The rusted rebar and the trees growing through it are gone. Soon, hopefully, the curse of Billy Fong will be, too.
As civic and business leaders gathered Thursday around the pit at 8th and Main streets in Downtown Boise, that was on the mind of Tommy Ahlquist, chief operating officer in Meridian of developer Gardner Co. Ahlquists company is developing a $76 million, 18-story office and retail tower at the site.
Once the land was blessed. In 1864, the Overland Hotel was built at the corner. It was one of the most famous stops on the Oregon Trail, Ahlquist said.
In 1905, the hotel was replaced by the grand Eastman office building, designed by Boise architects John E. Tourtellotte and Charles Hummel. The building was crowned with 100 stone lion heads on a terra cotta cornice. It became the most fashionable business space in town.
But fashions change. By the late 1960s, Downtown Boise had lost its luster. People wanted a mall. City leaders thought: What a way that would be to bring Downtown back.
In 1972, the Boise Redevelopment Agency bought the Eastman with plans to tear it down. The demolition proved controversial. A lawsuit stopped it. The Eastman sat vacant for 15 years.
Something else happened in 1972: Billy Fong, the last resident of Downtown Boises Chinese community, was evicted from his home. The old Chinese buildings were razed. Fongs home was cleared to make room for a hotel.
Before Fong left town, he cursed the site. One hotel deal after another fell through before the Grove Hotel finally went up.
It was as if the soil had been sown with arsenic, wrote Statesman columnist Tim Woodward in 1997.
Some say that same curse consumed the Eastman building. In 1987, it burned. The lion heads crashed to the ground in the spectacular and suspicious blaze. The gutted building was condemned and knocked down.
More years passed. The once-prime location in the heart of Downtown sat empty.
Todd Shallat, director of the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University, says two other curses plagued the site, too.
One was simply the prominence of its location. The Eastman site was surrounded by other imposing buildings with lots of foot traffic, shops, restaurants and offices. That meant that not just any office building would do.
But the bigger curse was megalomania. Shallat says developers came in with grandiose ideas that were far beyond their reach and the needs of the community.
In 2001, developer Rick Peterson broke ground on the 25-story Boise Tower. It was to be Boises tallest building, surpassing the 20-story U.S. Bank Plaza one block east and across Main Street. Construction workers excavated the site and began installing a foundation.
The property went through a slew of legal and financial battles including a new owner, who proposed a 31-story building called Boise Place and a couple of bankruptcies. The unfinished foundation was hidden behind temporary wooden walls decorated with drawings, but everyone knew it was there.
The site was sold at a foreclosure auction in 2009. In July 2011, it sold again. Gardner Co. announced it had signed a contract to buy it. Ahlquist said he didnt want to repeat the mistakes of the previous developers and expected to build a small to midsize building. In September, Zions Bank and Gardner announced plans for a 15-story mixed-use tower.
Thank you for believing in us and not laughing me out of your office the first time I said, I think were going to fill this hole, Ahlquist said to Zions Bank officials at the groundbreaking.
Shallat doesnt believe Zions and Gardner will suffer the same fate as their predecessors.
Theres something different about this project, he said.
He said the key is Zions Bank and its origins as Utahs first bank, founded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church got out of the banking business in 1960, but its practical and methodical traditions persist in the institution today, Shallat said.
Zions is the third-largest bank in Idaho based on deposits and No. 1 lender of U.S. Small Business Administration loans. It entered the Idaho market when it bought 13 branches in the Boise area. The Eighth & Main building will become Zions Idaho headquarters.
They know how to do this, Shallat said.
But Ahlquist isnt taking any chances. As part of the groundbreaking, a Native American ceremony was performed to bring balance to the site.
Everything isnt inherently negative or positive, Mike Cutler, a member of the Lakota tribe and an assistant professor of counselor education at Boise State, told the 200 or so attendees. Everything has a balance of both. All we try to do is to balance things.
Cutler drummed and prayed. He asked that this portion of the ceremony not be photographed or videotaped, and local news media obliged. In the corner behind the crowds, a local Native American elder quietly burned herbs and tobacco and made tiny bundles tied with string to be left around the property.
I ask you humbly to take care of this place, Cutler said. Live with a good heart. Respect and take care of each other.
Sandra Forester: 377-6464, Twitter: @IDS_Sandra