Making space for art

Group of NoBo artists want an art district where National Guard Armory now stands

Multiple plans are proposed for the National Guard Armory on Broadway.
Photo by David Accomazzo

In the past few years, a group of North Boulder artists, coalescing as the NoBo Art District, has been diligently showing its work, holding monthly First Friday exhibitions at various locations north of Pearl Street.

Talk among the group has revolved around establishing a strong geographical identity — including an actual, physical art center that would showcase work while also housing affordable studio space and housing for member artists. Official plans for such a gathering place have yet to be agreed upon.

A handful of individual artists aren’t waiting for that day to cheerfully announce itself. Not with a prime North Boulder site up for re-development for the first time in 65 years — one that has already been associated with a couple of recent brushes with controversy.

The National Guard Armory is “the last big parcel left up here” and “a keystone property,” says Aaron Brockett, a member of the Boulder Planning Board and also a resident of the Holiday neighborhood, which sits just to the east and south of the 8.5acre compound at the southeast corner of Broadway and Lee Hill Road.

“How it develops is critical to how the North Broadway commercial corridor ends up getting developed,” Brockett says. “Integrating it with the NoBo Art District would be fantastic. How those old buildings might get integrated into a new plan might be tough.”

Whether the concrete block structures stay or go is one of many concerns about what might occupy a new Armory site. Others involve the amount and type of commercial versus residential square footage; the existence of an anchor retailer to attract small businesses; and an overall design and layout that serves as an inviting gateway to the north end of the city, which currently welcomes visitors with industrial-strength locations such as a strip club, a homeless shelter and various warehouse spaces.

Then there are the controversies, beginning with a plan, unsuccessfully pitched to neighbors a few years ago by local developer Jim Loftus, to build a big box-style supermarket on the site, a continuation of an earlier lost cause when Loftus proposed a similar store a few blocks down Broadway at the current Uptown business/residential center. On top of that, just last year, some in the neighborhood waged a campaign opposing Boulder Housing Partners’ plans to construct 31 apartments for the chronically homeless at a site located diagonally across the street from the Armory. That project got the green light, but not without a bitter fight that left many vowing to yell even louder about further development, including what happens with the Armory.

For now, things are on hold until the city finishes reviewing the North Boulder sub-community plan, which is expected to take until late spring or early summer. Once that’s finished, though, will Boulder be on course for the mother of all development battles? Or will the Armory project prove a unique chance for residents and developers to come together on a plan that works for everybody? Is that even possible?

While the players involved will get an opportunity to air their views, one major key to some battleground questions rests with how the Armory’s co-developers, Bruce Dierking and Loftus, choose to interact with individuals from the NoBo Art District — a point both sides acknowledge.

“I know what the neighborhood thought five years ago,” says Dierking, a Boulder attorney. “But I don’t know what the neighborhood thinks now. Do people still want a neighborhood center for North Boulder, and what will that mean? We want to do something that’s worthy of today. … There are things that pay the freight and things that cost money, and we need to balance that out.”

At least three Boulder artists see reciprocal value in working with Dierking and Loftus to form a consensus approach to developing the Armory. Buffy Andrews, Sally Eckert and Amy Tremper, all NoBo Art District members as well as Holiday residents, say that their artistic/architectural backgrounds, connections and skills can enhance any planned development while helping Dierking and Loftus save — and make — more money.

Tremper points out that a Minneapolis-based outfit called Artspace specializes in turning old buildings, including a granary in Loveland, into art centers that include studios and living spaces. Artspace representatives plan to visit the Boulder/Loveland area next month and offer some preliminary ideas, for free, as to how that might work with the Armory — including possible access to grant money that could shave down construction costs. Any new buildings, Tremper says, could be built around the existing ones.

“Or, the developers could build other things and someone else could build the art center,” Tremper says.

Plus, says Andrews, any plans to develop the Armory shouldn’t stop at the current boundaries of the property.

“We need to include [the planned homeless apartments at] 1175 Lee Hill in the rest of the community,” she says.

To that end, Andrews has suggested design changes to the developers of that property that include opening up the complex’s entrance, as opposed to plans to close it off, to the intersection of Lee Hill and Broadway.

“We don’t want to work against the developers,” she says. “We’re offering our creative services to help develop this community.”

Eckert’s message to Loftus and Dierking includes a plea to think long-term.

“It’s a pivotal piece of development for the next 10, 20 years,” Eckert says. “There’s a way, architecturally, to make this happen without gearing up for a fight. Let’s be creative. Let’s talk about how these men can make a lot of money by doing something creative. Our vision is that if you create artist housing, you can have high-end lofts next to an artist’s home, which keeps a good mix in the neighborhood while also keeping artists in their homes. If we start working together now, we can save them money.”

Dierking, for his part, allows that, “Occasionally neighbors come up with better ideas than developers.” Also, whatever anyone might think of past controversies, he and Loftus “are willing to listen to everybody.”

And, says Brockett, they will. “Boulder focuses on the public input and process. If you bring in something people will hate, it’s harder to get approved. There has to be some kind of give-and-take process that works for developers and the neighborhood. Spending time to work upfront with neighbors is more efficient for them.”

Not to mention more profitable all the way around.