Boise can use an expansion of the St. Luke’s campus to improve the East End neighborhood’s access to Downtown, City Councilwoman Elaine Clegg said.
Clegg’s stance will come as a surprise to many. During four public meetings on the hospital’s $400 million proposal, Clegg was the most skeptical council member, especially in response to the hospital’s request to close Jefferson Street between Avenue B and 1st Street.
On top of that, she believes in Smart Growth principles, which advocate for compact communities that use networks of well-connected roads to accommodate car, bicycle and foot traffic. Closing Jefferson Street, the East End neighborhood’s only direct connection to Downtown, seems to fly in the face of all that.
Clegg thinks Boise can solve this contradiction by replacing Jefferson Street with multiple new connections between the East End and Downtown. That’s the broad, hoped-for outcome, anyway. The details of what those connections would look like are harder to figure out.
One possibility is reopening Bannock Street between Avenue A and 1st Street to car traffic. That stretch was closed in the 1990s due to an earlier expansion of the St. Luke’s campus. On Tuesday, the City Council required St. Luke’s to give up a 28-foot-wide easement on the former Bannock Street as a condition of approving the hospital’s expansion plan.
The city plans to hold a series of public meetings and, possibly, open houses to work toward a plan for opening Bannock to cars. The meetings will probably start in the next six months, planning director Hal Simmons said.
THE NEXT HURDLE
St. Luke’s needs one more government agency to sign off before it can get to work on implementing its expansion. Because it controls the county’s public roads, Ada County Highway District will have final say over the proposed Jefferson Street closure.
ACHD doesn’t have a firm timeline for its decision, spokesman Craig Quintana said.
Whenever it occurs, Quintana expects the commission to face a level of controversy comparable to what greeted the City Council in its own series of meetings, one of which lasted almost eight hours. Throughout the St. Luke’s discussion, he pointed out, Jefferson Street has been the hottest point of contention.
“Why would that change here?” Quintana said.
As of Friday, the hospital hadn’t filed an application to close Jefferson with the district, “and we expect it will take weeks if not months for an application to be filed,” Quintana said in an email.
In January, the commission voted to allow St. Luke’s to keep pursuing the Jefferson closure as part of its overall expansion project. But in doing so, commissioners made a point of announcing that they weren’t approving the closure itself.
Simmons said the city also will consult with the highway district on a plan for reopening Bannock Street, though it’s not clear whether ACHD would maintain that stretch of the road.
No one knows yet what it will take to make reopening Bannock feasible. One of the main concerns is the number of people who walk between the hospital entrance and the parking area to the south. If Bannock is to become a through street for cars instead of a glorified driveway, the conflicts between pedestrians and motorists must be solved.
A few ideas include making it a slow-traffic street, similar to Grove Street on the Basque Block. Places for bicycles and pedestrians are a must. A right-turn-in, right-turn-out configuration is likely, Simmons said.
Even a perfect design between Avenue A and 1st Street won’t address what many East Enders consider Bannock’s biggest drawback: Pioneer Cemetery. Going east from St. Luke’s, Bannock Street stops when it reaches the cemetery. It starts up again a few hundred feet to the east, but that disruption makes it unattractive as a travel corridor.
Two changes to Bannock’s configuration could help.
One suggestion from people who watched the St. Luke’s debate unfold involves rerouting McKinley Street, which is what Jefferson Street turns into east of Avenue C. In this scenario, McKinley would branch south through the north side of the Pioneer Cemetery, a triangle of mostly open green space, and connect to Avenue C, then curve into Bannock Street west of the cemetery.
There are many reasons — disruption to the cemetery, difficulty lining up the streets correctly, etc. — the McKinley corridor might not work. If it did, though, it would give East Enders a pretty straight shot out of their neighborhood, through the St. Luke’s campus and into Downtown.
Clegg brought up another possible Bannock-based reconfiguration. This one would extend the stretch of Bannock Street east of Bruce Avenue westward across Freestone Creek — locals call it “The Flume” — along the south edge of the cemetery and into Warm Springs Avenue or Avenue C.
Again, potential problems lurk. Clegg said she’s not sold on any specific project, and she hopes to hear other people’s ideas. But she’s convinced a solution is attainable if the city keeps its eye fixed on improving the broader travel network around the East End.
In a broader sense, Clegg sees the St. Luke’s project as a chance to reshape the northeast corner of Downtown into a health district that’s dominated by the hospital and other medical facilities but offers a range of retail and other commercial services that support and feed off each other. If the city, the hospital and its neighbors can pull that off, it could more than balance the loss of Jefferson, Clegg said.
“I want the external connections and external services of this campus to be as robust as the internal ones — as excellent,” she said. “St. Luke’s is striving for excellence internally. I want them to strive for excellence externally.”