Maximum Height for Buildings?


By Dom Nozzi

October 14, 2014
I continue to believe that five stories generally makes sense as a maximum height for a smaller city such as Boulder Colorado. I wouldn’t be rigidly opposed to taller buildings, but I think taller buildings in Boulder should be extremely rare (and probably clad in brick or stone to reduce the jarring nature of a relatively tall building).

Besides the human scale that is lost when a building gets taller than five stories, there are other important concerns I have. Speaking from experience (and particularly in a city such as Boulder where transit service is good but not great, as it is in many big cities), when a building has a lot of stories, it is very likely that there will be an enormous amount of financial, political, and employee/resident pressure to serve that building with massive surface parking lots, monstrous (and monstrously expensive) parking garages (and underground parking). There will, in other words, be huge expenses associated with storing the huge number of cars, and the taller building will therefore be drawing a rather large number of cars — which is generally not good for a relatively small city or a place that seeks to be walkable. Relatively tall buildings can generally avoid this problem if served by very frequent bus or rail transit. In addition, that huge influx of cars can put a LOT of pressure on local and state government to add a lot of toxic, ruinous roadway capacity to the existing street system in order to serve that influx of cars — not at all good for a small city wanting to be walkable.

Monster roads and monster parking is deadly to efforts to create walkability.

It is probably true that a given city can only expect to support “X” number of jobs or housing or retail space. I think it is much preferable for a city that wishes to be walkable, vibrant and interesting to have, say, 50 buildings that are five stories tall than to have 25 buildings that are 10 stories tall.

Aesthetics (including properly proportioned windows) are extremely important in this discussion. We’ve given density a very black eye by allowing aesthetic atrocities when density is attempted in the US.

The Boulderado hotel in Boulder is a great example to point to when folks express screaming agony over density and large buildings. We need to put buildings like the Hotel_Boulderado1-T1Boulderado into a pattern book…

Excessive focus on size/height distracts us from the important, necessary discussion we need to have about design and details. This reminds me of a similar issue: Too many in Boulder are convinced that putting a cap on the number of people in Boulder is the be-all-and-end-all of protecting quality of life. Too many think that such a cap is all we need to create or protect the lovability of Boulder.


I very much like the idea of making structured parking more common, and agree with how taller buildings can do that. Taller buildings create needed concentrations for transit nodes.

I love the idea known as “inclusionary upzoning,” which makes affordable housing more economically, legally, and politically feasible.

For walkability, I want to see as many buildings as possible (which taller buildings might work against). I want to see surface parking prohibited in places intended to be walkable. I want to see lenders stop demanding excessive amounts of parking for taller buildings before they agree to lend money. I want to see the price of structured parking unbundled from residential units. I want to see building setbacks minimized and “open space” or landscaping requirements relaxed substantially in places intended to be walkable. I want to see minimum parking regulations converted to maximum parking regulations. I want a requirement that parking be priced. I want to see a form-based code. And I want to see Floor Area Ratio limits raised substantially.

Oh, and I also want to enact a moratorium on street/intersection size, and a cap on the total amount of parking in various districts.

Then we can talk about taller buildings…

Many in Boulder claim that the City engages in “punishing” drivers. By contrast, I’ve been shocked by how PAMPERED drivers are in Boulder. And by how many “environmentalists” in Boulder are supportive of such pampering. Many greens here wrongly think that free-flowing traffic and the oversized roads and intersections that result from that) reduces air emissions and fuel consumption. It is actually the other way around. They forget about induced demand and low-value trips. By joining with the sprawl lobby in Boulder, they have created a very car-happy community.

Drivers in Brooklyn or Amsterdam are maybe “punished.” But not in Boulder.

If anyone is “punished” in Boulder, it is pedestrians and cyclists. Certainly there is a fair amount of lip service paid to pampering pedestrians and cyclists, and “punishing” drivers, but the reality is light years from that.


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