Sean Maher: The challenges of a booming tech town

By Sean Maher, For the Camera

The announcement a couple weeks ago that Twitter is buying Gnip is a big deal for Boulder.

And the fact that Twitter loves it here and plans to expand the local team makes it even bigger.

This move by one of the hottest companies on the planet reinforces Boulder’s image as a major tech hub in the same league as San Francisco and Boston. That is pretty amazing.

Twitter joins Google, Microsoft and hundreds of startups that have chosen to locate here.

In my job, I talk to people in the tech world fairly often, and, for the most part, Boulder gets a big thumbs up. Most CEOs are committed to staying here and growing their companies in the place they love.

But even startup paradise is not without its troubles. In some ways, Boulder is becoming a victim of its own success. Some of the challenges we face include a shortage of office space, housing for employees and, of course, parking and transportation.

Let’s take office space first.

One of the things entrepreneurs love about Boulder and downtown in particular is the amazing density of startup companies. Our coffee shops, bars and restaurants are literally buzzing with energy from hundreds of tech and creative firms and their employees.

And now we’re running out of room for all these young firms to grow. The cost of office space is going ever higher as the vacancy rate hovers close to zero.

Fortunately, there are new developments coming downtown and in Boulder Junction that will replace and upgrade a few of our tired buildings with more functional space.

Over the next two years, we expect to add about 10 percent to our existing downtown office capacity. That will certainly help but Boulder will likely always face a shortage of space and some firms will always have to leave or open additional offices elsewhere.

The cost and availability of housing affects everyone in Boulder, including tech firms. Most top executives live in town and many live downtown. They can afford the high prices.

Likewise, many of their twentysomething employees live here in tiny apartments or with roommates that make it affordable. It’s those in the middle who get married, have kids and need more space that get squeezed out and are forced to commute from further and further away.

Fixing the housing crunch is a priority for the City Council and staff this year. While I applaud the effort, I doubt if they will make much progress.

Most people in their 30s and 40s with young kids want a house with a yard. The days of building those in any “affordable” way in Boulder are long gone.

Which brings us to the third problem. All those employees who move out of town for an affordable house have to get back to Boulder every day to work.

In a brilliant move many years ago, the city created a downtown EcoPass program that is now a national model of success. Parking revenues are used to provide free EcoPasses to all full time employees in the downtown district.

This program along with our outstanding bike network has resulted in more than 60 percent of downtown employees commuting without their cars at least part of the time.

This is great news and helps with Boulder’s sustainability and climate action goals. However, many employees live in areas that are not well served by transit and they cannot jump on a bus or a bike to get to work.

They have to drive and we should not punish them by making it impossible to park. Discouraging or even prohibiting adequate parking as new projects are built will eventually backfire and force jobs and economic vitality out of Boulder.

These jobs will not disappear. They will just move further away, which will result in more people driving even further. That is an outcome which benefits no one.

The shortage of office space, housing and parking will always be with us and we will never totally solve them. In fact, all three are related to the huge appeal of Boulder as a place to live and to work.

So welcome Twitter. I hope you find some room to grow and at least a few places to park!


Sean Maher is executive director of the Downtown Boulder Business Improvement District and Downtown Boulder Inc. The views expressed here are his own and not representative of either organization.

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