A Utah company plans to transform a Spanish Colonial-style strip mall on the West Bench into a slice of exotic Chinatown.
China Town Plaza LLC bought the Library Plaza on the southwest corner of Cole and Ustick roads in December for an undisclosed amount. The company plans a $1 million makeover that will include an Asian-style gate and pagoda-style roofs on the center’s five buildings. It plans to rename the center Idaho Asian Plaza with the feel of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian cultures.
“It’s centrally located, and there already are many Asian people and businesses in the area,” said Marcus Tam, an agent with Boise Premiere Real Estate who represents China Town Plaza. “We were looking into Garden City because of its history and connection to the Chinese community, but we couldn’t find any suitable locations.”
The first step will be a 14,000-square-foot Asian supermarket, Tam said. The company has completed a similar project in Utah called Salt Lake Chinatown.
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The investment group had eyed Boise for a some time, looking for the right opportunity, said Steve Lin, the Chinese-American businessman who is behind the project. He owned a restaurant in China before immigrating to the U.S. Today he owns Capital Trading, an Asian food distribution company that operates in Idaho, Utah, Montana and Wyoming.
He said he has high hopes for the plaza as a venture and as a way of sharing Asian culture.
Boise’s first Chinatown
This will be the first commercial project of its kind in Idaho, but not the first Chinatown.
In the 1870s, Chinese people made up 30 percent of Idaho’s population, mostly because of mining. In Downtown Boise, a cluster of meeting houses, restaurants, laundries, apothecaries, temples and gambling houses became known as Chinatown. It was located between Idaho and Front streets, from Capitol Boulevard west to 8th Street.
For people well-versed in Boise history, names such as Fong’s Apothecary ring with familiarity. Most of the shop is preserved in the Idaho State Historical Museum’s collection.
Many Chinese also ran successful market gardens in what now is Garden City, delivering fresh produce to local restaurants and markets. The “Chinden” in Chinden Boulevard is a contraction of Chinese and garden.
When Idaho’s mines played out, many Chinese went home or looked elsewhere for work, but Boise’s Chinatown thrived until the 1930s. By 1940, the number of Chinese in Idaho had dwindled to 208. In the 1970s, most of Chinatown’s buildings were razed for urban renewal.
In 2001, Boise artist and architect Dwaine Carver created “Historic Sight: Boise Chinatown,” a set of red binocular-like viewers Downtown that display historic pictures.
The Treasure Valley’s Asian population has been growing in recent years, census figures show. Today, there are about 5,000 Chinese-Americans in Idaho, half of them in the Treasure Valley. Idaho has about 25,000 Asian-Americans.
Tam is part of that growth. He was born in China’s Canton Province and grew up in Hong Kong. He came to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student and landed in Boise, where he has family. “I fell in love with Boise,” he said.
He earned a degree in computer science and mathematics from Boise State University and worked at Hewlett-Packard in Boise for 15 years before moving into real estate. He co-founded the Idaho Chinese Organization in 2010 to increase awareness of Chinese culture and promote cultural exchanges. The group produces a Chinese New Year celebration each February. This year’s will be on Saturday, Feb. 17, at JUMP.
Tam’s connection to this project became personal when he learned that his great-grandfather had a market farm in Garden City. “That sparked my interest in learning more about Idaho’s history and helping develop our Chinese community here,” he said.
Old mall made new
The shopping center will become a place for cultural celebrations, Tan said.
The center was built in 1975, with a second phase completed in 1978. In the 1980s it got a facelift in the Spanish Colonial style. The remodeled buildings will feature traditional architecture popular in Chinatowns across in America.
All current tenants have been invited to stay, Tam said, including Yoga For Life and State Farm Insurance. It’s hoped that additional tenants will open restaurants and other businesses with an Asian emphasis. “We want to share the importance of inclusiveness,” Tam said.
Deb Barger, who owns Art Zone 208, an artist cooperative that’s been at Library Plaza for nearly four years, said things already are getting better under the new owners.
“We’re excited,” she said. “We already see improvements happening. This place has been neglected for a long time.”
Chinese New Year Celebration
The event includes a cocktail reception and performances of dance, music and theater.
It will be held 5-9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, at JUMP, 1000 W. Myrtle St., Boise. $15 general, $5 for 12 and younger at Eventbrite.com starting Feb. 1. Free for children younger than 2.