by Victoria McKennan and Carlos Hernandez, AICP, Denver, CO
Like many small, rural communities in the West, Niwot, CO is an unincorporated community without a local government. Upon recognizing a need to improve transportation, Niwot was faced with the challenge of how to plan, fund, and implement capital improvement projects without the capital available to municipalities. The community employed innovative planning strategies to obtain funding, resolve conflicting visions and build consensus for multi-modal transportation improvements.
Approximately 4,000 residents call Niwot, Colorado home. Niwot has a “Vintage Colorado” character that is distinct from its big sister, the City of Boulder, five miles to the south. The epicenter of the community is the Old Town Niwot business district, which includes a historic downtown and a shopping center built in the 1960s. The Old Town has an eclectic mix of local restaurants, shops, a thriving mix of local cuisine and one of the few animal feed shops in Boulder County. Over the last decade, a dedicated group of residents and business owners have worked toward the preservation and economic development of the district. However, the Niwot Business District relies on Boulder County for their policy framework, planning, and public infrastructure investments.
Mobility that supports economic development
For over two decades, the Niwot Business Improvement District has successfully encouraged new business and promoted their summer concert events. The success of their previous efforts has created a buzz and the Niwot Business Improvement District recognized that with success, come new challenges. In response, the business community and Boulder County formed the Niwot Local Improvement District (L.I.D.) to fund improvements. The L.I.D. established district boundaries and uses a percentage of sales taxes within the boundary to fund promotional materials and capital improvements. Since the creation of the district in 1993, the L.I.D. primarily used the sales tax proceeds to fund their summer events and district promotions. The success of those efforts resulted in increases in parking demands, pedestrian activity, bicycle usage, and motor vehicle traffic. The business owners, residents, and Boulder County recognized the L.I.D. needed a unified vision to improve mobility if they were going to reach their economic development goals.
Create a Transportation & Connectivity Plan
Boulder County staff, Niwot residents, and Old Town business owners embarked on a nine-month planning process to prepare the Niwot Transportation and Connectivity Plan (Plan). The goal of the Plan was to develop recommendations and preliminary designs to improve local and regional mobility to and between Niwot’s businesses, amenities, attractions, and neighborhoods.
The planning process was coordinated by the Boulder County Transportation Engineering department and their consultants. This team prepared a comprehensive parking study, evaluated motor vehicle speeds along a central corridor (Niwot Road), and assessed pedestrian connectivity and neighborhood trail access to commercial areas. This effort resulted in short-term actions and longer-term goals for improving mobility in Niwot. The foundation of this effort was a series of interactive public engagement strategies designed to move from conflicting visions for multi-modal infrastructure enhancements to consensus.
The public engagement process provided multiple avenues for Niwot community members to voice their priorities, even without physically attending meetings. Low-tech, high-touch hand drawings over photographs clearly communicated both the existing conditions around the community and over 25 possible multi-modal improvements. These drawings were used throughout the project to convey ideas emphasizing the visioning process over design details. Because community members responded to hand sketches rather than final recommendations, the community understood that projects could easily change based on their feedback.
A project website displayed the drawings to solicit community-wide preferences through an online survey and an open comment page. The drawings were also displayed on boards during a community workshop. The boards featured implementation meters that categorized improvements into “quick and easy,” “somewhat complex,” and “more complex” projects. Each attendee was given a set of three dot stickers to indicate their preferred project. Keypad polling, a wireless polling technology, was used during stakeholder meetings to enable all attendees to respond to focused questions and provide feedback anonymously with equal weight. The project team also went “door to door” to visit with and solicit input from business owners in the L.I.D. In total, over 272 comments were collected over the span of five months- no small feat for a town of 4,000. Comments were not only collected; they were synthesized into a “Comprehensive Input Matrix” that ranked the projects to determine the community’s top three priority projects. Priority projects included realigning two key intersections connecting Old Town to Niwot Road, as well as improving sidewalk connections and pedestrian crossings.
Another key element of the project was building consensus between the Niwot business community, Boulder County, and downtown residents about the myths and perceptions of parking in the historic core. Even though the utilization study revealed that occupancy of existing spaces reached a maximum of 60 percent during peak hours (on non-event days), code requirements indicated a shortage of approximately 138 spaces. Many stakeholders felt that parking utilization would increase if vacant buildings in Old Town were fully occupied, causing visitors to park in adjacent neighborhoods. While stakeholders initially had divided opinions, they reached consensus to amend parking requirements to accommodate existing conditions and provide flexibility to support economic goals.
The Niwot Transportation and Connectivity Plan illustrates how building consensus through a variety of public engagement strategies can move goals and priorities forward into actual community improvements. With support from Boulder County, conceptual designs are underway for the top three projects, including pedestrian infrastructure improvements planned for construction next summer. Moreover, the Boulder County Land Use department initiated a code change for parking requirements in Old Town Niwot, including “triggers-based” parking solutions designed to adjust parking requirements and rates based on actual utilization warrants.
Like Niwot, rural communities across the West are faced with the unique challenge of retaining their identity while necessarily collaborating with their broader county to fund and implement transportation projects. In Niwot’s case, recognizing the controversy from the outset of the planning process allowed the project team to design an iterative engagement process creating dialogue between stakeholders, community members and county staff throughout the project. In the end, the flexible, cost-effective strategies prepared for this project will enhance multi-modal accessibility while preserving Niwot’s historic character. To learn more, visit www.niwotmoves.com.
Victoria McKennan is a transportation planner with Fehr & Peers, a multi-modal transportation consulting firm in Denver, CO. Carlos Hernandez, AICP, has over a decade of experience working with communities to develop trail systems in rural, suburban, and urban settings.
Published in the October/November 2012 The Western Planner