BOULDER — The fate of a proposed four-story, mixed-use building in downtown Boulder's densest business district remains unresolved.

Following a spirited Jan. 24 debate over the project's merits and shortcomings at the public hearing and concept plan review in front of the Boulder Planning Board, the project's legal path to progress remains murky.

The project, called Colorado Building West, was submitted by W.W. Reynolds Cos.' partner Jeff Wingert under the auspices of the entity Aplaza LLC. The preliminary concept package filed with the planning department calls for a 55,400-square-foot office building fronting 13th and Walnut streets. The proposal, with architectural renderings by Denver-based Shears Adkins + Rockmore architects, includes integrated ground-floor retail space, below grade parking and a surface parking lot.

The developers are proposing to create interior connections between a new building and the 50-year-old Colorado Building located at 1919 14th St. in downtown Boulder by eliminating the surface parking lot between the Colorado Building and historic properties on nearby 13th Street.

Here's where it gets tricky. Although the proposed project is located in the densest zoning district in Boulder, Downtown Five (DT-5), the city's zoning rules still apply. Their maximum allowable floor area ratio, or FAR — defined as the ratio of the floor area of a building to the area of the lot on which the building occupies — is 2.7. The eight-story, 74,000-square-foot Colorado Building, already at its FAR capacity, creates a mathematical incongruity that disrupts the zoning rules of the district.

"It's a little bit complicated," admitted senior planner Elaine McLaughlin with the city of Boulder. "The applicant would like to subdivide the property so that the Colorado Building sits on its own property and remains an existing anomaly. But, if they subdivide it so it doesn't impact the floor area of the remainder of the site, the Colorado Building then creates a much higher intensity than allowed by code."

The only option open to the developers would be to apply for a special ordinance to be passed by the Boulder City Council to allow the Colorado Building to exceed those rules. While it is an infrequently used solution, it's not unheard of, McLaughlin said.

"Typically, when we permit ordinances like this, it's usually quite an unusual circumstance," she said. "In this case, the Colorado Building is very different from its neighbors as a high-rise anomaly in downtown Boulder."

Yet another obstacle emerged during the planning staff's analysis of the project. The 1300 block of Walnut is comprised of six lots. Two are occupied by the Colorado Building, three are considered developable, and the final lot — right in the middle of the development — is not classified as developable at this time.

"If the ordinance didn't address this other anomaly, it would create a sliver of land in the middle of the project that could not be developed," McLaughlin said.

A handful of nearby property owners attended the public hearing to voice their dissent. Scott Sarbaugh, a partner in the Cartwright Building at 1320 Pearl St., submitted a letter of objection and stated his opposition to the Colorado Building West project.

"We believe it is an illegal subdivision," Sarbaugh told the planning board. "We think there is too much massing on the site. We think it creates a greater degree of nonconformity. More importantly, we had investment-backed expectations when we bought our land in 1987, for which we relied on the Boulder land code."

Although Boulder native and local landlord Adria Colver is in support of the project, she expressed her concerns for her tenants and the lack of open space involved in the project.

"It's a very well-done, beautifully done project, but because of the placement along the alley, it will not give us breathing room," she told the planning board. "Not much has been said about the people who live across that alley. We will lose our breathing room. We will lose our sunshine. We will lose a lot."

McLaughlin said that the tradeoff for the implementation of a special ordinance generally comes down to the question of community benefit. To that end, the applicant for the Colorado Building West project has proposed a host of modifications and concessions to allow the project to move forward.

First, the applicant agrees to landmark the Colorado Building, ensuring that future renovation and alterations are reviewed and approved by the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board. The concept paper also indicates an agreement to "landmark, rehabilitate, and adaptively reuse the small historic structure located on the property facing the alley." That would be the Carriage House, a building that is more than a century old and located behind Conor O'Neill's Irish Pub.

Aplaza LLC also proposes to create an outdoor courtyard plaza between the new Colorado Building West and the space directly behind Conor O'Neill's. Finally, the partnership agreed to consider donating a portion of the below-grade parking to the Central Area General Improvement District, Boulder's parking authority.

The parking lot proposed to be razed is considered by city officials to be an "underutilized site." The desire for streetside retail as well as the high demand for Class A office space downtown are likely to be factors in the city's decision-making process. The new project also could create a bridge between pedestrian-friendly zones such as the Pearl Street Mall and Central Park, much like the successful One Boulder Plaza development nearby.

"The planning board's input was that they would consider supporting a special ordinance in order to redevelop that site," McLaughlin said. "The trade-off has to be some demonstration of community benefit. I think the planning board is simply setting the bar high to say that if we are going to have this fairly uncommon process of passing a special ordinance that the expectation is set pretty high in terms of community benefit."

The concept plan review has been on the planning board's agenda since September, but was delayed several times at the applicant's request. The applicant, Wingert, declined to comment on the project. In an email reply, Wingert wrote, "Given the planning board response, we are determining our next steps and not ready to discuss the project at this time."