December was a pretty gnarly month for me. I tore a ligament. I got Covid. A fire burned down two entire towns. I’m emotionally burnt out right now and letting myself feel it because tomorrow I go back to work. So apologies if this is even more stream of consciousness than usual.
When I was a teenager I wanted to be a reporter. So I talked my way into an internship at our local television station Channel 8. I loved it. I got to be the assistant for such glamorous events as city council land use meetings. Which is how I happen to have the misfortune of knowing how Boulder became surrounded by suburban sprawl. I don’t have a grand unified theory. I just witness a lot of little decisions that compounded into unspeakable disaster no one could have predicted. Except we did.
There used to be a crappy mall in Boulder. It had a Macy’s and a Foley’s but it couldn’t sustain its anchor tenant department stores even in the late 90s and early aughts. Now big developers and chain stores knew that Boulder was fast becoming a wealthy town and wanted in. Maybe we could upgrade from middle market to premium retail. But Boulder is run by a bunch of hippies and wanted no part of upgrading big box stores. City council meeting turned into an endless parade of “no” to various folks coming in attempting to take over the mall on 28th street. It languished for years.
Eventually the developers gave up. Decided to construct a mall outside of the open space belt outside of the city. You see Boulder is the prototype for NIMBYS. We literally bought up a bunch of land that the town owns and can never ever be developed so no one could sprawl the town. It’s gorgeous and amazing and expensive to maintain and makes Boulder a haven for its natives and an impossibly expensive place if you didn’t buy real estate in the 60s. But I digress. This is about the mall.
The developers called the new mall out on the prairie beyond the town’s open space Flatiron Crossing. It’s an homage to Boulder’s signature feature the flatiron mountains. And the views from up town highway 36 into town driving back from the mall are amazing.
And Boulder honestly felt like it won. The ugly box stores went up around it. Our town was saved from Costco and Chuckee Cheese and Ann Taylor. We all snobbishly called it Flat Out Grossings. We thought it was a nasty money grab. It was wise we let them develop outside the open space band and protected the town.
Except that mall and all the box stores turned into the anchor for all the surrounding towns. We called them the L towns. Well that and Superior. And that’s where the growth happened. That’s what enabled Colorado to thrive. And that’s exactly how an urban fire that was started on Boulder open space ended up destroying so many homes. We pushed out the development thinking we’d done a good thing.
I actually have to stop writing this as I can’t make the point I want to which is that Boulder brought much of this misery on itself. We wouldn’t let the land be developed in town. So someone else did outside of town. And now that land got wiped out from a fire in our open space. And everyone is going to be snide and awful but our policies have consequences and by pushing out our development to Flat Out Grossing the law of unintended consequences has taken over. And I’m sick to my stomach knowing the well intentioned hippies ended up doing so much more damage.