Wanted: Walkable communities in Boise

Change in housing preferences could spur creative development

zkyle@idahostatesman.comJune 25, 2013 

Pedestrians and cyclists arrive at the Sunday market at Bown Crossing. City planners tout Bown as a walkable community because of its combination of single- and multifamily housing and easy access to retail and recreation. “I’d like to see another handful of (walkable communities) in Boise in the next five or 10 years,” City Councilwoman Elaine Clegg said. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but because we already have (several), it starts to complete the fabric across the city.”

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com

  • WWII started trend away from walkability

    In many ways, walkable communities are a rebirth of the way cities looked before the 1940s, said Randy Carpenter, director of the Sonoran Institute's Northern Rockies program.

    Neighborhoods were more intimate before the war, with smaller houses built closer to streets, Carpenter said. They featured many of the traits common in walkable communities, including:

    • smaller lots and more housing units per block;

    • tighter, more gridlike city layouts;

    • walking and biking access to schools, parks, restaurants and retail;

    • distinctive architecture;

    • and alley parking.

    Suburban sprawl started after the war, Carpenter said. Homeowners demanded privacy and space, and developers obliged with subdivisions and cul-de-sacs located farther away from activity centers, requiring auto transportation.

    Common traits of that new development included:

    • larger lots and homes spaced farther from the street;

    • garages built at the front of homes;

    • similar or uniform architecture within neighborhoods;

    • and increased commute times to work and school.

Sundays like June 16 were the reason Bob and Nancy Pleasure moved from San Jose, Calif., to Boise in 2011.

The husband, 61, and wife, 56, hopped on their bikes and rode about a mile and a half from their Harris Ranch house to the East End Market at Bown Crossing. They bought a bag of fresh greens, which Nancy Pleasure placed in her cruiser's handlebar basket. They sat in the shady grass near Powell's Sweet Shoppe, listening to a guitarist picking on the sidewalk.

"We try not to drive the car," Bob Pleasure said. "I ride my bike to work every day. We gave up a larger lot (to move here) for quality of life issues: walking, hiking, trying to stay healthy."

The active lifestyle is part of Boise's makeup, and according to one study, it could become a bigger factor in the city's development and housing markets.

Bown Crossing and the Mill District in Harris Ranch are walkable communities, a buzz phrase on the lips of city planners striving for efficiency and real estate professionals eyeing an emerging market.

And it's a profitable market, according to a recent study from the Sonoran Institute, which studies development, housing and policy in the western United States.

The study analyzed housing data and survey results in Boise and five other Intermountain West communities: Teton Valley in Idaho, Carbondale, Eagle and Buena Vista in Colorado, and Bozeman, Mont.

Survey respondents in the six cities said that they'd pay 12.5 percent more to live in a neighborhood where they could walk to everyday activity centers such as schools, parks, restaurants, trails and shops.

Boise had the smallest percentage of walkable communities in the study, yet Boiseans are willing to pay the most for accessibility. The study tracked more than 40,000 home sales spanning 10 years in Boise and identified as walkable Bown Crossing, Warm Springs, Downtown/North End and Hidden Springs, which lies northwest of the city limits. Homes sold in those neighborhoods fetched prices 45 percent higher on average than homes in the rest of the city.

TRADES PEOPLE MAKE

Researchers calculated the difference by entering sales data into mapping software, then crunching the numbers per square foot.

The premium on homes in the city's walkable neighborhoods suggests that Boise's housing market isn't providing buyers enough options, said Randy Carpenter, director of the Sonoran Institute's Northern Rockies program.

"What we find is, people are willing to trade off the size of their lot or the size of their home in order to live in a walkable neighborhood," Carpenter said.

For the past decade and in its 2012 comprehensive plan, the city of Boise has tried to promote the compact development style that flourished before World War II, Boise Councilwoman Elaine Clegg said.

Clegg is the program coordinator for Idaho Smart Growth, a nonprofit organization that studies sustainable development, including walkable communities.

Clegg pointed to two areas in Boise that were built nearly a century apart as successful, walkable neighborhoods: Bown Crossing and Hyde Park.

BOWN AND HYDE

Developed in the 2000s leading up to the Great Recession, Bown Crossing is cited by Clegg as the city's jewel for modern development and noted as a model for walkable communities by Carpenter.

Hyde Park is similar to Bown Crossing in many ways, despite being built in the early 1900s.

Both have a mix of single-family and multifamily residences located near recreation and retail opportunities. Retail parking lots are tucked behind stores or on side streets, bringing storefronts up to the sidewalk and creating a more welcoming environment for pedestrians, Clegg said.

"One was built at a time when we made things accessible because cars weren't ubiquitous, and one was built after we realized we need to do that again," Clegg said.

Developers see opportunities to turn the growing demand for housing in walkable communities into dollars, said Bryant Forrester, who researches housing trends for Homeland Realty in Boise. His office sells Downtown condos and other multifamily projects common in walkable neighborhoods.

SWAYING THE BANKS

The best-case scenario for creating a walkable Downtown, Forrester said, is multiuse blocks with underground parking, commercial storefronts on the street level and condominiums above. But it's tougher to get zoning and financing approved for mixed-use projects, Forrester said.

"Studies are starting to sway the banks (to finance projects)," he said. "Cities are starting to look at more form-base zoning as opposed to archaic zoning maps that say, 'All single family homes go here, and all commercial buildings go here.' Instead, it's, 'What's the best fit for this block?' "

Forrester said his research indicates that buyers will pay more to live in walkable communities, though not as much as the 45 percent premiums reported in the study.

Forrester agrees with the study that baby boomers and young homebuyers want options outside of suburbia.

"We will definitely see more of this," he said. "Greenfield (previously undeveloped property) development is stretching resources. The taxpayer has to pay quite a bit more for fire, police and highways.

"These two generations would much rather be in a more cultural and efficient, walkable community. We will see a reinvestment in existing walkable communities that may not have the newer housing stock that these buyers are looking for."

Zach Kyle: 377-6464

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