, character and stability” your neighborhood will change a great deal from what you imagine. I believe that you have a better chance to preserve the long term neighborhood quality of life that you seem to be advocating, as well as benefiting the larger Boulder community by supporting this development project with it’s cohousing and public space benefits left in tact.


You say, “I agree that it’s somewhat less complicated and definitely less satisfying to try to kill a project than to build one.” Yet, you go on to suggest that it is to late to try to build one right now; so, you are content with trying to kill the existing project. If my assessment is valid, than it seems to me that you and the larger Boulder community will be the long term losers by causing the current developer to give up on the cohousing project and the public meeting space in exchange for more expensive, exclusive housing, just to satisfy your less than clear demands. I feel sad about this prospect.


I hope that you and the other neighbors will consider my perspective as you make your choices about what plan to move forward with.

Please circulate this second letter to your fellow neighbors.


If you read this far, thanks for giving these lengthy thoughts your consideration.


Respectfully,

Greg Sherwin


And the Response from John Gless [edited down a little. John's responses are in bold -Osman]:Greg, I've responded in-line below to your points. I hear that you believe that the BVSD’s adding $700,000 onto the City’s appraised valuation is “ unusual” and that BVSD “thinks the property is worth more than that without the (historic) buildings.” I said just the opposite. BVSD thinks the property is worth more with the buildings.

I hear that you believe that it (Wonderland failing) will “….give the neighborhood backed plan a much better shot.”. You may assume that there would/will be greater community benefits, though not necessarily in all of the categories you list. If you can, please give me an example of another Boulder neighborhood where a large project was built and the impacts on immediate neighbors was justified solely on benefits to the larger community. I'm not saying there aren't any, I'd just be interested in the precedent.

I hear that you believe that there were originally 15 “middle income affordable” units available to buy.
Yes, in WHDC's RFP response they proposed a total of 45 units - 9 low income permanently affordable and 15 middle income permanently affordable.

From my perspective, I believe that all of your above mentioned beliefs are incorrect or at least distorted enough to lead you to a course of neighborhood action that could result in outcomes that may well undermine your stated and unstated intentions 18 to 24 months from now….
Even if your pessimism comes true, at least the neighborhood will have tried and had its say, which is a huge step forward from what has happened so far.

* First and easiest to respond to, I believe that there were only 8 (not 15) moderately priced affordable units in Wonderland’s proposal at the time of contracting.
At the time of contracting, WHDC had decreased total units to 40 by eliminating one low income and 4 middle income permanently affordable. This left 8 low and 11 middle. Read the MOU and purchase contract. If WHDC converts any of these 19 affordable units to market rate, it must pay BVSD entitlement premiums.

* I heard (but may be wrong) that the BVSD independent appraisal came in $700,000 higher because that appraisal was based on the property being offered for sale without the existing school building and library…..i.e., the property is worth more to most buyers/developers without the school and library.
That all sounds like urban legend and spin from whomever gave you the information. As far as I know, BVSD didn't do a complete internal appraisal. The original MOU says that if the city had decided to purchase the property, three appraisals would be done; one by the City, one by BVSD, and one by an independent appraiser chosen by both. The price to the city would then be the middle appraisal (not the average of the three). I think what you may have heard about is another process BVSD has for evaluating deficiencies in its facilities. They compiled a list of repairs and upgrades needed to keep operating Washington as a school. When these costs exceed a certain threshold, as compared to complete replacement, BVSD considers the building to have "no value" for its own purposes, not as an asset that could be sold. As far as I know, the $700k added to the city's appraised price was completely arbitrary and just represented what BVSD would like to get out of the deal.

* Whether or not this property was priced too high when Wonderland put it under contract, it may be worth that price by the time the cohousing community idea is trashed.
I don't know, seems like the direction for overpriced markets like Boulder is going in the other direction.

*Here is my imagined alternative development scenario.... Why the tunnel vision that the only possible use of this site is residential?

*Do you think that Wonderland will walk away from it’s non-refundable 10% down payment, if it can develop the property in this alternative, profitable, way or resell it to another developer who can?.....Is this what you want?
We have requested BVSD to refund the 10% earnest money if Wonderland is denied (no idea whether they will or not), and if Wonderland is denied they can't come back with another proposal for a full year even if they go through with the purchase.

* Under that same imagined scenario, while there would probably be less population density (not less structural density) and less cars (which the neighbors want), there would also be less parking, much less affordable housing, little or no available public community meeting space, possibly no historic buildings, less elder-friendly housing, less environmentally friendly “green” structural components, more privacy barriers from the neighbors (you), and less community-oriented (cohousing) folks to bless your neighborhood [all of which “cupful” the new cohousing community (your new neighbors) and the larger Boulder community would suffer from]. Again, the neighborhood rejects the idea that the only two choices are WHDC's current plan, or something worse. We are very optimistic that we can use our talents, resources, and democratic zeal to come up with something better. *

Maybe part of your problem is that your stated main objective is only “to be heard”.
Being heard is just part of it. Not being ignored is the other. I'm pretty sure I made it clear last time that we are prepared to invest time, energy, and resources into this. If we were selfish, we would only expect someone else to do that for us.

Furthermore, if you think that you are not being heard now with this developer who needs city cooperation for zoning changes, how much do your think your active neighborhood group will be heard if the next developer doesn’t need any city approval for zoning changes…..regardless of the size of your group?
Depends on the developer, doesn't it? Most of them understand the risks when dealing with agitated citizens. I think Mr. Leach must not have a lot of experience with that, and is now in over his head.

In summary, if the above alternative development scenario, which appears, on the surface, to be economically achievable under existing zoning, happens, it appears that some of your short term neighborhood complaints might be alleviated.
We will continue to oppose both the current plan and your alternative scenario as long as we believe there is a third (fourth, fifth, sixth,...) way.

You say, “I agree that it’s somewhat less complicated and definitely less satisfying to try to kill a project than to build one.” Yet, you go on to suggest that it is to late to try to build one right now; so, you are content with trying to kill the existing project. It's too late to inject a fleshed out alternative into the current process. Once this process runs its course, the truly constructive process begins. Yes, there will be losers - the people who wanted to live in Washington Village cohousing. But they will have only lost something they never had to begin with. Our neighborhood wants to hold onto at least part of something that we've always had.

If you read this far, thanks for giving these lengthy thoughts your consideration. I assumed after your first email that your motivations were to get some things off your chest and also get some feedback from neighbors to help you internally process this whole situation.
This new email makes it plain that you are also motivated to get us to stop. That's not going to happen.

Due to the government and public property involvement in this, I see this as something akin to eminent domain in reverse. If government wants my property, it gets to determine fair market value and I have no choice but to take it. Here, BVSD set a value that was not really tested in the market, and told RFQ respondents to take it or leave it. Everyone left it except Wonderland. As someone on the Planning Board noted at the July 19 hearing, BVSD has essentially levied a "tax" on this neighborhood by setting a price that is only viable for a development requiring multiple variances and a zoning change, all of which detract from the character and livability of the neighborhood more than what would be allowed by right under existing zoning. The only thing on the positive side of the ledger is the cupful of benefits, most of which are diffusely associated to the larger and not the immediate community.

A very large group of people, with moral and political support from an even larger group of people from other Boulder neighborhoods facing similar character/livability challenges, democratically decided not to "take it". People looking in from the outside can question whether this decision is selfish, short-sighted, or unwise. People can question whether the entities involved just didn't make a convincing enough sales pitch. But I hope there are no people who would question the democratic principle that citizens who feel wronged should actively petition the government to redress those wrongs by either adhering to existing laws and policies or modifying those laws and policies in a fair and inclusive democratic process. If, at the end that process, it is determined that the petitioners were either not wronged, or that their injuries are justified by the needs of the larger community, then so be it. Democracy doesn't guarantee a particular outcome, it just guarantees that everyone with a stake in the outcome gets a chance to publicly make their case.


John


image: Unhindered By Talent


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1 comment:

  1. I don't know what level of invective is appropriate for this blog so I shall try to contain myself. Sherwin is everything that is wrong with modern day municipal staff. What an arrogant ass. "I hear that you believe that..." repeated a dozen times follwed by "Everything you believe is wrong."

    ReplyDelete