Breckenridge, Colorado

Boulder’s Last Frontier

Posted by The Daily Camera
By Sean Maher, CEO

As Boulder has grown up over the last 30+ years, most parts of the city have become well defined with “personalities” that will not change dramatically in the coming decades. Sure there will be some changes and new development in North, South and West Boulder but, for the most part, their character is set for the foreseeable future.

East Boulder is different. This big chunk of our community is still trying to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. I am talking about the area from Foothills Parkway east to 63rd Street and from the Boulder Airport south to Arapahoe Avenue. This 1,600 acre area is home to some important sites like the hospital and airport as well as most of the affordable commercial and industrial space still left in Boulder. There are 800 businesses in East Boulder with 17,000 employees.

One thing there is not much of is housing. There are only 300 homes in the entire area and they are clustered in the San Lazaro mobile home park just off East Valmont Road. No other part of town has such as low number of residents.

So when City Council decided to focus future planning efforts on specific areas of the city with “subcommunity” plans, East Boulder was the obvious place to start. With its relative affordability, lack of housing and large amount of older, low density commercial buildings, it is truly Boulder’s last frontier in terms of potential to shape our community’s future.

Do we want to preserve affordable commercial space where small businesses can afford to start up and grow? Do we want to build new market rate and affordable housing to mitigate the challenge of 60,000 in-commuters? Do we want to add more commercial space and allow taller buildings where they will not block the views of nearby residents? Or maybe we want more parks and open spaces?

If the City leaves the current zoning and land use policies in place, East Boulder will not change dramatically over the next 20 years and will continue to be mostly an employment center. As older buildings slowly get replaced with more dense development, jobs will likely double to about 35,000 with only a few hundred new residential units added. This will exacerbate the lack of accessible and affordable housing for workers in the area.

To address this imbalance, City staff has developed three concept planning scenarios that envision anywhere from 2,700 to 6,100 new housing units. All three reduce the amount of industrial space and call for more mixed-use development that blends housing and commercial.

All three options also envision a transit hub at 55th and Arapahoe to serve as a gateway for future Bus Rapid Transit. This BRT line will eventually bring workers in from East Boulder County and is important to reducing both congestion and carbon in the future. Most people can agree on that.

But there are still questions. How many new housing units should be added? How much green space? Do we really want to remove much of the light industrial space where startups can still afford the rent? How do we improve the area without forcing small businesses to move out of Boulder?

I am still pondering the options and have honestly not decided what I will end up supporting. I agree the area needs transit and housing but I am not in favor of wiping out a big swath of our affordable commercial space without considering the negative impacts.

I encourage you get up to speed and form your own vision for East Boulder. You can start by visiting and look at the options and tradeoffs. Even for those of us who do not live or work there, the future of this important area will have a major impact. It really is Boulder’s final frontier.

Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. You can email him at

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