One of the most significant residential developments currently planned for the city of Boulder has been quietly flying under the radar.
While it may not generate as much controversy as the recent decision to redevelop Washington Elementary School, another developer has acquired a government-owned property and has riled up neighbors with his plans to redevelop the area.
Some say it won’t become a full-fledged flap because it doesn’t involve a historic school building but a blighted, graffiti-covered U.S. Army Reserve facility that many refer to as an “eyesore.”
Those who oppose the proposal lament that projects in historically blue-collar south Boulder are largely ignored compared to developments in higher-end, more historic areas of the city.
And some residents say the developer has largely defused the situation by responding well to complaints raised by neighbors and city officials, adjusting his plan to address those concerns.
But there are still many in the neighborhood who are upset by the prospect of a private higher-density development, in part because the city wasn’t given the first opportunity to acquire the property from the federal government and turn it into a park or use it for some other public purpose.
The property, known as “The Armory,” is about four acres and located on Table Mesa Drive, between Tantra Drive and South 46th Street. To the south of the property is Summit Middle Charter School. The developer, Peter Stainton of Four Star Realty in Boulder, wants to build as many as 41 residential units on the site, including duplexes, row houses and singlefamily homes.
Stainton, who co-founded Four Star in 1986, developed the 36-unit Goose Creek Condominiums at 29th and Bluff Streets, and redeveloped the Delta House as “luxury student rentals.”
According to city officials, Stainton submitted a concept plan for the development in 2006, but the following year, the city’s Planning Board rejected the proposal and requested several changes to the plan, including access off of Tantra instead of Table Mesa and a more compatible interface with the neighborhood to the west.
Four Star is now under contract to purchase an adjacent property at 555 Tantra, behind the South Boulder Animal Hospital, so that it can be converted into the main roadway to access the housing development off of Tantra. It has also replaced tall carriagehouse-style garages that were slated for the western edge of the property with single-family homes that are more set back from the existing houses on 46th.
Four Star filed a revised plan with the city earlier this year, and although the Planning Board found it to be an improvement over the previous version, it still suggested making some design changes and adding some community benefits before beginning the formal application process.
The developer has asked for a change in zoning that would allow higher density, from RL-1 (low-density residential) to RM-1 (medium-density residential).
An alternate plan that would involve only 37 units would preserve a portion of the property as RL-1.
A Sept. 25 land-use review issued by city planner Karl Guiler calls for several staff-recommended changes to the plan within 60 days, everything from reorienting garages to relocating open spaces. But it doesn’t indicate that there are any showstoppers that would prevent approval of the plan.
“Overall, staff finds that there are numerous aspects of the project (i.e., compact form, diversity of housing types, affordable housing, sensitive infill, etc.) that are consistent with the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP) such that a change in land use from public to medium density residential for all or part of the lot would be substantiated,” the review states.
One main area addressed in the review is access, circulation and transportation, and the anticipated increase in traffic is one of the first concerns mentioned by area residents. The review calls for revisions to the traffic impact study commissioned by the developer, using more recent data than the 2002 information cited in the study. It also calls for relocating a transit shelter and suggests procuring transit passes for the residents who will live at the development.
Stainton told Boulder Weekly that he is still in discussions with the city about the review and what accommodations can be made. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to be able to put together a project that city staff will support and that will be supported by the Planning Board and the community.”
Guiler says the city looked into acquiring the Armory parcel, but the purchase was precluded by the fact that the land was not classified by the Army as a “surplus property.”
Some neighbors say they wish the city had been given the opportunity to buy the property from the Army, which must give first right of refusal to public entities when trying to get rid of “surplus property.” But the Army’s agreement with Stainton occurred before the land got to that classification.
“It’s just one of those things where people are cutting deals,” says area resident Ruth Blackmore.
Stainton, who developed other residential units on the same block, says he began talking to the U.S. Army about the Armory property about eight years ago, and that after much effort he and the feds agreed to a deal in which Four Star would receive the property in exchange for constructing a building at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.
He says the agreement was signed about two years ago, and that it wasn’t an effort to get a deal done on the sly or behind the city’s back.
“It wasn’t anything that happened overnight,” Stainton says.
Not another Washington
When comparing the Armory project to the Washington Elementary controversy, Guiler agrees that the contexts are different. The historic Washington parcel had been used by the neighborhood for many years, whereas the graffiti-covered Army building is “kind of an eyesore,” he says.
Guiler agrees with those that say there are three other issues: location, location, location. “When you get into more historic, more established parts of Boulder, there seems to be more resistance to things,” he says.
Guiler also credits the developer with being responsive to concerns. He cites the decision to incorporate the controversial stand-alone garages into the first levels of the homes as an example.
But Guiler notes that like the Armory plan, the Washington project was quiet initially, and vocal opposition didn’t erupt until the end of the process, when it came up for formal approval. He said city staff members have not determined yet whether the zoning change would be consistent with the BVCP, and that it will likely be several months before the Planning Board reviews the developer’s formal application.
Developer addresses concerns
Residents of the neighborhood west of the Armory agree that Four Star has addressed many of their main concerns, and that the revised development plan is a vast improvement over its predecessor.
“If they had gone ahead with what they had planned, we would have been out in the streets with signs,” says resident Michael Preston.
There are still neighbors who are opposed to the project on principle, but even they concede that Stainton was responsive to the initial complaints.
“If I was pro-development, then I’d say yeah, he addressed the problems and it might be a nice development,” says Peter Korba, who lives on 46th.
Deb Cerio, who is Korba’s neighbor, adds, “Overall, I’m not a fan of developing that area, period, for a lot of reasons. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, like, ‘Do you want a blunt stick in the eye or a sharp stick in the eye?’ I’m certainly appreciative that the developer is trying to accommodate the neighborhood concerns, but I wish the city wouldn’t allow it to be developed. We live in Boulder because we don’t want things to be developed.
“But I think he did a good job,” she says of Stainton.
“He did as much as he could do to appease the neighbors.”
Blackmore acknowledges that “the design has come an awfully long way.”
“It’s far more compatible with a single-family neighborhood I think we need to thank him for working the plans and making it suitable,” Blackmore says, adding that the developer did come to the city and community for input. “He didn’t want to ram it through without letting the citizens know what he was going to do.”
Guiler said the city is required to give advance notice to residents living within 600 feet of such developments.
Among the changes that Four Star has made in response to concerns, Stainton lists reducing the height of two duplex units from three stories to two and removing two units entirely to create more open space, some of which will be used for a flood retention area and a community garden. He envisions that garden as belonging to Boulder, not just Armory residents, and as a source of not only food, but also education for local schoolchildren.
“I do appreciate the idea of a community garden along Table Mesa that will be open to all, not just those residents,” Blackmore says.
On Oct. 6, officials hosted another community meeting at the Meadow Branch Library to describe the latest changes made to the project. Among those who attended was Spense Havlick, an architect who served on the Boulder City Council for 22 years. Havlick says it’s typical for a developer to roll out a highly ambitious plan at first and then tone it down based on any concerns that arise. He said Four Star, being a local company, was sensitive to the needs of the community and even incorporated more affordable housing into the project than was required (developers can pay the city cash in lieu of up to half of a project’s affordable housing requirement; Stainton is building all nine units.)
But like others, Havlick still has lingering concerns about certain elements of the project, especially the effect that the development will have on traffic in the area. Some say the developer’s traffic impact study was erroneous in concluding that the effect would be minimal.
Havlick says one traffic study only estimated two to three vehicle trips per day, per unit, but the city average is more like 12 to 13 trips per day, per unit. Others say traffic flow on Table Mesa is already at capacity, and that adding about 40 units to the mix is a recipe for trouble.
“You can’t add 100 people and not have an impact,” Cerio says. “That’s not a reasonable or rational statement. It’s just a joke. You’re losing credibility.”
Korba says Tantra and Table Mesa could become much busier corridors in the long term, especially if the University of Colorado at Boulder ever decides to develop the 308-acre Flatiron/Gateway property it bought south of that neighborhood in 1996.
“I understand people’s concerns about traffic,” Stainton replies.
But he adds that the traffic engineer hired by Four Stars has experience doing similar reviews for plenty of other projects, including some done by the city. The engineer found that the development’s effect on traffic would be “insignificant,” Stainton says, the equivalent of adding a 1/10 of a second delay to vehicular traffic.
Area residents list a variety of things they would change about the project.
“I throw a few roses to the developer, but there may be a few other things they can do,” Havlick says, citing more emphasis on front porches and less on garages, as well as the option of having solar panels on the roofs. “In this day and age, with energy costs skyrocketing, shouldn’t they go the extra mile? I think the homes would be more sellable.”
Blackmore calls the development “pretty high and dense for this particular part of town.”
Korba worries about the possibility that hazardous materials are buried in the ground behind the Armory building, where heavy machinery and military vehicles were stored and operated for years.
Guiler said the developer was required to perform a state-monitored environmental assessment, and has received state certification that the site is clear of hazardous materials.
“There were no surprises in the backyard,” Stainton says with a laugh. “There were no weapons of mass destruction there.”
Korba also complains that the developer has asked for an exception to a city regulation that requires construction to be substantially completed within three years. He says traffic and other conditions may be quite different in five or six years than they would be in just three years. Stainton confirmed that Four Star has asked for permission just to start construction within five years, but Guiler says the decision on whether to grant that extension rests with city council.
Some neighbors lament the loss of their sunrise views, the side effects of construction and the loss of an opportunity to have open public space leading from Table Mesa to Tantra Park, on the south side of Summit Middle Charter School.
“Wouldn’t it have been nice to have a trail from Table Mesa through those properties and to that area?” Korba asks.
But there are still plans in the works to create a trail to Summit from Table Mesa, on the west side of the Armory, between it and the houses on 46th.
David Finell, the principal at Summit, says that while he is supportive of the Armory project as a nice addition to the neighborhood, he has a few concerns about the trail. He cites the possibility of increased noise and trash that could result from his students using that corridor and, conversely, there may be student safety issues associated with having the public use the path to travel between Table Mesa and Tantra Park.
When asked why he is moving forward with the city approval process when ground may not be broken for five years, Stainton says Four Stars wants to be ready to go when the market improves.
Cerio worries about displaced wildlife and says the project does not represent sustainable development. “They’re just developing that area for money, and there’s no market for those homes,” he says.
Stainton declines to reveal any of the in-house projections on what the development will cost or how much money it is expected to bring in. He says all of that depends on the economic and market environment in which it is finally constructed.
“Obviously, we’ve done some work to make sure we’re not going to lose our shirt on it,” he says, “but it’s not appropriate for us to give any details because it depends on the conditions at the time. We’re just trying to take a site that’s an eyesore and was an inappropriate use for the area and turn it into a compatible neighborhood that will contribute to the public good.”
Blackmore says that many of the neighbors are coming to understand that this project may be the best they can hope for.
“I think they’re realizing they’re not going to get anything better right up against their backyards,” she says.
Guiler adds, “Well, when you had tanks in your backyard”