Thursday, September 11, 2008

Boulder Pops and Scrapes Workshop - PHASE 1

by Osman Parvez
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Can a house be too big for the neighborhood?

Last night was the start of a new public process, something many demanded given the haste with which City Council was moving towards Draconian solutions only a few months ago. In a series of workshops aimed at solving the issue of "pops and scrapes," residents, consultants, and city employees have begun focusing on the task.

When it comes to house sizes and other elements of design, seldom have I seen such a polarizing issue. Both sides were represented at last night's meeting.

In case you forgot where all this started, our beloved City Council (many of whom were newly elected) took it upon themselves to ignite a firestorm this past Spring when they made the issue of "too big" houses a priority. At the time, Council was considering a drastic reduction to the Floor Area Ratio (FAR). It was only because of the public outcry that they were forced to hold off imposing their measure.

And now we have a public process.

The phases:

Phase 1 is happening now.
The goals:
- Model existing neighborhood character, development trends, and the current regulatory system
- Administer a community visual survey
- Develop a refined problem statement

A few observations from the meeting:

Be careful what you ask for. At least that's what my mother used to say. Or maybe it was a lesson from the Monkey's Paw, a dark tale of unexpected and horrific consequences when this little dollop of wisdom is ignored. (note: last read in 10th grade English class)

- The workshop started with the premise that this really is a problem. I know some people are outraged over homes being constructed that tower over their own. But where are the silent many for whom this entire issue isn't a problem? The squeaky wheels are being greased.

- The plastic chairs at the West Arapahoe Senior Center are wickedly uncomfortable. I wonder how our senior citizens cope.

- There were many staffers present at the meeting. One told me attendance was mandatory. Most were helpful in coordinating the activities but they seemed a little bored. I can't blame them. Especially the ones that don't even live in Boulder.

- Did we really need THREE consulting firms to handle a series of workshops? What's the budget for this?

- The process sub-committee includes 2 members of City Council and 2 members of the Planning Board. Although he isn't on the sub-committee, Macon Cowles was present (with his ear piercing, crowd stopping whistle) but the other Council Members must have had better things to do. One sub-committee member of the Planning Board did attend. Interestingly, at least 2 former candidates for City Council were also there.

- It's hard to engage someone in meaningful dialog when they are firmly attached to their particular view. I had a few one-on-one conversations which led to blind alleys instead of greater understanding.

- The scope has widened to include essentially all single family residential areas of Boulder except for PUD's. Yikes.

- The workshop activities use a lot of jargon. One activity asked us to mark up a big map of boulder with annotations for common design "contexts." A few in my group wondered how us noticing that some neighborhoods have alleys and others don't help move us forward? It was a little unclear.

- Task oriented people (like me) were frustrated. Those that love process went crazy with the magic markers.

- The workshop presupposes the problem and suggests that homogeneity is a good thing for neighborhood characteristics.

- Although there was some frustration in the room last night, there was also hope the process will lead to smarter regulations.

- Snacks: the rectangular cookies provided by Spice of Life catering were quite good. I couldn't stop eating them. Avoid the consulting firm's milk chocolate. It was mediocre.

The next workshop is September 15 for the "Central Boulder" area, also held at the West Senior Center on Arapahoe.

Interesting Stuff from the Workshop:


What's FAR? Below is a simple illustration.


Here's a map showing building permits pulled over the past six years with construction costing over $50K.



Here's the workshop in action. Most of those standing are staffers.






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