A couple of weeks ago a large development dubbed Rêve (“dream” in French) became the first project to get called up by Boulder’s City Council at concept plan review (see the concept book for the project here). Rêve would occupy a 6.7 acre site on the southeast corner of Pearl Parkway and 30th St., just to the west of the Solana apartments. Much of it would extend south beyond the boundaries of the Boulder Junction area. I offered some comments to City Council on the project, as someone who would like to see more human scale, rather than auto-oriented development in Boulder. If we’re going to be able to do that anywhere, it seems like it ought to be Boulder Junction (formerly the Transit Village). Once we get the BRT up and running, it should be highly transit accessible. It’s surrounded by regional employment centers — the expanding east CU campus to the south, the new Googleplex to the east, and who knows what else eventually as the area builds out… or rather, builds in. Also, despite being part of “east” Boulder, Boulder Junction is really quite centrally located within the city as a whole. As I wrote recently both here and in the Daily Camera, I think that if it’s done with a particular focus on the human scale, and with less accommodation than we’re used to for automobiles, development in the area need not have substantial direct impacts on existing residential neighborhoods in the city, in terms of parking spillover, traffic congestion, and viewsheds.
I’m not opposed to the overall intensity of the development. In fact, I think it could be much better for people on the ground with a higher FAR. Improving the project at the current or higher intensity hinges on doing a better job of curating and cultivating the spaces between the buildings, turning them into great outdoor rooms and corridors, and wholeheartedly turning them over to human beings. This is just a matter of focusing on traditional (like, thousands of years old) urban design.
Site Access and Connections Plan
I see three types of streets in the immediate vicinity of the project:
- Pearl Parkway and 30th St. are major arterials, inherently inhospitable to human activity because of the speed and volume of traffic on them, and the resulting danger, noise, and air pollution.
- Junction Place is a major side street, which if calmed and lined with active uses could be activated, and turned into a good public human space, with lower speed, lower volume traffic.
- The connections interior to the Rêve project and between it and the adjacent development at Solana are potentially extraordinary human-scale urban places because of their small horizontal scales, and our ability to profoundly limit motorized vehicle access, traffic volumes and speeds there.
Unfortunately in the US there is a widespread impression that active uses need to be adjacent to high traffic volume streets. While this may be true in “traditional” strip mall developments, in which businesses are hoping to attract drivers, it’s not true if what we’re trying to do is build a place that is oriented toward pedestrians. To do that, we’ve got to literally orient places toward the pedestrians, and most pedestrians, given the choice, will walk on the smaller streets interior to the development and major side streets like Junction Place. Downtown nobody wants to walk on Canyon Boulevard or Broadway, but Pearl St., 13th and 14th are often thronged.
By focusing on the streetscapes that face the busiest streets (30th and Pearl Parkway here), we’re forced to invite vehicles into the interior of the site. The buildings are “back loaded” with garage access off of the alleys and spaces between the buildings. This preserves the continuity of the building faces and pedestrian realm along 30th and Pearl Parkway, but at the expense of the spaces interior to the site, and the narrow, cozy, quiet laneways and courtyards that could otherwise be created away from the busy arterial streets. What constitutes the “front” of a building for a pedestrian can be very different from what a motorist sees as the front.
In order to ensure that the spaces between these buildings are really human spaces that are used and lovable, motorized vehicular access needs to be minimized. Ideally these spaces would be the domain of bikes and pedestrians, with only the occasional service, delivery or emergency vehicle access. We should get rid of the “arrival court” and the east-west passage from 30th St. into the southern portion of the site. Prohibit vehicular access to the “Plaza”. Put the entrances to the underground garages at the very periphery of the project, rather than penetrating the site in any way. The alley between Solana and Rêve is so ripe for humanization, why do we have to force it to accommodate cars? Imagine if it could look more like one of these very narrow streets, clearly built for human beings above all else, less than 25 feet wide, lined with active uses but quieted to the volume of a conversation, and slowed to the speed of a casual stroll:
The current plan is for the Solana (eastern) side of this potentially wonderful little street to be blocked off with bollards where it intersects the Pearl Parkway frontage, while another entire street is built right next to it on the Rêve site. This is utterly unacceptable, craptastic design.
The city should have been adamant about this passage becoming a public right-of-way in the site-plan review for Solana, but we weren’t, so now we’ve got to fix it. We need one street there, and it needs to be extremely narrow, made for people, with some quiet active ground floor uses. The environment can be made far more amenable to patio dining and quiet conversation than anything you can put adjacent to a street like Pearl Parkway or 30th St. It may be the “back” of the building for cars, but it can be a wonderful front or side for people. Even if it doesn’t have any active ground floor uses, and even if there’s still very limited, slow garage access, it can still be humanized. A couple of old narrow residential streets in Philadelphia give some idea of what these little spaces can feel like:
Getting the cars out of the surface aspects of the site means that children (and other humans) will be able to inhabit the space without requiring the constant, nerve-wracking vigilance of their parents, who would probably rather be chilling at one of the wine-bars on the edge of the plaza while the kids entertain themselves.
The next best option would be extreme traffic calming, keeping vehicles moving at 5mph or less while they are on the site (or between Rêve and Solana). If that speed is physically enforced through traffic calming measures and social norms (and legal penalties) then it is possible that something approaching real humanization of the space will be possible.
In a similar vein, how many people want to sit and try to have a conversation in a sidewalk cafe at the corner of Broadway and Canyon downtown? There’s a reason the ground floor units there are filled with banksters. So why are there so many restaurants and sidewalk cafes depicted in the current plans, facing out onto 30th St. or Pearl Parkway? Given the option, wouldn’t most diners prefer to be sheltered from the traffic, facing into a quiet human space instead? When you look at great examples of outdoor dining in other cities around the world, they’re not immediately adjacent to 5 or 6 lane high speed roads. Sometimes they’re on boulevards with wide pedestrian medians. More often they’re on quiet, narrow low-volume streets, or altogether pedestrianized plazas. Witness the popularity of on-street dining on West Pearl, or the Pearl St. Mall.
It seems likely that the ground-floor uses that face onto Pearl and 30th St. will for the time being end up being office spaces, because of the relatively pedestrian unfriendly character of those streets. You’ll notice that in the renderings of those frontages, entitled “Streetscape Engagement” the character of the adjacent street is largely hidden from view, by virtue of the perspective looking down the street instead of out into it. This is a common trick when trying to make a giant street look like it could actually be nice to walk next to. If a street is truly great, nobody is ashamed to show its entire cross section…
However, it’s still a good idea to make the ground floor spaces flexible, so that in the fullness of time, when we someday come to our senses and calm both of those big streets, the buildings can be re-purposed for real active uses like restaurants and pedestrian oriented retail. In the meantime, we should do whatever we can to activate the interior of the site.
The Space Between Buildings
It’s important to have the spaces between the buildings be confined, and very clearly either public or private. The scale of the spaces between buildings need to be small enough that they can serve as outdoor rooms, within which you can identify people and read their emotions. In the current site plan, the distance from one building face to the other, north-south across the Slough, is 145 feet.
I’m not normally one for sportsball analogies, but: that’s half a football field.
In a car scale world, moving at 40 mph, that isn’t a huge space. In a human scale world, moving at 3 mph, it is gargantuan. It’s far too large an expanse to be able to recognize someone from across the way, which means it’s far too large to serve as an outdoor room. We start being able to read emotions and recognize individuals at around 70 feet — half the width of this open space. As it’s designed now, there will be two very separate spaces, one on the north and one on the south, which will not meaningfully interact. Human-scale urban spaces are all about interaction.
To foster interaction, these open spaces need to be cozier, scaled down to the human senses and the plausible supply of pedestrians in the area. A good dinner party has enough people to fill the room… or even maybe just a tiny bit more, so that it feels like a desirable vibrant environment. Ten people around one table is an event. Ten people spread throughout an entire house is… a housing co-op.
The “underpass to nowhere” crossing 30th St. from near Ras Kasas needed to have the sharp U-turn when it was originally built to get people back up to street level on 30th St., but now that the through path is being constructed, that U-turn doesn’t necessarily need to be there, creating additional separation between the buildings. Instead the MUP could continue straight through to the promenade to the east, allowing the building faces to be moved closer to each other, without losing usable area in the plaza.
However, losing usable plaza area isn’t necessarily a bad thing here. Boulder has made “open space” within building sites a huge priority, and I think it’s misplaced. Open space in and of itself is not a community benefit. It’s only valuable when it’s used to create high quality public space, and sometimes higher quality means lower quantity — not because you have to invest more per square foot (though that’s a possibility) but because you need to ensure that the public space is actually well utilized. Too much of it, or too few pedestrians, and it’s just a vast, dead expanse.
Open space can also be a valuable private amenity, but for that purpose, it’s important that we very clearly delineate, through the physical environment, which parts of the site are public, and which are private.
All of the areas designated “community courtyard” (4) in the site plan are, to my mind, private. They should be obviously and not ambiguously so. Creating a private space and not actually blocking it off will create resentment from the residents when the public inhabits those spaces, and will prevent them from being utilized fully as private spaces. At the same time, most people will understand they aren’t really supposed to be there, and so they won’t be fully utilized as public spaces either, but they’ll still extract some of the social energy from the actual public spaces. They could be bumped up a story, or separated with artistic walls and gates. If they aren’t then it seems likely to me that eventually, they’ll get fenced off as an afterthought when residents are annoyed, which will be suboptimal both in terms of aesthetics, and the experience of using them. Creating these trusted private spaces is also very important for family friendliness, which I’ll address below.
It’s worth noting that most of the photos which are included in the Rêve design packet are of places that fit many of the characteristics I’m talking about above, but they do not reflect the scale of the spaces between the buildings as it is currently proposed, or the character of 30th St. and Pearl Parkway (which are unworkably large).
The large open spaces between buildings and the focus on putting active ground floor uses next to large streets are largely the fault of current city planning guidelines. Our regulations favor increased quantity of unused urban space rather than quality of outdoor urban spaces for people. We also continue to think about street frontage as if we are driving, even when in theory we’re trying to make places for people who are walking and biking. We have to stop doing these things, and encourage high quality, human scale spaces, in environments that are calm and quiet enough to excel. Our current approach virtually ensures that we will get bad, underutilized spaces between buildings.
The vertical scale of the buildings currently proposed is good for interaction between people on balconies and patios, and those in the plaza. People don’t look up much, but when they do, you can have a conversation with someone at ground level from about the 3rd floor. In places where we want to facilitate those interactions, and capitalize on the building faces that are oriented toward the outdoor public spaces, we can give residents the opportunity to be engaged with those public spaces visually and aurally by putting rooftop patios and balconies on the 2nd or 3rd floors.
We need to do a much better job of creating family friendly urban housing in Boulder. One of the keys to creating great urban spaces for kids is making shared, protected, visually accessible outdoor space in which children can play with each other, while parents can see them from inside, especially through kitchen windows.
These spaces must be well protected from motor vehicles, and ideally either entirely private to those who live within the development, or accessible only by easily watched human passages, such that there is a situational awareness by residents as to when there’s an “outsider” in the private space, or when a child (or other individual) has left the space. There’s an endless variety of traditional, courtyard oriented, extended family housing archetypes that follow this pattern from around the world. We should imitate them shamelessly. The early 20th century North American version of this type of housing is courtyard apartments, which the city of Portland, Oregon has been actively encouraging to make a comeback in recent years. Seattle’s Sightline Institute has a good post about the attributes and advantages of multifamily courtyard housing — just one of an excellent series of posts on creating family friendly cities. The essence of the problem: we have to make places that are great for grownups doing grownup things, and kids doing kid things, at the same time, within view and earshot of each other.
The cohousing community is a great resource for getting this kind of thing right, and we have lots of expertise in Boulder. In particular Planning Board member Bryan Bowen lives in the Wild Sage Cohousing community in North Boulder, which he also helped design. He’s also worked designing intentional communities nationwide. Jim Leach’s Boulder based Wonderland Hill development company is also a national leader in cohousing design.
We Need More Fine Grained Development
As I said at the beginning, I could be supportive of a higher intensity of development than has been proposed with Rêve. It would allow us to fill in some of the excessively large spaces between buildings, and create more human scale public spaces. It would also enable the area to accommodate more residents and businesses, contributing to both social and economic activity in the area.
That said, I am not thrilled about the scale of the individual edifices. Like the Googleplex, Solana, and many of the other higher intensity developments that have been going up recently around town, these are going to be some huge-ass buildings.
Development scale and intensity are not the same thing. Traditional urban development patterns are largely made up of buildings with small footprints that often touch each other. Some of the biggest traditional buildings in downtown Boulder are the Hotel Boulderado and the Shambala Center, and they’re much smaller than the buildings being proposed here, maybe 100 feet max, on their largest side. Most of the older buildings downtown have significantly smaller footprints.
Smaller building footprints leads to more variety and interest at eye-level. It also allows gradual, incremental, fine-grained re-development, that can adapt over time to the changing needs and desires of the community. Encouraging development to take place one small parcel at a time may not have the same “economies of scale” that large aggregated properties like Rêve have, but smaller development opportunities have a much lower barrier to entry financially. If a developer needs to raise $100M to do a project, that money will almost certainly be coming from outside of our community. That means it will be subject to the whims and requirements of distant financiers, who may not understand or care what we want here. If a project can be done for on the order of $10M or less, it’s much more likely to be done with money coming from closer to home.
For example, the Boulder Housing Coalition (which I’m on the board of, as the representative of the co-op I live in) creates permanently affordable, community oriented rental housing. We would love to be able to do a project in Boulder Junction, in part because the area is not encumbered by minimum parking requirements, which have been an obstacle for us in trying to re-purpose properties elsewhere in Boulder. In Boulder Junction we could do something like a German baugruppe — essentially urban form-factor cohousing — but by virtue of the scale at which we currently operate (more like $1M per project) it’s almost impossible for us to participate in the redevelopment of these areas.
It seems unlikely that this issue of development granularity can be addressed in the context of the current project, but I think it’s very important to look at going forward, and very important to recognize as a separate issue from the intensity of development.
Living the Dream
It’s one thing to comment on a plan that’s already been put forward. It’s another (much more difficult) thing to say what you’d like to see instead.
In my ideal world, this site would be broken up into 4-6 small blocks, with very narrow human streets between them — obviously public space. Some of the blocks could be courtyard style housing, with the interior of the block hollowed out and kept safe for kids, but with pedestrian access out to the narrow streets and the creek. Others would be row houses, filling their own small plot of land. There would be a narrow bike and pedestrian corridor paralleling the slough, with a lot of active uses facing onto it, and plenty of shade from the trees. You’d be able to see people on the other side and recognize them. The streets between the blocks might be “yield” streets — two-way, but narrow enough that only a single vehicle can pass at a time. Some of them would be for delivery, service, and emergency access only by motor vehicles. What parking there is would be underground, and accessed from the periphery. The buildings would be a mix of 3-5 stories tall, but might fill significantly more of the site’s footprint overall.
Is that a kind of place we can build? We’ve built them before. All over the world. For millennia.
We can do it again.