When did Boulder stop caring about equitable, sustainable housing?

David Friedlander
6 min readAug 12, 2022

A version of this piece was published in Boulder’s Daily Camera. The published version was edited to fit the Camera’s editorial standards and constraints, so I’m posting a longer version here, which includes a few details and images. Please head over to the Camera to read the official version.

You are invited to join the work of a new civic association which will promote through education and political action a more enlightened and imaginative and enlightened pattern of community development in the Boulder area than we have been experiencing for the past few years. This is a response to an awakening understanding that the attractiveness and individual character of this town are in serious jeopardy.

— From Boulder, CO’s Blue Line Amendment, 1958

In 1978, The Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP) was one of America’s most innovative zoning reforms. Conceived to preserve Boulder’s “attractiveness and individual character,” BVCP restricted population and land growth, allocating 30 percent of City lands to Open Space. And while Boulderites still enjoy the Open Spaces, the desire to protect the City’s “attractiveness and individual character” seems lost in the 1970s. I partly blame my family.

Before becoming a rallying point for the world’s richest people, Boulder was known as a destination for earth-loving, communitarian hippies — a population that was prominent when I arrived here in 1992.

In 1992, my father Dan moved the family to Boulder for a tech CEO position — a migration that accelerated the decoupling of Boulder’s costs of living from local wages. We lived in Boulder, but dad’s compensation was set by global standards. Migrants like us could buy big houses like our first home, an East Boulder McMansion sitting on one of the City’s last Open Space adjacent lots. Locals making local wages couldn’t compete.

Boulder continues to perpetuate zoning and economic structures that incentivizes the construction of as and expensive of homes that will fit on a lot. With the City of Boulder’s area median income standing at $105,000, these homes are usually only affordable to the WORLD’S richest citizens, who often purchase these homes for investment purposes.

I graduated from Fairview in 1994, and moved to a Boulder trailer park to escape cul de sac sterility and parental supervision. After several years working and studying, I left Boulder in 2001 for New York City, eager to live in a culturally dynamic place without a car.

I returned to Boulder frequently before moving back in 2020, particularly in 2012, prior to my dad’s death that July. Dad’s death had enormous ramifications for Boulder’s future. Besides global salaries, dad brought global political sophistication to Colorado. His legacy includes suing Xcel to stop Pueblo’s Comanche 3 coal power plant construction and stewarding Jared Polis and Joe Neguse to their present stations; the former first announced his governor run in the Friedlander living room.

Dad sued Xcel to stop the construction of the Comanche 3 power plant in Pueblo — a plant that’s been offline for most of its 10 year life, and which many environmental groups are trying to close 40 years before its projected lifespan.

But dad was no Democrat mainliner. Raised by radicals in a tiny Hyde Park, Chicago co-op, dad’s childhood included regular FBI surveillance. Dad once confided to me J. Edgar Hoover dubbed him “the second most dangerous man in America” because of his anti-war activism. His Democrat support was fueled by a mistaken belief they’d be the party to protect the planet’s endangered people and environment.

After my dad died, the State’s upstart Democrats lost their intellectual and moral compass, transitioning from the party of environmental responsibility and economic equality to the party of unfettered economic and land expansion. Polis and Neguse — whose birthdays are one and two days after mine, for what it’s worth — weaponized their minority statuses to obfuscate bleak realities. The State continues to build in climate vulnerable areas, still relies on gas, oil, and fracking, dorunway housing costs, record levels of homelessness, one of the country’s lowest per capita spending on education, and still kowtowing to the whims of the rich and white (Boulder’s African American population is a pathetic 1.1 percent).

My dad spent his final years fighting to convert the State’s grid to renewable power. Unfortunately, the amount of energy used to produce, distribute, operate, and dispose of renewable power makes this approach to decarbonization counterproductive. Until energy demand is dramatically reduced, supply shifts will keep cooling vacant, third-homes and charging three-ton Teslas for single-occupant pharmacy runs.

Most things dubbed “renewable” get that way with faulty energy audits. Solar panels, wind turbines, and other “clean” energy uses massive amounts of energy to produce, distribute, and dispose of — qualities that make them attractive to utility companies, but ones that make them horribly unsustainable.

Dad’s focus on renewables related to his housing hypocrisy. Though he assuaged his guilt by riding his bike everywhere, dad knew homes like the McMansion and the modernist mansion he later built atop Shanahan Ridge — and where he took his last painful breath — were the reasons energy demand kept growing and why non-rich citizens were “driven” to commuter suburbs and beyond.

“Renewable power” would have no impact beyond making the smoke extra toxic for the homes burned in last year’s Louisville/Superior fires. Compacting cities through land use reform, thereby reducing exposure to climate threats, is what will protect homes and their occupants, but there is no discussion about doing that with current Colorado politicians.

Land use reform: the words Colorado politicians fear most, but the ones that would permit science-backed responses to current and future ecological and economic threats. Land use reform could curb sprawl, intrusion in wilderness frontiers, and permit the development of geographically-contained, mixed-use real estate with housing and amenities within walking or biking distance. But Colorado politicians aren’t even mentioning land use reform, too busy kowtowing to profiteers of land growth and its attendant carbon-intensive infrastructure (roads, utility grids, etc.).

I frequently run through Chautauqua park, where I’m reminded Boulder wasn’t always so unsustainable, uncultured, and uncaring.

Chautauqua Societies were once a popular social, cultural, and spiritual movement in the late 19th and early 20th century America. The movement’s supportive infrastructure is evident at Boulder’s Chautauqua. Founded in 1898 as a summer education center, the complex’s communal greens, halls, restaurants, and 98 compact cottages were an idyllic setting for holidayers and Boulderites to connect with nature, each other, and their spirit. There was even an electric streetcar that shuttled people from downtown Boulder. Chautauqua cottages are now used for $250/night-plus stays and the halls for private events. Kenny G. performed there recently, tickets starting at $50.

It’s hard to keep track of how wealthy Polis is since he has so much money — most made from a super sketchy $780 million cash sale of Blue Mountain Arts, the company his mom founded, sold at the peak of the dotcom bubble in 1999.

Boulder could easily permit housing as awesome as early Chautauquas for residents to live year round! Zoning is not a Flatiron, and can be easily modified. The BVCP was amended for Crossroads shopping mall in the 80s — why not amend it for resilient, affordable, culturally diverse housing today?

Joe Neguse doesn’t let his membership on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis distract him from promoting deeply unsustainable projects such as $700M widening of I-70. Here Joe is pictured with former governor/oil-gas-fracking hawk, Senator John Hickenlooper. And some other dude.

Unfortunately, politicians like Jared and Joe lack the concern to change land use, even when Coloradans hit the streets en masse and the land burns. The rest of us lack their calm, perhaps because we lack Polis’ $500M net-worth to buffer us from rising costs of living, or Neguse’s acting ability, where we decry crisis publicly but act with lassitude behind closed doors. We lack the comprehensive benefit plans of elected officials. Our material and natural resources continually stripped, we fight on, fueled by our love of Colorado’s bounty and all it’s given us. For my part, I will keep using my love, expertise, and family name to fight and challenge the notion the State must keep perpetuating its woefully broken status quo. It’s not good enough.

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David Friedlander

Pondering the future, today. Housing, health, and lots of other stuff.