Important Recent Housing Projects Would be Prohibited under “Use Table” Changes to be Considered by Council Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022

Boulder plans to revise the rules regarding housing in areas zoned for industrial uses, with city council due to consider a proposal that would in some ways expand where housing is allowed, and in other ways severely constrain it. These changes, if approved, would have prohibited the Waterview project, adding 317 homes, and the Celestial Seasonings project, adding 230 homes.

The suggested changes are one outcome of a long-term project to update regulations prescribing which land uses are allowed where in the city. The current phase is looking at areas zoned for industrial uses, and in turn one piece of that is considering housing in those zones.

The Waterview Project on East Arapahoe is zoned IG, and would not have been allowed if the Use Table changes proposed by staff in December 2022 had been in place when these 317 homes were approved.

Boulder has three primary industrial zone designations, called IS, IG, and IM. IS was conceived as focusing on “service industrial”, particularly auto-oriented businesses; IM was intended for manufacturing uses; and IG was meant as a catch-all for light industrial uses. Roughly speaking, the current rules allow housing in any of these zones on large lots that are adjacent to residential or park uses. The proposed changes would exclude housing from the IS and IM zones, and allow it in IG zones where designated by an area plan, such as the recently-approved East Boulder Subcommunity Plan. At the same time, the changes would lift the lot-size and adjacency requirements.

These proposed rules are partly in response to a statement in the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan which calls for housing “within areas zoned Industrial General (IG) (not those zoned for manufacturing or service uses)”. Despite the naming of the three primary industrial zones, however, a staff study indicates that businesses classified as “Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services” or as “Manufacturing” are common in all three zones.

City staff also report that since 2004, when residential uses became an allowed use in industrial zones, only four housing projects have been approved. Two of those are in areas where housing would be prohibited under the proposed changes: 4775 Spine Road (in IM) and Waterview, now called Weathervane (in IS). These two projects would be grandfathered in as “legal nonconforming” if the zoning changes are approved.

The Celestial Seasonings Project on Spine Road was zoned IM, and would not have been allowed if the Use Table changes proposed by staff in December 2022 had been in place when these 230 homes were approved.

There’s one other implicit restriction on housing in the proposal. Since it would allow housing in IG zones where designated by an approved area plan, housing would be prohibited in any places not covered by an area plan, even within IG. There are such areas in southern and western Gunbarrel. While a subcommunity plan for all of Gunbarrel is in the works, such plans can take many years to get to final approval.

From the perspective of meeting the city’s housing crisis, the proposal is therefore a mixed bag. The current lot-size and adjacency requirements are rather arbitrary, prohibit smaller-scale housing developments, and unduly limit where housing can go. Eliminating them makes a great deal of sense.

But despite the verbiage in the BVCP, foreclosing the possibility of housing in the IS and IM zones seems unwise. Given the depth of our housing shortfall, we can’t afford to exclude housing from such large areas of the city, where housing could easily be added on underutilized parking lots, for instance, without displacing any existing productive uses. The reality is that on the ground, there’s very little difference among the IS, IG, and IM zones. If you walk across the invisible boundary separating two of these zones, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll notice the change. Moreover, the BVCP is due to be updated within the next few years, and the current guidance about housing in industrial areas could easily change.

Finally, effectively excluding housing from sections of Gunbarrel simply because no area plan covering them has been adopted seems unnecessary. If nothing else, the existing regulations should continue to apply until superseded by an area plan.City Council will consider these proposed changes at its Dec. 15 meeting, including holding a public hearing. Boulder Housing Network encourages readers to contact City Council to express support for allowing generous housing in industrial zones, and to speak at the Dec. 15 meeting.

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