The rendering shows one of the three buildings at the proposed Pearl Place development in Boulder where Google intends to expand. (Courtesy Google)

Boulder Google campus gains conditional planning board approval

BOULDER – The city of Boulder planning board in the early hours of Friday morning approved, with conditions, the proposed Google campus at the corner of 30th and Pearl Streets.

But the deal didn’t come without plenty of negotiations and concessions from both developers and the planning board.

In fact, a little over five hours into the meeting, which began at 5 p.m. Thursday, it appeared that demands from planning board to reduce two of the three buildings at the site from four stories to three might squash the project altogether and leave Google hunting for a new site to combine its Boulder operations, which are spread across three locations now. The best-case scenario for the Silicon Valley-based tech company and developers at that point seemed to be a continuance that would have given them more time to tweak their design.

But an hour-long break in the meeting to allow Google officials and developers to discuss their options yielded enough tweaks to the design that they were able to gain the planning board’s approval. The board voted 5-1 in favor, finally adjourning the meeting at 12:25 a.m. Board member Liz Payton was the lone dissenting vote, while John Putnam recused himself from the discussions due to a personal connection to a business operating at the site now.

“We always expect long involved discussions at planning board,” Collin Kemberlin, an architect with Denver-based Tryba Architects, said after the meeting. “A lot of good issues are always brought up. The tenor of the conversation was up and down and then up. And you just want to make sure when you get through it you’ve satisfied what they’re looking for and you get that approval. An approval with conditions is a win.”

Developers’ plan for the 4.3-acre site that wraps around the Chase Bank at the southwest corner of 30th and Pearl had included replacing the various commercial buildings there now with three 110,000-square-foot, four-story, 55-foot-tall office buildings where Google could over the period of the next few years grow from 300 employees in Boulder to up to 1,500.

Planning board gave its approval with five conditions:

–That the final plan be revised to include a 65-foot setback of the fourth story for the building facing Pearl Street as well as a 30-foot setback of the fourth story for the building facing 30th Street.

–That a multiuse path on the west side of the development be extended all the way north to Pearl Street.

–That the project’s Transportation Demand Management plan be put in place for seven years instead of three.

–That some sort of additional pedestrian interest be added to the ground floors of the buildings along 30th and Pearl streets, such as retail shops or art.

–And that Google be required to provide financial incentives to all employees to not drive to work.

“I feel like we’ve arrived at a compromise,” board chair Aaron Brockett said in making the motion to approve with conditions. “I feel like a lot of ground has been given on all sides.”

While planning board members universally expressed pleasure at the multiuse path cutting through the site and the amount of open space, they did voice several concerns throughout the night, ranging from the lack of retail space to whether the open space was open enough to the public. But the two issues that some members of planning board didn’t seem willing to budge on, despite city planning staff recommending approval of the project as proposed, were building height and parking and traffic impact.

At one point it appeared that four members of the board were willing to grant approval only if the buildings along 30th and Pearl streets were reduced to three stories.

But Kevin Foltz, managing director of developer Forum Real Estate Group, said that would be a deal-breaker.

“It’s in contradiction to our lease with our tenant,” Foltz told the board. “At this point that’s probably at least a 15 percent overall reduction if not more.”

Both developers and Google officials noted that anything over a 10-percent reduction in the floor area would be too much to satisfy Google’s needs. The setbacks agreed to for the fourth floors of two buildings ultimately reduced the floor area by slightly less than that.

Board member Crystal Gray, who pushed for height reductions along with Payton, John Gerstle and Leonard May, at a couple of points advocated for two-story facades facing the streets, with third and fourth stories on those buildings set back substantially. Gray worried that if all buildings in the area gained approval for 55 feet in height that they’d all “start looking suburban in their own ways.”

But both Brocket and Bryan Bowen, who were generally supportive of the project, said reducing the height of the buildings and thus reducing density at the site went against what had been master-planned for an area that sits on the edge of Boulder Junction – a large transit-oriented area envisioned by city leaders as a dense mix of uses ranging from housing to office and retail.

“I think we’re missing the point of a more intense urban environment,” Bowen said of reducing the height of the buildings.

Both Gerstle and Payton led the charge on parking, arguing that the 620 parking spaces proposed were too many and advocating for Google to charge employees to park there to encourage alternative modes of transportation.

“There should be almost no additional traffic from this development because it’s so close to the transit village,” Payton suggested.

But Brockett noted that 620 parking spots for a campus expected to house 1,500 workers someday would be enough of a limiting factor in itself to encourage alternative transportation. And developers argued that charging employees for parking would only drive them to park in the free lots at nearby businesses, causing other issues.

In the end, the agreement was made for the condition of the financial incentives for employees who don’t drive to work.

The absence of first-floor retail along the streets caused plenty of concern for board members, though they acknowledged that they couldn’t require such a use on the site. Developers said they’d considered retail at the site but that it would have added even more complications with parking and traffic.

Still, Gray implored developers and Google at the end of the meeting to revisit the idea of adding retail even if planning board couldn’t require it.

“I still feel that Google, as creative as you are, might be able to come up with some creative response to that,” Gray said.

One concern developers and Google had with a potential continuance of the site review was that it would delay the project to the point that Google’s rapid growth would need somewhere to go before the buildings were ready. The company is already planning to add a fourth location in Boulder as a temporary expansion while the 30th and Pearl campus is built out.

“Basically with this approval with conditions we’re on track,” said Scott Green, Google’s Boulder site director.

Now that the project has planning board approval, city council has a 30-day window in which it can call the project up for review. Otherwise, it’s on to working on construction and technical documents.

Kemberlin said he hopes to start pulling permits in about four months and breaking ground by mid-summer of next year on the first phase of the project, which includes the building along 30th Street and the building on the inner portion of the site, which will remain four stories. The building along Pearl Street will be built as a second phase.