Idaho cities oppose aesthetics bill

Some of Boise's most visible buildings would look much different under HB 480

sberg@idahostatesman.comMarch 3, 2014 

Trader Joe’s, which opened in Downtown Boise on Friday, wouldn’t have these awnings on its west side and its windows would be smaller and higher if the city of Boise’s design-review standards had been illegal, as proposed under House Bill 480. Cities across Idaho oppose the bill, which would stop cities from requiring structural changes to building plans for aesthetic reasons.


Eighth & Main would have a "little hat" instead of a spire that sparked a citywide discussion - and a little grumbling - about whether it looked like the top of a Mormon temple.

Jack's Urban Meeting Place, under construction between 9th, 11th, Front and Myrtle streets, would be more colorful. It might be finished by now.

Trader Joe's would have less window space and no awnings on its Capitol Boulevard side.

Plans for the state's parking garage on Washington Street just north of the Capitol might not have "vertical elements."

House Bill 480, sponsored by Republican Reps. Robert Anderst and Rick Youngblood, of Nampa, and Ed Morse, of Hayden, would stop cities from requiring "specific exterior design aesthetics or beautification beyond surface finishes" on buildings. The bill wouldn't affect city standards for color, surface materials, signs, lighting or landscaping. It also wouldn't pertain to designated historic districts, of which Boise has nine.

Its sponsors say the bill would remove an obstacle to economic growth. The House approved it Feb. 24 and sent it to the Senate's Local Government and Taxation Committee, which hadn't scheduled a hearing as of Friday afternoon.


Before gaining approval, the state's parking garage and JUMP went through several contentious sessions with Boise's Design Review Committee. The committee is a panel of architects and others who make recommendations on the appearance and structure of certain projects, mostly large and commercial buildings close to Downtown.

The City Council ultimately overruled the committee's denial of the parking garage design and followed a staff recommendation to require the garage to include "vertical elements" - narrow columns around the outside to make it look less like a garage.

The Simplot family and the Design Review Committee ultimately worked out a solution for JUMP, a museum with education, event and leisure space that's a tribute to Idaho agricultural giant J.R. Simplot. But four-and-a-half years passed from the time the family first met with city planners to the time the Design Review Committee gave JUMP its blessing.

Simplot spokesman David Cuoio wouldn't say how much money the Simplots spent on redesigning elements to meet the committee's demands - except that it was "significant." Cuoio wouldn't comment on whether the family believed the committee was realistic during design review.

The Gardner Co. had its own Design Review adventure while planning Eighth & Main, Idaho's tallest building that had its grand opening last month. In a November 2011 meeting, then-committee member Brian Garrett said he didn't like the look of a feature resembling the roof of a family home that Gardner's architect had proposed for the top.

"It is inconsequential and honestly a little silly looking," Garrett said. "It seems to me that it is a little hat sitting on top of a building that is out of scale and doesn't really add anything to it."

Gardner responded with a new design: a white, 57-foot spire. After people around Boise suggested the spire made Eighth & Main look like a Mormon building, the company changed the color of the spire and added fins like those below it on the building's southeast corner.

Tommy Ahlquist, Gardner's chief operating officer, said his experiences with Boise's design-review process have been positive.

"I think sometimes they can be a problem, so I can see why people criticize them," Ahlquist said of the review committees in general. "But I also understand why they're in place, and if they function well, then they're very good for cities and communities."


From Coeur d'Alene to Moscow to Boise to Ketchum, cities across Idaho are resisting House Bill 480. Their general argument is that the bill would strip local governments of their ability to shape their cities in a way that's best for the people who live there. City planning policies were subject to intense public scrutiny before becoming law, they say.

Sarah Schafer, Boise's design review and historic preservation manager, said the city's Design Review Committee might cease to exist if the bill becomes law.

Warren Wilson, Coeur d'Alene's deputy city attorney and interim planning director, gave an example of a developer who wanted to build an 18-floor condominium there. Some of the people who lived in a nearby 12-floor condominium complained because the new building would have blocked their view of Coeur d'Alene Lake. After hearing those complaints during the city's design-review process, Wilson said, the developer decided to make his building a little skinnier and a little taller to minimize its obstruction of the neighbors' views.

"He didn't have to do that. It cost him more money out of his pocket," Wilson said. "And that's the kind of thing that we're going to miss" if House Bill 480 becomes law.

Wilson also said the bill's restrictions would force his city to spend tens of thousands of dollars unraveling its planning policies. This is the wrong time to do that, he said.

"Frankly, it has for us the potential of throwing the brakes on a recovering economy, because it's going to take its time to unwind all of this," Wilson said. "And I don't want to throw the 'moratorium' word out there. That scares people. But what do you do if you've got to figure out how to deal with this thing?"

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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