“We do give way too much credence to people’s fears.” A conversation with Mark McIntyre, new Planning Board member

Mark McIntyre is one of three new Planning Board (PB) members appointed by the Boulder City Council in 2022. Born in Overland Park, Kansas, a city he says has “more divided-highway road miles per capita than anywhere else on earth,” Mark first moved to Boulder as a 17-year-old in 1977 to climb. He has never left. 

A business and light-industrial-property owner in Boulder, Mark earned a BFA in ceramics and printmaking at CU. He also served as a student representative to Boulder’s Citizens Committee on Housing and Human Development, which distributed federal block grants for low-income housing. Around the same time, Mark became involved in Boulder’s open-space issues and cycling advocacy. After graduating from CU, Mark ran a manufacturers’ representative agency for 32 years, representing companies that make stampings, castings, injection molded plastic parts, etc. (e.g. original equipment manufacturers) to downstream companies. 

Mark was appointed to the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) in 2018, a position he left with one year of his term remaining to join Planning Board. Mark ran for City Council twice, in 2017 and 2019. Though he lost both times, he says, “It was a great experience.” Mark’s children and grandchildren all live in Boulder.

The conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity. It took place in June 2022. Mark began by explaining his interest in Planning Board:

Mark: With this new City Council, I thought, alright, if I ever want to be on Planning Board, now is the time to apply, it is more aligned with my way of thinking. I had become somewhat frustrated with TAB. Planning Board is quasi-judicial. You make very serious decisions about whether projects will hold or not. TAB is strictly advisory. In their charter, there is a line that says TAB shall not weigh in on any land use issue unless specifically requested by Council. Transportation and land use are totally interlinked, and there is no way of unwrapping those. 

Caitlin: When I was reading your Planning Board application, there were so many great statements that I agreed with, such as “pushing back against parking requirements.” But did you know that the word “affordable” doesn’t appear in your application at all?

Mark: How interesting! I would consider that an oversight. I have made part of my living through real estate [and] have some understanding of commercial real estate. What I try to do is apply that form of knowledge in the form of advocacy for people that have not had some of the benefits I have had. I feel like that’s a responsibility for people who have what I have. To advocate and to be a voice for those people who don’t have the time, because they’re working two jobs and they’re worried about the car breaking down or paying the rent or the kid’s doctor bill, or whatever it might be.  

Caitlin: Can you tell me more about how your experience in commercial/industrial real estate can be useful to Planning Board?

Mark: The average citizen’s view of Planning Board, of the development community, is that they should make more affordable housing. “Make it so!” But affordable housing doesn’t get built without federal tax incentives for private buildings, and without the help of Boulder Housing Partners. It’s wildly complex and takes an incredible amount of effort to make affordable housing happen. The way mortgage financing works, commercial real-estate, what returns people are expecting… The city never goes off on its own and says, “We’re going to build 100 units here.” That just doesn’t happen. But a lot of times, people perceive that the city is in bed with the developer. They think the developer is getting rich and taking this money from the city. No, that’s not how it works. Not that the developer doesn’t make money, they do. But without developers and some of the incentives that the federal government provides, we just don’t have more affordable housing. It all fits together with these complex pieces. My experience in commercial real estate helps me understand some of that. Not to be a cheerleader for the development community, but rather just to be able to take a critical look at things with a more knowing eye than if I didn’t have that experience.

Caitlin: The issue of affordable housing next to light industry has been an issue with regard to the East Boulder Subcommunity Plan (EBSCP).  There was a City Council decision 3-6 not to build 150 units out there.* There’s an argument that we should build high- quality affordable housing, but on the other hand we really just need housing of all kinds. However, there is this history of putting poor communities in undesirable places. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Mark: I also struggle. I agree with you, it’s a dilemma in the true sense of the word. For the EBSCP, I always said, let’s have the guy who works in the body shop have the ability to live down the street or upstairs. Why not? Why do we expect them to drive in and why do we make that judgment that says, ’Since I want a single-family home and a yard and a dog, [everyone else does too’? There are people in the community who think they are doing everyone a favor by saying, “Who would want to live there?” Well, you’d be surprised. That might be the attainable place for someone, it might be the shortest commute, it might be any number of things.

Caitlin: Toward the end of your application you say, “climate goals must drive our land use policies.” Then you re-state a goal from our comprehensive plan, that urban form should make our community “diverse, sustainable, equitable, resilient and welcoming.” Which is a lot of things! What is the one factor that should drive land use? Is it climate change? Affordability? Innovative design? Certainly those are all related in some ways, but what is equitable may not be as sustainable as another type of housing. Sustainability in building is quite expensive. So how would you prioritize all those?

Mark: More units. More units in the city, one hopes, means less in-commuting and greater sustainability. I don’t think it’s an either-or. I think Boulder Housing Partners (BHP) does a pretty darn good job. There was an article a couple days ago about the Tantra apartment complex, at Table Mesa and 36, on the southwest side of CU South. Tantra was a market-rate apartment complex, marginal maintenance, dated… BHP bought it and they are going through each unit, upgrading windows, doors, adding insulation, changing out appliances to more efficient appliances, LED lighting, doing things to improve sustainability, and they are gradually converting tenants under their affordable housing program. It’s an example of BHP both adding significantly to the affordable housing pool and adding to sustainability.

Caitlin: What do you think about single-family zoning?

Mark: In a city like Boulder, even with a progressive City Council, we will not end single-family zoning. We don’t have the will. We have a lot of people here who are unwilling to see how things might be. To see that the person who checks you out at Whole Foods actually lives nearby. The great resignation brought this into focus. [Some people said] “Oh no, The store shelves are bare,” or, “I can’t get this thing that I need,” or, “The lines are bad. Now I am going to take an interest in this.” I find it to be the same thing as [saying], “I was a Republican until my son/daughter came out as gay. It had to affect me personally for me to have the compassion or the wisdom to acknowledge the unfairness of the situation. It had to affect my pocketbook or my child’s well-being or whatever it might be… I am a selfish person, and it takes some event to affect me for me to take an interest in equity or kindness.” That’s really galling to me. 

I’ve always been an advocate for acting on our goals. Our City Council, whether it’s the current more progressive one or prior ones dominated by PLAN Boulder-types…. The stated goals are the same. We want to be inclusive. Well you know what? It takes action, and it takes action that will upset some people. Doing a four- to three-lane conversion of Iris, with better protected bike lanes, that will upset some people. We have goals. Climate, equity, vision zero… Leadership is about helping people ultimately appreciate what we’re doing to achieve our collective goals.

Caitlin: So there’s a communication element.

Mark. Yes. And there’s a political element. And giving staff political cover to actually go for it and implement things. I want to see us progress. There are a lot of communities out there that are progressing faster than we are, in terms of ending single-family zoning, allowing greater varieties of housing, not creating endless hoops to create an ADU in your backyard. Other communities are moving faster than Boulder is. Boulder is behind many communities in transportation issues, housing issues, homelessness issues. We’re behind, and it’s frustrating. We’re right up there in the top in stating goals, we just haven’t done nearly as much to achieve those goals. 

Caitlin:   You mention something in your application about kowtowing to our fears, instead of acting on our fears. 

Mark: I’ll tell you this: We do give way too much credence to people’s fears. Fear of the other, fear of change, fear of progress. Life in Boulder can be so great, it’s like we can almost ward off death if we can just keep things as they are. By resisting change, sometimes we are acknowledging our mortality. When I got here, the Pearl Street Mall was fresh. There was a little restaurant down there called Fred’s, and Fred played the guitar at night. I see this lamenting of the passing of things as the lamentations of someone getting older. I’m 62 now. I arrived here at 17, so I have those feelings. But you can’t let those feelings drive policy. We have to be thinking about younger people, the next generation, and how we’re going to offer them some of the opportunities and the access that we’ve experienced as an older generation. 

I think it’s really important and incumbent upon us to serve and advocate for people that are buying their first piece of housing. I bought my first piece of housing here in Boulder. And yes, I’ve benefited from all the real estate growth, trading up in size and then trading down in size. I’ve owned five or six homes within Boulder. It went from little to a little bit bigger and a remodel and a big house to a downsize, and another downsize. That whole time, we’ve benefitted from this. You have to be willing to share that. That’s another thing that Americans, and Boulderites in particular, we’re not very good at sharing. We’ve become less and less good at it. It’s really a disappointment to me. It’s not just NIMBYism. Sharing is what actually makes a community. We share in times of incredible crisis, whether it’s a shooting or a flood. But those events pass, and then we fall back into, “I’ve got mine, and I’m looking out for my family. I want to drive my car. I don’t want to wait on anyone, a person on a bike, a mom with a stroller.” That’s something that I hope we can have, policies that are about sharing.

Caitlin: You mentioned NCAR as a successful building in Boulder, and that we need to relax design and building regulations. Are you worried that things will become uglier?

Mark: The single biggest question that staff came to us with during the site review criteria modifications was, “Do you find that the proposed site review criteria are too proscriptive?” Staff have tried to increase certainty and take away some of the uncertainty of developers trying to figure out what the City wants. Developers end up looking at some other project that made it through site review and they copy that, and we end up with a bunch of buildings that all look kind of alike. They can’t afford to come before site review and hear Planning Board say, “Well….. we don’t really like this…” and then go back and redesign, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. On a 3-4 vote, three of us voted that yes, it is too proscriptive. I was in the three. Four other members said, “No.” 

The reason I used NCAR as an example is that it was a federal project, we had no control, we didn’t have any input into it. It violated height limits, it violated every possible thing. You can’t point out incredibly great architecture that was done by committee.

Caitlin: Right, but most construction doesn’t need to be incredibly great architecture.

Mark: But that doesn’t mean that the best we can strive for is mediocrity in design. You end up dumbing things down and having more mediocre things if the development community thinks, “The only thing Planning Board is going to approve is [either] a brick façade with a few pieces of vocabulary to 19th century architecture, or a Vail Lodge look.” Those are the things that get built right now. So what can we do to avoid having stuff like that? That’s a tension on Planning Board. 

Caitlin: Thank you.

Mark: I said I would explain to you what by-right means. By right is an important word. What can I do with this property by-right? By the code? If it doesn’t violate height limits, parking requirements, open space regulations, then you can build it. It’s another thing that I think the public, many times, doesn’t understand. 311 Mapleton – the giant project that is for rich senior family housing. I was a supporter, partly because it was tied to another project. The neighbors were opposed to it. They liked the vacant hospital site. Many opponents of projects don’t want to acknowledge what can be done by-right. If you don’t want the senior housing, are you willing to have a drug rehabilitation center there? Because they could have converted the existing buildings and property, and without a scrap of public input or approval, you can do that. It’s not just, “do I like this project or do I not like it?” If I disapprove of it and I fight against it, what will happen by-right there, and will I like that less or more? Many people think, “I just don’t want anything to happen there, can’t they just turn it into a park? Can’t every decrepit house or vacant lot just be a park, because I live next door?” So what are the real choices here, what tradeoffs are we making, and to whose benefit?

You can read our interviews with the two other new Planning Board members, ml robles and Laura Kaplan. You can also read their application statements to learn more about each member’s background and plans for Planning Board.

*Editor’s note: In the Fall, Council stripped a chunk of housing from the EBSCP out of concern for proximity to light industrial zoning. When Planning Board reviewed the project again, they put the housing back in. The EBSCP then went back to Council and Council acquiesced to the PB decision, and left the section of housing in the adopted plan.

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