Shut Up and Deal

CU's secret plan to expand has Boulder in an uproar-- and city officials eager to condemn.

City and county officials are openly skeptical of the university's claims. They suggest that the university rushed into the Gateway agreement with an almost imperial sense of arrogance--that the proposed purchase is little more than a well-orchestrated land grab dressed up as part of a long-range acquisition plan that didn't exist until CU was deep into the deal. "That land was nowhere in their master plan," insists Boulder City Council member Spense Havlick. "The university has made no effort to plan for growth on that parcel."

Havlick and other critics of the deal have raised a number of thorny questions about the transaction, ranging from floodplain issues and other environmental concerns to the impact the sale would have on neighboring communities and the rest of Boulder. They have challenged the appraisal that was done last spring, which valued the land at $16.4 million--allowing the sellers a potential tax writeoff of more than $5 million for letting CU buy the Gateway at a bargain price--and have charged that even the $11 million price is vastly inflated. And they have expressed outrage at CU's eagerness to pursue the deal behind closed doors, in defiance of the city's open-space program and stiffening antigrowth sentiment in Boulder.

"I think it's indicative of CU's rather cavalier attitude toward local government," says Boulder County commissioner Paul Danish. "Boulder is beginning to approach final buildout, and the day is past when the city and the university can act as though the other doesn't exist."

The city has tangled with CU over land-use issues before, but the "town-and-gown" relationship has never been more strained. A final vote of the regents on the purchase is expected within a few weeks, after the university completes its own due-diligence investigation of the property. The proposal has already produced testy words in city council meetings, with some members threatening to condemn the property and acquire it as open space to prevent CU from developing it. "I think there's probably enough votes on the council to do it," says councilmember Allyn Feinberg.

Havlick, who's on the faculty at CU, says the money could be better spent on improving facilities on the present campus. "The regents have a fiduciary responsibility not to invest in bad deals," he says. "They're not going to bully the city into giving them the farm."

CU officials did not return repeated calls from Westword seeking comment on the Gateway furor, but in other public statements, they've suggested a willingness to work with the city toward an amicable arrangement--provided the city backs off its stringent low-growth stance. And opposition to the project is by no means universal in Boulder; for example, Mayor Leslie Durgin and other prominent local supporters of the Women of the West Museum, which would retain its ground lease under the CU purchase, have found themselves caught in the middle of the dispute.

"They did a great job of lining up all these big players to counter the opposition they knew they were going to get," says Blackmore. "How do you fight this giant?"

While officials feud and fume, gearing up for an expected showdown that would pit CU's sovereign powers as a state institution against the city's right to protect itself from unwanted development, Blackmore and her neighbors have taken a different tack. They've spent long hours uncovering the university's game plan for the Gateway and bringing its more unsavory aspects to light. It's their fervent hope to sink the purchase under the weight of its own secrecy and expose the deal for what it is: a bid for empire at the expense of a few pesky neighbors.

Last spring, as CU's proposal to buy the Gateway was being presented to the legislature's Joint Budget Committee, members of Neighbors for a Livable Boulder decided to request a copy of the appraisal of the property. CU President John Buechner invited them to visit the campus and ask for a copy--little realizing what would come of it.

One member of Blackmore's group presented herself at the university the next day, only to be told she would have to file an open-records request. She decided if she was going to jump through hoops, she might as well ask for every document connected with CU's interest in the property.

"That's how it started," Blackmore recalls. "The funny thing is, we only wanted one piece of paper. We probably never would have dreamed of asking for more. But because they were so arrogant about handing over this appraisal, we just decided to ask for everything they've got."

The group soon learned that CU had over 1,100 pages of material relating to the Gateway purchase--and wanted $1.25 a page to make copies. Undaunted, Blackmore bought a portable copier and took it to the campus to make her own copies. Over the next few weeks, she and other volunteers painstakingly assembled a paper trail of handwritten notes, confidential memoranda and other internal CU documents laying bare the anatomy of the deal. Publicly, CU officials weren't saying much about the purchase, but the documents spoke for themselves:

Item: CU had been offered the property once before, in 1992, when the owners were touting it as "clearly the premier undeveloped site in Boulder." The university had rejected the deal as too expensive and fraught with unknowns, such as how much of the land would have to be devoted to open space in order to obtain city annexation approval. Although the asking price at that time was around $8 million, with certain rights reserved, one proposed financing arrangement would have required lease payments over thirty years totaling more than $21 million.

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