The heart of the city — what’s to be done?

Paul Danish | Boulder Weekly



According to a story in the Sunday edition of Brand X paper, Boulder planners are looking for ideas about how to further develop Boulder’s “civic heart” — by which they mean the area bounded by Ninth and 17th Streets on the west and east, and Arapahoe and Canyon on the south and north, with Boulder Creek running through it.


Glad they asked. I have several.

1. Don’t “further develop” the area. It’s a freaking flood hazard area. If anything, further un-develop it. Turn it into a linear park. That’s what Rapid City, S.D., which has a hydrology similar to Boulder’s, did after a flash flood burst out of the Black Hills and killed 238 people in 1972. After Rapid City cleaned up the mess, it turned the land along Rapid Creek into a linear park. That’s what Boulder ought to do preemptively.

2. Before doing anything, define a flood plain that more realistically defines the flood hazard area than the one Boulder has now. Boulder bases its flood planning on a putative “100-year flood,” a flood that has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. On Boulder Creek, peak flow from a flood that size would be about 11,500 cubic feet per second. But in 1976 there was a flood with a peak flow three times that size 30 miles north of Boulder (31,200 cubic feet per second in Big Thompson Canyon, 144 dead). And in 1965 there was one with peak flows about 15 times that size 40 miles south of Boulder (154,000 cubic feet a second on Plum Creek; that one sent a six-foot wall of water down the South Platte River that trashed the Denver rail yards and homes and businesses from Denver to Nebraska). Common sense says that Boulder’s flood risk is a lot bigger than the city assumes. The peak flow of the Rapid City flood was 50,000 cubic feet per second. That’s probably closer to the sort of flood Boulder should be planning for.

3. Don’t expand the library in its current location. Move it to higher ground. Leaving it at its present location will sooner or later give a whole new meaning to the phrase “circulating library.”

4. For that matter, Boulder should give some serious thought as to whether it needs a new or expanded library at all. Within five years, probably everyone in town will have a tablet computer and access to millions of books online. There may not be much point in putting tens of millions of dollars into a building that fewer and fewer people will bother using. Buying the lending rights to digital books may be a better use for the money than spending it on bricks and mortar.

5. Assuming the city remains in denial about the flood danger in its civic heart and sets out to build stuff in harm’s way regardless, it should spend as little on it as possible. It shouldn’t try to build for the ages. If the flood doesn’t get its handiwork, chances are that within 20 or 30 years the next generation of Boulderites will conclude that the current generation of Boulderites didn’t have any taste and tear it down and build something new anyway. This is a good thing. A city that’s constantly reinventing itself can be a cool place to live.

6. Don’t build a “municipal campus.” That’s a great way to screw up the civic heart of Boulder. Government workers go home at 4:30 p.m. and the municipal campus turns into a no-man’s land. Boulder would be better off putting an amusement park or a skating rink in the area than a bunch of public buildings.

7. If you want mixed-use development in the civic heart, make sure the commercial space is built first. If the residential space is built first, the new occupants will turn into instant NIMBYs and prevent the commercial space from ever being built.

8. The most useful thing Boulder could build in its civic heart is more parking lots, starting with the area around the Farmers’ Market, which would help keep the Farmers’ Market downtown. Yeah, I know a lot of preening greens think parking lots are the work of Satan and Dick Cheney, but the truth is that apart from being really useful, parking lots function as urban open space. They prevent the construction of big office and apartment buildings that blot out the view of the mountains and turn streets into sunless canyons in the winter. Having lived in Boulder when Walnut Street was a strip of parking lots from 9th to 15th street, and when it was a strip of 55-foot buildings, I’d go back to the parking in a heartbeat — for urban quality of life reasons.