At last, Downtown Boise is becoming a residential neighborhood — for those with means

Downtown Boise housing is booming

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter explains how the city council's emphasis on building new residential housing in Downtown Boise is paying off.
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Boise Mayor Dave Bieter explains how the city council's emphasis on building new residential housing in Downtown Boise is paying off.

Julie Evans said she always wanted to live in Downtown Boise. She did for a year and a half.

She walked one block from her apartment to her job as a claims specialist with the Idaho State Insurance Fund in the old Sears building at West State and North 13th streets. She walked to restaurants and stores.

“The thing I really liked about living Downtown was encountering other people on the street,” Evans said. “I’d say hello to other people I passed, and there would be people out walking their dogs. I felt like I knew the people in my neighborhood better, because I would see them outside.”

Evans and her husband, Kelly, moved out of their apartment complex after a rent increase pushed their monthly rent to $775. That was more than they were willing to pay for the size and amenities received. They moved to a bigger apartment with a washer and dryer in West Boise for a comparable price.

The couple’s move highlights a trend: As Downtown’s popularity as a residential neighborhood grows, housing prices are climbing beyond the affordable range for many people who want to live there.

Downtown still has older homes, subsidized units and student housing. But it is also fast becoming a neighborhood of high-end apartments, condominiums and townhouses.

More than 300 new living units have recently opened or are going up in the Central Business District. Most are aimed at well-heeled professionals, empty-nesters and other lovers of urban living. Rents in the new units range from $1,115 a month for a studio to $1,850 for a two-bedroom apartment. Town houses for sale now cost $359,000 and condominiums $460,000.

The future: high-end living

Rising prices echo those in larger cities such as Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, said Mike Brown, co-owner of LocalConstruct, a Los Angeles developer that has zeroed in on Boise. LocalConstruct is building the 159-unit Fowler apartments at Fifth and Myrtle streets and just opened the 39-unit Watercooler apartments at 14th and Idaho streets.

“I think we will see affordability in the Valley skew to where your Downtown is going to be relatively high-end — not exclusively luxury product, but certainly not the least expensive product, either,” Brown said.

Still, city leaders are happy that their long-held desire to make Downtown a residential neighborhood is making progress. Twenty-two percent of Boise’s jobs are located Downtown, but only 1.3 percent of workers live there. More residents will mean more business for restaurants and stores and a more vibrant street life.

Four years ago, the city set a goal of constructing 1,000 new units in the Downtown neighborhood by 2020. That should happen, Mayor Dave Bieter said.

“We’re really encouraged by the activity,” Bieter said.

In 2010, Downtown had a population of 6,364 — 2.5 percent of Boise’s population of 208,603. The city’s master plan projects Downtown’s population will more than double by 2025 to 13,686.

Land, parking costs are high

The Downtown Neighborhood Association’s boundaries are the Boise River on the south, Americana Boulevard and 16th Street on the west, State Street and portions of Washington and Fort streets on the north and sections of First Street, Warm Springs Avenue and Broadway on the east.

Land costs are high and surface parking is costly, so projects like The Fowler must include interior parking, which is costly too. Traffic, like that next to The Fowler on Myrtle Street, creates noise that must be muffled for high-end buyers.

“I personally and we as a business are almost fanatical about acoustics and keeping a quiet living environment inside,” said Bill Clark of Clark Development, which built the six-story Jefferson condos at 323 W. Jefferson St. and the Veltex building at Fifth and Main streets. “But it costs more to do that.”

Brandon Gordy, who graduated last year from Boise State University, said Downtown living is desirable for people like him in their 20s. “However, it is difficult to do so without sharing a place with two or three other people,” he said.

Gordy and his significant other gave up trying to find a place to rent Downtown and looked instead at townhouses in West Boise that rented for about $1,000 a month. But even that was steep, so they finally rented a townhouse in Nampa for about $300 a month less.

One solution: redefine Downtown

Boise’s master plan, Blueprint Boise, calls for creating thriving Downtown neighborhoods at the periphery of the core business district, including family housing.

One way city leaders aim to provide affordable housing Downtown is to expand the definition of Downtown itself. They include blocks to the west of 16th Street where land is less valuable. They include an area known as the West End that extends along Main Street and Fairview Avenue to their junction with the Interstate 184 Connector west of the Boise River.

They also include the pricey Near North End and areas south of the Boise River: Boise State University, the adjacent Lusk neighborhood and Ann Morrison and Kathryn Albertson parks.

Two places with housing catering to people with lower and moderate incomes are the River Street neighborhood southwest of Downtown and the Lusk neighborhood west of the Boise State campus. Rents range from $700 to more than $1,000 a month. Some apartment buildings provide subsidies for low-income residents.

Of the 1,057 housing units in various stages of development today throughout Boise, 257 are affordable rentals — meant to cost less than 30 percent of an average family’s income — and 34 additional rentals aimed at working class people. Most of those are in the West End neighborhood, Bieter said.

“That’s the least built-up area of Downtown,” Bieter said. “But it’s a great area, and it’s only going to get better as it gets more services and there’s more of a mix of services.”

Another solution: build more housing

The city also hopes to increase housing supply enough to keep prices competitive.

As new housing is built, the rental vacancy rate — which has hovered between 2 percent and 3.5 percent over the past four years, according to Mountain States Appraisals — will rise, and rental prices throughout the city will come down, Bieter said.

“Only with more supply are we going to be able to bring the prices more in range,” he said.

It’s inevitable, however, that housing close to the business core will be out of reach of many people.

“The land is so valuable you have to try to dice that up in as many pieces as you can to pay for it,” said Bud Compher, CEO of NeighborWorks Boise, a nonprofit that helps people rent and buy affordable housing, mostly outside Downtown.

As prices rise, LocalConstruct’s Brown said, “the people who work in the service industries Downtown are not going to live Downtown.”

Julie Evans, the woman who moved with her husband out of Downtown when their rents rose, thinks Boise “is trying to become another Portland, that the powers that be think that building more upscale housing will draw in people and effect an overall demographic shift in Downtown Boise.”

“I personally think the city is too big for its britches and has lost any interest or care they may have had for all citizens,” she said.

A third solution: More buses to affordable neighborhoods

But without land donations, federal housing-assistance grants or infrastructure improvements, there is no financial incentive for the private development of affordable housing Downtown, said Diane Kushlan, who recently retired as the district council manager in Boise of the Urban Land Institute, a real estate and development nonprofit.

“It may make more sense to invest in public transportation so it is easier for people to access affordable housing where it is available,” Kushlan said.

Brown said the new growth Downtown will spawn even more, and Boiseans will like what they see.

“I think that will have a profound effect that none of us really appreciates yet, upon just the activity of the street life and, of course, the economic viability of restaurants, bars and other businesses Downtown, which presently have to survive mostly on weekday traffic,” he said.

“It seems to me like probably some people who don’t live right Downtown are coming Downtown for dinner more and more. That’s a good thing. It means Downtown’s happening and a central place to be. I think that’s kind of the virtuous cycle you’ll see increase as you get more and more people living in and around Downtown.”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell