Boise’s West End has entered its awkward phase.
The excitement of its christening has worn off, but it hasn’t matured into the neighborhood everyone expects.
In 2012, city government finalized an urban renewal plan for the 30th Street area, generally located west of Americana Boulevard and 16th Street, south of Idaho Street, north of the Connector and east of Quinn’s Pond, with two corridors running north along Whitewater Park Boulevard and 27th Street to State Street. The plan envisioned a thriving residential-commercial-recreational zone with pleasant pedestrian-bicycle corridors and effective public transportation.
Plenty of work has been done since then: construction of Whitewater Park Boulevard; demolition of unused buildings on the former Bob Rice Ford property; and the excavation, cleanup and preliminary development of Esther Simplot Park, to name a few projects.
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Most of the work is preparation for a deep transformation of the neighborhood that investors, developers and planners hope to see flourish in the next decade. The actual transformation has yet to take root. The 30th Street area, which has come to be known colloquially as the West End, looks about the same today as it did three years ago.
But to government planners and private investors — people who see maps with new property lines and listen to rumors of transactions — things are afoot. Or they’re about to be.
“Probably the most frustrating part of planning is knowing what could be and getting everything in place so it can be, but then actually seeing it happen and then waiting for that to happen,” said Elaine Clegg, a Boise city councilwoman who spearheaded the urban renewal plan. “So, for me, this is the really exciting part because it looks like it’s actually going to happen.”
Three frogs sit on a log. One of them decides to jump off. How many frogs are still on the log?
The answer is three. The moral of this old parable, which applies to the West End these days, is that deciding is one thing and jumping is another.
Ryan Kowalczyk, Mike Edmondson and Tim Carter are a rare example of private business doing physical work on a West End project.
They’re remodeling a building on the northwest corner of 28th and Idaho streets, where they hope to open a new brewery, Clairvoyant Brewing, with a tasting room this spring.
You’ve got to have a little bit of vision there. Somebody’s got to start the whole ball rolling.
Ryan Kowalczyk, partner, Clairvoyant Brewing
White Water Surgery Group, a company that formed in 2013, opened a two-story, 21,000-square-foot medical and office building on the southwest corner of Whitewater Park Boulevard and Main Street.
That’s about it.
Plenty of investors are sniffing around properties that are vacant or for sale all over the West End, including the southwest corner of 27th Street and Fairview Avenue, said Jay Story, a consultant working as West End Project Coordinator for the city of Boise and its urban renewal agency, Capital City Development Corporation. Some lots have changed hands, Story said.
So far, activity is like the opening phase of a chess game. The players are getting in position, but they’re not attacking.
OUT OF THE FOXHOLE
Most developers would rather not be the first ones to prove the profitability of an area or new concept.
They prefer to let someone else take the risky step, then follow. This phenomenon played out in Downtown Boise, a few blocks east of the West End.
Gardner Co., a Utah-based commercial developer, broke ground on the Eighth & Main building in 2012, choosing Boise’s most infamous symbol of urban blight as its venue as the economy emerged from the Great Recession. A year-and-a-half later, Eighth & Main was the tallest building in Idaho and Gardner was a few months from breaking ground on City Center Plaza, another big-time development in the Downtown core. Suddenly, Downtown projects were in style. A wave of office, residential, retail and hotel developments followed.
Gardner Co. owns the two tallest buildings in Idaho. Before finishing the 327-foot Eighth & Main building in early 2014, the company bought the 267-foot U.S. Bank building across the street.
City government figures and economic development experts hoped they had found a similar catalyst when news broke in April that the College of Western Idaho was planning to build a campus on the Bob Rice Ford property, a 10-acre lot on the northwest corner of Whitewater Park Boulevard and Main Street.
The campus would bring in thousands of students, teachers and staffers, creating a demand for all kinds of services, such as restaurants, bookstores, bars and apartments. The college now owns the lot, but the West End campus is a question mark.
The campus obviously would take years to design, permit and build. It would cost tens of millions of dollars, so College of Western Idaho probably would have to convince two-thirds of voters to back a bond to pay for it.
That uncertainty is a consideration for LocalConstruct, the company that turned the historic Owyhee Hotel in Downtown Boise into upscale apartments and office space, and is now working on two more apartment projects nearby.
LocalConstruct has a tentative agreement with the city of Boise to trade the 20-acre Spaulding Ranch on Cole Road just south of Mountain View Drive for a city-owned 6.5-acre lot on the southeast corner of Whitewater and Main.
LocalConstruct proposed building a multiuse development that would include apartments, a grocery store and other retail space — all things the city government would like to see in the West End. Both sides want to get the deal done, but the agreement between the company and the city isn’t final.
The West End property is more valuable than Spaulding Ranch, and state law requires government exchanges to be for equal value. To balance the equation, the city and LocalConstruct are contemplating requirements for the West End lot, such as the extension of surrounding streets through the lot, including low-income apartments in the development and incorporating pedestrian-bike corridors.
City leaders want some of these changes because they’d promote the pedestrian- and bike-friendly environment they believe is crucial to making Boise a better place to live. Requiring them would depress the value of the West End lot. On the other side of the equation, LocalConstruct could increase Spaulding Ranch’s value through improvements to some of its buildings.
It’s a complex negotiation, said Mike Brown, co-founder of LocalConstruct. Add to that complication the fact that the College of Western Idaho property immediately northwest of the city-owned lot is years from being developed, if ever, and you can understand some concern on the part of LocalConstruct and all the other investors and developers eying the West End.
“We love building projects that benefit the city, that have the right mix, that do all that. But we also have a mandate to make sure they’re profitable,” Brown said. “At some point, these things can just get so complicated that it’s hard to keep going. We’re not there yet, but it certainly is as complicated a thing as we’ve ever done, and we’ve done some very complicated development.”
JAY STORY, SINGLES HITTER
Rumors of a new baseball stadium in Boise have become so persistent they’re almost urban legend — it doesn’t matter whether they’re true anymore.
There’s been talk of putting a stadium in other parts of town, such as the Boise State University campus, but the West End is the main speculative destination. For years, Boiseans argued over the merits of a stadium on the property that College of Western Idaho now owns, or on the city-owned property LocalConstruct is trying to acquire, or on the lot southeast of that.
This is just talk for the most part, even more tenuous than other West End proposals. Then again, the urban renewal agency’s five-year plan lists “Multi-Purpose Stadium/Development” under the heading “Special Projects” on a small spreadsheet of anticipated activity in the West End. The accompanying dollar amount — $35,000 — couldn’t come close to covering the cost of a stadium or even a study on the feasibility of a stadium.
John Brunelle, the agency’s executive director, called the item “a bit of a placeholder” for a future study that might not even be for a stadium. It could be for some other type of multiuse development, Brunelle said.
If a stadium — whether it’s for baseball, soccer, lacrosse or several sports — were to be built, the West End would be a logical place, Brunelle said. That’s because it’s one of the few places in Boise with a supply of large, undeveloped or underdeveloped lots.
30 The approximate number of acres of open space along the West End’s Main Street-Fairview Avenue corridor
Story, the consultant, isn’t convinced that will ever happen. He compared the stadium to a home run. It would be cool and could have a huge effect, he said, but it’s less likely than a series of singles — smaller, simpler developments scattered through the West End.
Anyone expecting Greater Boise Auditorium District to participate in a stadium project might have to wait. The district has been linked to stadium proposals for years, thanks to a pot of money it accumulates through a 5 percent tax on hotel stays inside Boise city limits and legal authority to invest in stadiums and other public-interest projects.
That talk died down when the district went a different route: an expansion and renovation of Boise Centre, the convention venue it owns and operates on The Grove Plaza. Now that the project is close to being finished and the district has begun booking events for the new space, talk of a district-backed stadium or other new project has begun again.
Two obstacles are holding the district back, executive director Pat Rice said. First, the district is still working out financing for its expansion. Second, the sale of a 5-acre lot the district owns between 11th, 13th, Myrtle and Front streets has been delayed. The district’s approach is to take care of those items first and worry about a new project later.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about other things, certainly, if they’re proposed, but let’s take this a step at a time,” Rice said. “There have not been any definitive conversations whatsoever about any new projects.”