Officials at the Cathedral of the Rockies might develop an affordable housing complex on a sought-after block adjacent to the Gothic Revival church in Boise's Near North End.
The block was at the center of a bitter preservation fight about 15 years ago. Today it is basically an empty lot that, depending on your point of view, is either a squandered opportunity or a flourishing community garden doubling as a teaching farm.
The Cathedral has scheduled a meeting for its congregation on Wednesday, June 20, to talk about the block's future.
Jerri Walker, executive director of the Methodist church at 717 N. 11 St., said it notified the congregation via email on Friday of the meeting to discuss so-called Lot 75, which is bounded by Fort, Hays, 11th and 12th streets. Another meeting, for neighbors and other affected parties, is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, July 11.
“Here we have this lot,” Walker said, as she described what the congregation will be considering. “Really right now it is just totally a blank slate. … Do we do anything or not? We have no real plans.”
Church demolished, moved historic houses
Cathedral officials have a rocky history with preservationists and neighbors in the graceful swath of homes and offices that separates Downtown from Hyde Park and the rest of the North End.
The church proposed building a massive apartment complex with 176 units and more than 500 underground parking spaces. “I think the Near North End needs apartments, and they need parking,” then-Pastor Steve Tollefson told the Statesman in 2002, when the project was going through the government approval process.
After protests from the neighborhood, the church altered the Cathedral Place project to include just 137 apartments and 417 underground parking spaces. But the Ada County Highway District and the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission both rejected the proposal.
The damage, however, was already done. In preparation for development, the church demolished at least three historic houses on the property and had at least four moved to other Boise locations, the last one in 2006. Since then, the block has remained undeveloped, except for the orchard and the teaching farm.
Housing project tour
Julie Robinson is one of two lay leaders gathering information to make recommendations to the church about what it should do now with Lot 75.
She told the Statesman that Senior Pastor Duane Anders recently toured a project in California built by Jamboree Housing Corp., which develops, builds and manages low-income and workforce housing.
Robinson said Anders visited the project with Bart Cochran, president of Boise-based LEAP Charities, whose focus is creating and managing affordable housing properties.
“They liked what they saw,” Robinson said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t other ideas. What we will be doing at the June 20 meeting is putting up other ideas. We could try and sell it … there’s other mission work we could do.
“We have a very large, growing youth program,” she continued. “We might want to do something for youth in the area. Another need that is growing is health care for low-income people. There are lots of things that are needed. The question is funding. We’re not taking anything off the table initially.”
In fact, she said, the lot is large enough that it could hold a variety of uses, perhaps a combination “youth center, affordable housing and a small clinic. We want to be creative. We might not move forward at all. If we do move forward, we want to be creative and we want to be helpful.”
Mary Jo Goelzer, Jamboree's vice president for marketing, said by email that “there have been no specifics as to what or when to build and what populations to serve,” but Jamboree has “extensive experience serving families, seniors, veterans, the homeless, those living with mental illness.”
The block has a small surface parking area, a grassy lot with mature trees, the First Fruits Orchard, and the Downtown Teaching Farm, an outdoor laboratory for Boise High School students that is used at other times as a community garden and is cared for by a loose cadre of volunteers.
Lay leader pledges openness
Robinson said her primary concern today is simple: "I want to make sure that people feel involved and knowledgeable about what we are doing."
Longtime garden volunteer Lawrence Shapiro on Tuesday mourned the possible loss of the raised beds and the compost, the summers filled with blossoms and the pollination project, and the neighbors and school kids who wander through on a regular basis.
“My hope is that community volunteers can help with the transition plan to keep the garden beautiful and productive through the planning and construction process,” said Shapiro, an architectural historian. “We’d like to make an ongoing contribution to guiding development of useable and attractive garden space.”
The Cathedral's Walker said the teaching farm will continue through the next school year.
Hays Street Historic District
The fight over the block's fate spawned the Hays Street Historic District, which instituted a set of design guidelines and protections for the neighborhood.
The district encompasses nearly 22 blocks from the northern half of the original Boise town site. Half of its buildings were built before 1912. But only the Fort Street half of Lot 75 is included in the historic district. The section facing Hays Street and the Cathedral itself do not have the same strict guidelines.
Beyond spawning the historic district, the fight left a deep reservoir of anger and distrust in the Near North End that could be a challenge for church officials and the congregation all these years later.
Dan Everhart, an architectural historian who gathered petitions for the Hays Street Historic District, said he trusts the guidelines to “have a positive effect” on the church’s proposal. But that’s about where his trust ends.
“The truth is, when they chose to demolish three-quarters of a block of houses with no project to replace it, they did about the worst thing you can do,” Everhart said. “They can’t do worse in my opinion than demolish them for dirt, for a surface of dirt that they cannot even park on.
“That’s the ultimate insult to a historic neighborhood,” he said. “Take historic resources, remove them and do nothing with the land, leave them unreplaced for 15 years. Can they do worse? Probably not. They will be required to do better.”
Mark Baltes, interim president of the North End Neighborhood Association, said his main hopes are that the church will be transparent in its decision-making and that the greater neighborhood will be involved in the “visioning process.”
“I don’t know what we can expect from the Cathedral in that regard,” Baltes said. “There could be some good, enlightened development that could occur on that property.”