What Did Council Members and Staff Learn from Boulder?

In September 2016, several Chapel Hill Town Council members and town staff members visited Boulder Colorado to learn how that city addresses some of the local governance challenges—e.g., housing affordability, public transit—that Chapel Hill faces.

Every two years the Chamber of Commerce organizes a visit to a university/college town to explore ideas and policies in similar settings.   Eighty people attended the three day visit to Boulder including Mayor Hemminger and six members of the Town Council, as well as eight Town staff members.

Attendees participated in workshops and panels, where Boulder’s leaders gave presentations about civic life, economic development and university life.

The trip organizer Chamber Director Aaron Nelson volunteered, “We went to Boulder, another progressive community, to learn about how they address issues of affordable housing, transit, and development. We were impressed with the results they’ve achieved in those areas. I was especially inspired by the underground transit hub, the park with the daylighted stream, and their thriving downtown.”

At a public forum held on Sept. 29, 2016 at the Flyleaf Bookstore in Chapel Hill, individuals who had participated in this visit reported on specific information presented and learned in Boulder. Mayor Pam Hemminger attended this meeting, and during the question/answer period, she indicated that a general report on information learned during the Boulder visit would be made available. While a report has not yet been issued by the Mayor, some information about what was learned by Town Council and staff has been acquired from other sources.

Local Chamber of Commerce President Aaron Nelson interviewed Mayor Hemminger about her experience on WCHL. Listen here.

In a Daily TarHeel article (October 3) on the visit to Boulder, Michael Parker, a   Town Council member, said “Boulder’s ability to think ahead and have a consistent vision for their community was something worth replicating” He also admired Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall downtown, and said “The attention to detail, such as street sculptures and flowers, made the downtown seem like a family friendly place.”

The Daily TarHeel article also reported that participants were impressed with Boulder’s ability to think ahead through a land bank strategy for economic and housing development. This strategy entails the city buying pieces of land that are to be used in the future for things like affordable housing and transit locations.

Nancy Oates’ observation:  “On the trip we learned that Boulder’s elected officials take affordable housing seriously. The town’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance calls for 20% of a development to be permanently affordable to those at the 60% AMI level. (Boulder’s AMI is about $94,000, due to all those high-paying tech jobs.) Boulder has a culture of risk-taking, and its city council has no problem turning down a developer who doesn’t want to adhere to town standards.” See full comment here.

Additional impressions from Town Council members about this three day visit to Boulder were shared at the November 4, meeting of the Council Committee on Economic Sustainability.   An agenda item was “Things We Heard and Learned from Boulder.”  Town Council members attending included Nancy Oates, Ed Harrison, George Cianciolo. Michael Parker, Donna Bell, Pam Hemminger as well as four or five Town staff.

Fred Lampe, CHALT, attended the meeting and recorded the following comments made by Town Council members regarding what they had learned about planning and policies for the town of Boulder.

Boulder is characterized by good planning and the following attributes:

  • A long range “map” for community growth dating back 50+ years;
  • Parking in Boulder is considered adequate, unlike Chapel Hill;
  • Supports existing, new and growing businesses, not large established outside businesses that want to move to Bolder;
  • Available affordable office space which Chapel Hill needs;
  • Better transportation infrastructure than CH;
  • Local wealthy people have supported many civic projects;
  • A broad base of different types of local businesses that support entrepreneurs and growing startups;
  • Large external businesses are discouraged;
  • City owns all its streets so has full flexibility with regard to road improvements;
  • Plans provided for living, eating and working without driving;
  • Excellent cooperation with its large neighbor (Denver) while CH has inadequate links with its large neighbors.

We encourage the Town Council to have a public discussion regarding what policies and strategies they learned about in their visit to Boulder that they believe can improve planning in Chapel Hill both short-term and long-term.

The costs in dollars and time to participate in visits to other towns and cities can be useful, but only if the specific benefits learned about are integrated into relevant policies and planning for Chapel Hill.

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