Its grounds are ‘fantastic’ for affordable housing. But Boise armory is stuck in limbo

In Realtor speak, the hulking white structure would be “fixer-upper with great bones.” Or “historical charm, 21st Century potential.” Or “five acres, Foothill views, LOCATION! LOCATION! LOCATION!”

In reality, the Idaho National Guard Armory is a conundrum for Boise’s East End.

It was designed during the Depression by the city’s foremost architects, Tourtellotte & Hummel. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Through the years, its soaring central drill hall – once home to indoor equestrian events – has piqued the interest of a theater group, a brewery, and the developer of artist live-work units.

The neighborhood is starved for gathering spaces, and the 1930s Art Deco building could house any number of them: a coffee shop, a youth sports center, small businesses, a library.

The city is starved for housing, a point Boise Mayor David Bieter drove home in his state of the city speech Sept. 12. The East End Neighborhood Association would welcome new units of all kinds on the Armory grounds: affordable, workforce, market-rate.

But the armory sits vacant, its vast grounds an empty parking lot, its five acres a swath of unrealized potential.

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The Idaho National Guard Armory, on Reserve Street, was built by Boise architects Tourtellotte & Hummel in an art deco style. The rear section was built in 1931, and the central drill hall and first floor of the front section were built in 1936. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. Katherine Jones

Owners rehabilitated armory, then stopped

“It’s unfortunate that nothing has happened with it so far,” said Brittney Scigliano, president of the neighborhood association. “So it would be great to see something done, and the neighborhood would love it. … If we get some affordable housing in there, it would be fantastic, absolutely fantastic.”

The armory grounds are bordered by Reserve Street, North Avenue H, Logan Street and Boise Fire Station No 1.

Six years ago, the city of Boise transferred the property in a complex transaction to J&M Land LLC. The LLC is a California-based partnership between John Arrillaga, a Basque billionaire and the “J” in the relationship, and Mike McCollum, PowerBar cofounder and the “M.”

As part of the deal, the armory building must be preserved, and J&M was required to quickly rehabilitate it, which it has.

But there was no timeline for the partners to actually develop the property. That, said Jade Riley, Bieter’s chief of staff, could have been a deal breaker.

“We worked for several years when (the armory) was a city asset, trying to cultivate potential economic development leads,” Riley said. “The predominant public goal was historic preservation. We documented the status of the asset. It was in dire shape from every angle.”

Neighbors say: Let us help

Riley said it required a “multimillion-dollar level of effort to remediate the structure and get it into a go-forward basis.”

The effort was not entirely welcome. J&M painted the armory building in 2013 and replaced its windows, two actions that caused preservationists to cringe. The company also did extensive work on the building’s interior and landscaped parts of the parcel. J&M maintains the grounds. Through the years there have been the occasional broken window and splash of graffiti, but the property appears in good shape.

Except for the fact that it’s empty.

“I don’t want to offend J&M, and I’m grateful that, really, we could say that this is preserved because of them,” said Laura Shealy, coordinator of the neighborhood association’s armory subcommittee. “I would hope that either they would sell it back to someone who is a visionary … or they’d get more involved with actively asking us to help them, if need be, find tenants for the building.

“Because it really should not sit here another day, if possible, empty,” Shealy said. “We’ve had the glass broken. We’ve had people break in. There’s stuff going on that just isn’t cool. It needs to keep moving along, otherwise it’ll be a scourge in the neighborhood.”

Arrillaga did not respond to repeated requests for comment. McCollum declined to talk about the property.

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Members of the Armory Subcommittee of the East End Neighborhood Association have been meeting for years to help develop plans - or at least a guiding vision - for the historical building. From left, Diane Ronayne, Laura Shealy, chair; Deanna Smith, and Eric Kingston. Katherine Jones

5 stories of workforce housing ...

The armory advisory group formed more than a decade ago. Its members keep an eye on the historic structure, maintain a website dedicated to its preservation and care, and have worked to get the building and its surroundings properly valued and used.

The group conducted a series of neighborhood visioning sessions with the help of the University of Idaho’s Urban Design Center. The consensus at that time – 2008 or 2009 — was that neighbors wanted “mixed use” of the property.

“That means a mix of commercial, retail, housing and public space,” said Erik Kingston, a member of the advisory group. “We also had an indication that at that time … people were actually willing to see some higher density housing on the east side of that parcel, where it’s just a parking lot right now.

“People were actually open to a four-to-five story structure that was like workforce housing, maybe mixed-income housing,” Kingston said.

Affordable or low-income housing is defined by the government as being for residents who make 60 percent or less of the area median income, or AMI. For a family of four in Ada County, the AMI is about $70,000 a year; a family that is eligible for such housing would earn about $42,000 annually.

Workforce housing, according to the Urban Land Institute, is for residents who earn between 60 percent and 120 percent of the AMI. In Ada County, that would be between $42,000 and $84,000 annually for a family of four.

... with luxury condos on top?

In the graceful East End, it’s not hard to find homes valued upward of $1 million. Properties can rent for amounts beyond what pegged as the Boise monthly median of $1,645 in August.

The armory advisory committee, whose members are long-term East End residents, hope J&M will develop housing that a range of Boiseans can afford.

Several members gathered at the armory one early September morning to talk about their hopes for the historic property they love.

Deanna Smith: “That strip along Logan, you could build some housing here. Is there a local developer who kind of understands this market here, who would be interested in buying it, and then get their money out of the new housing partly, and work with some community groups or a business to get this active?”

Kingston: “I think a sort of mixed-income housing development would be great.”

Smith: “That’s what we’d love to see.”

Kingston: “With affordable and workforce housing sort of on the lower levels. You could do market-rate housing on the top floors, and, if you can imagine having a condo or apartment that looks out over the foothills, that’s a pretty attractive item.”

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The central section of the armory is the drill hall, a 180- by 80-foot barrel-vaulted open space enclosing approximately 14,400 square feet. Katherine Jones

One problem: a flood plain

Riley, Bieter’s chief of staff, cautions that the property is in a floodway area, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency defines as “the channel of a river or other watercourse and the adjacent land areas that must be reserved in order to discharge the base flood without cumulatively increasing the water surface elevation more than a designated height.”

Retail and other commercial uses can be built in such a spot without incident, Riley said. But residential units would have to start “at a second story or story-and-a-half level” with “podium parking” — where parking levels occupy the first few floors — or some kind of mixed use below.

The armory area was designated as a floodway, he said, because of the potential for flash flooding from the Foothills and Cottonwood Creek.

Still, that’s an easier hurdle for affordable housing than some other neighborhoods face. You only have to drive 1.3 miles west to find a far different scenario.

The Near North End is a mirror image of the East End when it comes to building low-cost housing on a high-value parcel. In the East End, the neighbors are willing, but the owner has been silent. In the Near North End, the Cathedral of the Rockies wants to put affordable housing on an adjacent block it owns, but neighbors and some parishioners have protested.

At one recent community meeting called by the cathedral, tensions ran high. Some church members said they’d rather sell the property, called Block 75, than build housing on it. Others complained that affordable housing is not “the highest and best use” for a full block in the desirable neighborhood.

Can East Enders hopes be realized?

“Even though the church wouldn’t be involved in managing this, there’s a potential for lawsuits,” one woman said. “There are issues of safety for members of our church who are most vulnerable. … Having lived next to subsidized housing twice, I experienced a lot of unattended children who caused a lot of issues in our neighborhood.”

The armory group’s Kingston was a panelist at that meeting.

He spoke about the issues that haunt him in Boise’s East End, its Near North End and throughout the fast-growing city. Building around the armory and the cathedral would not solve the region’s housing problems but would be a step in the right direction, he says.

“It’s interesting to look at these two parcels, particularly in light of Mayor Bieter’s emphasis on housing needs,” Kingston said. “What you need is a mix of housing types and prices that serve everyone in our community, and distribute those units to avoid concentration.”

He said the armory parcel is big enough “to create what the East End has been hoping for: a combination of housing and social infrastructure that brings people together and provides access to better opportunities.

“That’s how you build a sense of place.”

Maria L. La Ganga: 208-377-6431, @marialaganga