Tim Woodward: Think Downtown Boise is bad today? In 1988, it was a war zone.

February 2, 2014 

Those who grump about Downtown Boise — traffic, difficulty parking, shops that have closed — either weren’t here or have forgotten what it was like a generation ago. A video circulating on the Internet of Downtown in 1988 shows how far we’ve come.

It also shows the rare opportunity Boise had to build a new Downtown at a time when the old one had pretty much been reduced to memories.

The video was shot at a turning point in the city’s history. A newly elected city administration had abandoned the decades-long urban renewal effort to build a Downtown regional shopping mall. The voters had had their fill of watching historic buildings demolished to build what at one point resembled nothing so much as a giant quonset hut.

Check out the video (Google “Boise downtown summer 1988”) and you’ll see early indications of what was then Downtown’s new direction. The First Interstate building, now the Wells Fargo building, was almost finished. The “Keepsies” sculpture was newly installed on what would become The Grove. Apart from that, Downtown was a mess.

The footage evokes images of cities wracked by wars or terrorist bombings. (A Chicago newspaper story called Boise “the city that tried to tear itself down.”) I’d forgotten how bad it was — rubble, ruins, barricades, detour signs, orange traffic barrels — streets that looked like bomb craters.

Those of us who were here then didn’t fully appreciate it because we were so used to them, but even some of the buildings spared by urban renewal were monumentally ugly. The former Bank of Idaho building at Capitol Boulevard and Idaho, for example. It has mercifully had a facelift or two since then, but in 1988 it was a red-brick monstrosity that Harper’s magazine likened to “a stack of giant toaster ovens.” We were the butt of a lot of jokes in those days.

The Grove seen in the video is a parking lot/construction zone, with The Grove Hotel yet to be started and the Boise Centre on The Grove a hole in the ground. Downtown’s bus transfer point was a wooden boardwalk with a glass enclosure that looked like a strong wind would blow it away and … a Porta Potty.

Urban renewal had leveled much of the old Downtown — which in its own way was quite a lively place. With Sears, just west of Downtown proper, it had six department stores — one more than Boise Towne Square mall. It had four movie theaters, hotels, a grocery store, drug stores, specialty shops and wonderful restaurants. Some — Vic’s Cafe, the Royal, Murray’s, Louie’s Golden Dragon, the Empire Room — are wistfully remembered to this day.

Then, the wrecking ball. One building after another fell during the 1970s and ’80s. The loss of the Pinney Theater still rankles. It was beautiful in a way only grand old theaters can be. Think Egyptian Theatre without the Egyptians. (Speaking of which, the Egyptian came within a hieroglyphic of being torn down.) The site of the Pinney, razed with such urgency, remains a parking lot some 40 years later.

Our new Downtown has some great attractions of its own. But newcomers who shop, dine and play there have little or no idea of the frustration and heartache it took for it to happen.

As the Statesman’s local government reporter for several years, I attended weekly meetings of the redevelopment agency, aka exercises in desperation. Each week the agency’s brain trust met to approve expenses, plan the demolition and — above all — woo department stores.

The mall dream was wholly dependent on luring department stores to the quonset hut. No department stores, no mall.

Two memories stand out from that time. One is that of the agency’s executive director’s suicide. He was the most nervous man I’ve ever known. I often wondered whether he was naturally that way or the pressures of chasing an impossible dream made him that way. Either way, he was found on his patio with a shotgun and a hole in his chest.

The other memory is of a former mayor who, upon learning that yet another department store had spurned the city’s dream, accused it of “leading us down the primrose lane.” The hard truth was that the stores didn’t want to come Downtown, and who could blame them? Suburban malls were the wave of the future, and Downtown Boise looked like a war zone.

But you have to wonder about the opportunities that might have been missed in 1988. What would have happened if even one of the stores had taken a chance? Perhaps others, if they’d had a vision of what Boise is now, would have followed. Imagine what Downtown would be like with the addition of some really nice department stores. An already vibrant Downtown would be even better.

That, of course, is another impossible dream. We can’t go back and wouldn’t want to. As the trip back in time shows, we’ve come an awfully long way.

© 2014 Idaho Statesman

Tim’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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