Boise city planners and economic development experts always hoped for a big “anchor” project at the corner of Main Street and Whitewater Park Boulevard.
They wanted something that would start a ripple of commercial and residential development on the undeveloped and underdeveloped lots around that corner. They figured it would have to come from a private developer. Who else could afford to pay for land that close to the Boise River, Greenbelt, whitewater park and future Esther Simplot Park, not to mention its access from two major roadways?
A public institution was never a serious consideration. Not until Wednesday, anyway, when the College of Western Idaho board of trustees voted to buy the land on the northwest corner of Main and Whitewater for $8.8 million.
The college hopes to build a permanent campus on the 10-acre lot.
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Even though they didn’t anticipate a college as an anchor project, that’s exactly what developers and planners say CWI’s Boise campus would be. Thousands of students would show up day after day at the campus. Besides a thirst for knowledge, they’d bring a demand for coffee, books, food and other products. Some would want to live close by.
All of that would encourage retailers and residential developers to put their own projects in the same area.
“It could very much be a catalyst,” said David Hale, who built a live-work development in Southeast Boise in 2007 and hopes to soon unveil a new project close to Downtown. “If you bring a scenario where you have consistent traffic ... to that property, it is definitely going to spur more development, because there aren’t services around there right now to service the people that are going to be utilizing the campus.”
The property hasn’t been appraised. The Ada County Assessor’s Office estimated its value at $3.62 million. Years of looking at properties for sale around Boise made the college’s board members comfortable that $8.8 million is a fair price for the West End lot, CWI spokeswoman Jennifer Couch said Friday.
THE TWO-THIRDS BARRIER
Around 7,000 students use CWI’s existing facilities in Ada County, which include the Blackeagle Center in West Boise, classrooms in Meridian and space in the Micron Technology Inc. headquarters. The college also offers classes in Nampa.
The West End campus is far from a certainty. Before building, CWI would have to convince voters in Ada and Canyon counties to support a bond to pay for the $70 million project, plus $80 million for new buildings at the college’s Nampa campus.
CWI hopes to bring the matter before voters in November or May 2016. Two-thirds of the votes would have to be in favor of the bond for it to pass — a requirement of Idaho law. This early, it’s impossible to calculate how much the bond would increase property taxes.
Even if the bond passes, the college will have to get development permits from the city of Boise. There’s no reason to think that would be a major obstacle, City Councilwoman Elaine Clegg said, but the city will want to make sure the campus design fits its objectives for an urban development in the area.
WEST END ROLLER COASTER
The West End — the city’s branding name for the area roughly between the Boise River, the Connector, and State and 16th streets — was once a bustling commercial corridor surrounded by middle-class neighborhoods. For years, the western stretch of Main Street was a row of car dealerships.
When the Connector opened in the 1990s, it quickly became commuters’ preferred route between Downtown and West Boise. Traffic shifted away from Fairview Avenue and Main Street, costing businesses exposure to thousands of potential customers every day.
The neighborhoods underwent a period of disinvestment. The worst areas might have been considered slums.
In December 2012, the city established the 30th Street urban renewal area, which takes up the southern part of the West End, as well as the Whitewater Park and 27th Street corridors north to State Street. Shortly afterward, Ada County Highway District turned the former 30th Street into Whitewater Park Boulevard, a road designed to become the main connection between State Street, Main Street and Fairview, and provide access to the string of parks along the river.
Crews recently started building Esther Simplot Park north of Pleasanton Avenue and west of Whitewater. Veterans Memorial Park, Quinn’s Pond and the Boise River Park — commonly called the whitewater park — are already in place.
The urban renewal area’s master plan envisions a broad reinvestment in the West End.
Some of it has come true. Home prices have increased. A medical and office building recently opened on the southeast corner of Main and Whitewater. Eberlestock, maker of gun stocks and outdoor equipment, upgraded its storefront with striking steel panels.
A CWI campus could make further development happen a lot faster than almost anyone hoped for.
“You need an anchor, like every mall needs an anchor,” Councilwoman Elaine Clegg said. “It can be a job site. It can be a community college. It can be a public institution. Whatever. But if you have it, then you have the reason to build all the other stuff. Because there’s people there every day who need those kinds of support services.”
The city’s urban renewal agency, Capital City Development Corporation, could take several unsexy measures to help CWI build its West End campus.
Those include building attractive sidewalk arrangements and other streetscapes, cleaning up unwanted materials and substances from the project site, and paying for relocation or extension of water, sewer, electricity and other utility lines, said John Brunelle, the renewal agency’s executive director.
“So kind of the boring, below-the-surface types of things that can help bring investment and spur development,” Brunelle said.
Like other economic and development experts, Brunelle likes the idea of putting a college campus on the West End’s big corner.
“For us, it brings people to that part of town. People who will be in and out of there. More and more vibrancy and energy because there’s activity,” he said. “It’s just the kind of thing that’s needed at that end of Downtown to define the West End.”
The one downside Brunelle sees: As a government institution, CWI wouldn’t pay taxes on the property. That means the urban renewal agency and, eventually, the city would get less tax money than a private development would produce.
The city of Boise owns about six acres on the southeast corner of Main and Whitewater. The city recently advertised that it’s looking for developers who are interested in building a mixed-use project there. Jay Story, a commercial real estate broker who works part time as Boise’s point man on West End development, said the city doesn’t have a specific project or even project type in mind.
Apartments or townhouses would be a popular choice at City Hall, Story said, especially if they were cheaper than the $900-to-$1,200-per-month units popping up in the Downtown core. But that’s just one idea, Story said, and the big Reflections apartment complex already sits right beside CWI’s lot.
“We’re trying to keep it open for the private market’s vision,” he said. “We don’t want to eliminate anybody right out of the gate.”
Like it or not, that’s the approach the city and urban renewal agency have to take, said David Eberle, a former city councilman and current member of the renewal agency’s board.
In a best-case scenario, Eberle would have loved a developer to build a mega-project that included hundreds of homes and a mix of commercial space, all integrated with an attractive design.
“Evidently, there aren’t those developers out there at this time,” he said. “And I think that’s Boise’s story. We are just on the cusp and we don’t get these really big developments yet. We don’t have the density, the mass, the market or the recognition that attracts those developers.
“We can dream, but if people don’t put their money down, you’ll be sitting on it a long time.”