I had lunch today with Fenno Hoffman, candidate for Boulder City Council. Fenno is a renaissance man in the field of architecture. Wide wide range of work there including all the efforts that go in around the actual design.
But the renaissance man approach goes well beyond his work. As we discussed each issue Fenno would dive in to that issue and go on at length about it. By and large good points and interesting observations, but I also had to move the conversation on to the next topic each time. Fenno's approach has some major trade-offs. When working on a major issue, he will probably have a better understanding of the ramifications than others. For thinking ahead, to him long term planning is decades, not the next election. All very useful traits on a council.
On the flip side, Fenno's approach and mindset is not one that is focused on solving the problem quickly. A council composed of people with his approach would be awful. But I also think a council without someone taking this approach will be incredibly short-sighted (like we have now). There is great advantage in a diversity of approaches (just as there is with a diversity of viewpoints). Fenno brings a useful and different approach.
Fenno is an architect and so no surprise that a lot of the discussion was about development. He wants to see us figure out what we want where, and what that costs us. In terms of what/where, he brings up the point that the Hotel Boulderado violates every new building requirement – yet everyone likes it. That a height limit that makes sense downtown may not make sense on 30th street.
He also thinks we need to price out the cost to the city of the restrictions we have in place. He is not saying any in particular should change, but that we should be clear what impact these restrictions have. This is an excellent point because it's easy to just keep piling on new restrictions if you don't take cost into account – but eventually the total mass stops all new development.
Fenno's also willing, and kudos to him for broaching the subject that others are afraid to mention, to look at the height limitation. Not eliminate it, but consider what it should be where. And he brings up the interesting point that a single tall building has minimal impact (we have a couple in town). It's clumps of them that change the physical character of the city (does anyone mind Williams Village?)
This led to the topic of high density housing. Fenno is a strong proponent of building high density housing along our traffic corridors – Broadway, Canyon, 28th & 30th streets. This would deliver more housing, provide the density that makes mass transit efficient, and provides a shield between those streets and the single family housing behind them. He went into significant detail on the advantages of having different types of housing available in the city rather than putting everyone in a single family home.
Fenno clearly wants to see the city continue to evolve rather than freezing a lot of it in time. This does not mean wholesale change in all neighborhoods, but it does mean thinking through what changes will improve the city and then helping those parts of the city migrate to that new design/layout. He also thinks this will be a lot more acceptable to people if the city does make clear where it's going so that changes like Washington School are not a single unrelated change but is instead a step in an evolution to new development along Broadway.
I may not agree with every change Fenno wants to make, but I do think there is great value in figuring out where we want to go big picture, and then guide development in that direction. And I absolutely agree that we need to evolve because otherwise we become a city of old people in old buildings and while museums are nice to visit – I don't think Boulder should become one.
We then got on the subject of how Boulder goes about crafting legislation. Fenno takes the eminently sensible approach that we should first figure out what we want to accomplish, and then determine how to craft legislation that will accomplish that goal. He sees the process for FAR (accurately I think) as one that just threw a bunch of requirements together with no effort to figure out where we want to go, much less if those rules will get us there.
He is also a strong proponent of having everyone work through what we want to accomplish. I think this goes to his root impulse which is to study problems fully. He will be a strong voice toward inclusion and making sure everyone is heard (not that that tends to be a problem here in Boulder where everyone shouts out their opinion about everything).
I then asked about tax revenue and on this Fenno did not have much to say. He thinks if we can achieve higher density and a more sensible distribution of development, then that will reduce what it costs the city to provide the services we all expect. Personally I don't think you get that level of savings. But even if you do, the revenue crunch is going to come a lot faster than any significant change in how our housing is laid out.
In these interviews I don't ask a set of questions and instead mostly let the candidate talk. I find it interesting what they devote time to and equally interesting what they don't. While he had something to say on tax revenue, he never brought up environmental issues (with two exceptions below). Everyone has their own focus but it was interesting that this was not mentioned at all.
In closing I asked what pet project he would push for on Council. And he immediately answered free parking for scooters – and allow them to be parked on the sidewalk. He discussed this both in terms of convenience for people on them and the very small footprint they take when parking.
He also tore in to the heavy rail line proposed for Boulder. He just listed out the stupidity of it that everyone in the area already is aware of. He thinks the only reason it is still alive is that trains look cool while buses don't. That probably is a large part of it.
So what do we get with Fenno? Clearly his knowledge, passion, and energy is in how Boulder should evolve in terms of development. And that is one of the two big problems we face. He also has children which gives him a perspective common to many in Boulder, but few on the council. But the most important thing we get with him is a systemic long-term view – working to determine where we want the city to go. And then figuring out what we should do to get there.
Audio of interview: Download FennoHoffman