Center of controversy

Civic use pad in downtown Boulder nears development while straying from original vision

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Courtesy of the City of Boulder

Until the day construction ends (and probably long after), a small plot of land in downtown Boulder reserved for a civic center will continue to serve only as the city’s center of controversy. That day, after more than 25 years, is about to be realized.

The civic use plot near the St Julien Hotel at Ninth and Canyon will likely have its fate determined in the coming weeks by City Council. If approved, development will include a multilayer addition to the hotel as well as a ground-floor civic use center and a rooftop lounge.

Development will culminate years of failed proposals and task forces, and a sizable amount of public protest. But how can finalized plans that include a civic space still stir controversy? When you charge nonprofits to use the civic space and allow the hotel to rent the space (to for-profit and private groups) at their discretion without kicking anything back to the city.

That’s how.

The story begins in 1988, when the city of Boulder laid out plans to renovate the area at Ninth and Canyon. They designated this area to be used for a hotel, restaurants, entertainment, transportation or parking services. In 1995, with nothing built yet, City Council released an updated version of the “9th and Canyon Urban Renewal Plan,” which designated that “civic uses (such as recreation center, museum, cultural center, City office space, and transit facilities … ), will occupy a minimum of 20 percent of the gross floor area developed in the project area.”

A parking garage and the St Julien Hotel were built in 2002-03 on the lot, and development included the designation of an 11,000-square-foot pad on the lot to meet the city’s requirement for 20 percent of the lot to be used for civic purposes — and so, the civic use pad was born.

Meanwhile, City Council codified rules that stipulated that anyone who develops the civic use pad must be able to afford to do so, and any development must meet the civic requirements and enhance the “vitality of the downtown by generating interest in coming downtown.”

Many proposals and three task forces to analyze those proposals ultimately failed. The first proposal was for a children’s museum, which was approved by City Council but abandoned in 2002 due to financial reasons.

In 2003 and 2004, the Boulder Odeum and Village Arts Coalition tried to work out a proposal to build and share a 37,000-square-foot building, but City Council rejected their application because the groups didn’t have enough money to build and manage the site.

And in 2008, the Boulder History Museum expressed interest in the site before choosing a new location, and in 2011 a group wanting to build a performing arts center on the space presented a proposal to City Council, but those plans fizzled out.

Molly Winter, director of downtown and University Hill management and parking services for the City of Boulder, says finding a group able to develop something to achieve civic goals was always an uphill battle.

“It costs more to be downtown,” Winter says. “It’s very difficult in this community to come up with organizations that can afford to do something like that. So the Civic Use Task Force went through years to try to figure it out.”

Now this most recent push to build something on the civic use pad seems likely to bear fruit. In January, the fourth Civic Use Task Force briefed City Council on a plan to build a 37,000-square-foot structure attached to the St Julien Hotel. This task force is comprised of council members, local business directors (including those at the St Julien) and leaders in local arts.

The task force said the lot is too big and too expensive for any one entity to own, so the city would be best suited to partner with St Julien to develop the plot. The resulting plans call for a fourstory building, with an open event space on the ground floor, three floors of St Julien hotel rooms and a rooftop area that might be open to the public.

Councilwoman Mary Young, who serves on the Civic Use Task Force, sums up the civic benefits of the proposal saying there will be “some public community benefits that would come in the form of reduced rates to use meeting spaces in the new buildings and also access to a rooftop area.”

If you think that’s sort of a lousy compromise from the original ideas for the spot (museums, theaters and arts centers) that doesn’t live up to the spirit of the original decree, the task force actually agrees. They found that there now needs to be “a redefinition of ‘civic use’ as a specific building or portion of a building to ‘civic benefit’ within the context of a public private partnership. The expectation of a standalone facility is not realistic for civic and non-profit entities within our community.”

Thus, City Council is now planning to vote within the next few weeks to change those original tenets of the Urban Renewal Plan that codified everything about the civic use area.

“It just gives council the flex to do something different than what was imagined. Twenty years is kind of a long time and things have changed,” says Winter.

If the proposal passes, there is still the question of who gets to use the “civic area,” when, and for how much. A “Letter of Intent” from the city, St Julien and the Central Area General Improvement District (CAGID) was presented to Council and is the best indication of how the civic space will be managed.

Plans call for the development and use of the site to be “cost neutral” for St Julien, which means non-profit and civic groups will have to pay to use the area, albeit “below market rates,
with no profit margin” for St Julien. That leaves some people wondering
if civic groups should have to pay to use what is supposed to be a
civic space — especially because St Julien will retain all revenue from
use of the space.

Winter says the hotel should be compensated for its investment but that nonprofit groups should be given aid to use the space.

“We would need to come up with a way to work on providing funds for groups to have greater access to that space,” Winter says.

Young
rejected the notion of subsidizing civic groups who want to use the
civic space and says that Council never heard or agreed to any
subsidies.

“Personally
I don’t think that the City should be subsidizing. The subsidy, quote
unquote, should come in the form of a reduced rate,” Young says.

Councilman
Sam Weaver agrees, writing in an email to Council members last month,
“The management agreement will be the document that really makes or
breaks the civic usefulness of this space. While I do believe it should
be cost-neutral to the St Julien, it should also not be a major profit
center.”

(Evidently,
no one on the task force or city council believes that three additional
floors of hotel rooms would provide enough revenue to compensate St
Julien for making the civic space free to civic groups.)

Indeed, how the space is managed will greatly impact its civic usefulness — and its economic benefit to St Julien.

As
it stands, the coalition of the hotel, the city and the improvement
district will determine who gets to use the space, though Bruce
Porcelli, St Julien Partners managing member, says there will only be “a
degree of municipal over sight.”

“St
Julien will manage the space as it already has management,
administration, sales, maintenance and event staff, on site,” says
Porcelli. “The concept is nonprofit civic groups will have first right
of refusal to book the space a year in advance. St Julien will then have
the right to book available space within the one-year timeframe.”

That
includes booking the civic space to for-profit and private groups at
market rate. St Julien has actually already been doing that for several
years on the vacant pad (a concrete floor and tent were constructed)
without obligation to pay the city of Boulder or to use it for civic
purposes.

“As the
civic pad is owned by St Julien, it can manage events as a private hotel
in the normal course of its business without coordination with any
other party including the City,” says Porcelli. “While there is no
building on the pad currently, there is no payment or other obligation
to the City.”

The St
Julien has held company gatherings, weddings, seminars and other events
on the pad and, in fact, Porcelli says, “the civic pad is not
[currently] available for rent separate from an event organized with St
Julien.”

Young says management rules for the space can still be altered to fit what council determines benefits civic use.

“As long as I’m part of the process, I’m going to make sure that we get the community benefit that we want,” Young says.

If
a plan for development isn’t in place by 2020, the civic use
requirement is dropped and the plot reverts to St Julien — you might
start wondering how much different those plans would look from these.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com