People who live and do business on the Bench are excited — though not without reservations — about the prospect of removing a 60-year-old fuel tank farm and replacing it with something to better their neighborhoods.
The city of Boise is studying the potential for moving the tank farm, a fuel terminal located around the intersection of Curtis and Morris Hill roads, to city-owned land near the Boise Airport.
Such a move offers two benefits: relocating the terminal to an industrial area instead of an area dominated by homes, medical businesses and Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center; and freeing about 50 acres for redevelopment.
Randy Johnson, president of the Central Bench Neighborhood Association, said he would like the tank farm replaced with something like Bown Crossing or Hyde Park, two of Boise's signature retail corridors.
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"A coffee shop, restaurants, places with patios," said Johnson, whose neighborhood is bounded by Curtis Road, Overland Road, Roosevelt Street and Alpine Street, just south of the terminal. "People are looking for places where you don't have to go Downtown to find these great places to eat, to find local food. It could be an ice cream shop. It could be pizza. Whatever."
Neil Jenkins was more cautious. The president of the Liberty Park Neighborhood Association — between the I-184 Connector, Franklin and Curtis, including part of the terminal and bordering the rest — said redevelopment could help his neighborhood if it's done right.
But for all the big trucks rolling in and out, "generally, the tank farm has been a pretty quiet neighbor for us," Jenkins said. Turning that property into a hot spot for commercial activity and a high-density residential zone could backfire, he said.
"Are we trading big trucks for a traffic jam?" Jenkins said.
How the tank farm works
The tank farm traces its origins to the mid-1950s, said Barbara Perry Bauer, co-owner of TAG Historical Research in Boise. Back then, the area around Curtis Road and Emerald Street was on Boise's outskirts, so trucks didn't have much trouble hauling fuel out of the fuel terminal.
Since then, neighborhoods have grown up around the terminal, and traffic has increased. Today, the area surrounding the tank farm is one of the city's biggest employment hubs, thanks to Saint Alphonsus and the medical businesses that blossomed near it.
The tank farm stores fuel carried in underground pipelines from refineries in Salt Lake City. Gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel are stored in 35 tanks with a capacity of more than 26 million gallons, according to a report by a consultant who studied the terminal's potential move for the city.
Two fuel companies, Andeavor and Sinclair Transportation Co., own most of the property. The companies pull fuel out of the pipeline and truck it to gas stations and other outlets. Andeavor, based in San Antonio, became the new name for Tesoro in 2017 after the company acquired Western Refining. Sinclair is based in Salt Lake City.
Representatives of Andeavor declined to comment for this story. Efforts to contact a Sinclair representative for comment were unsuccessful.
City, urban renewal studies underway
For years, city leaders and Capital City Development Corp., Boise's urban renewal agency, have considered forming an urban renewal district on the Bench, said John Brunelle, the agency's executive director.
If the City Council establishes a district, the agency could spend new property tax revenue caused by growth to clean up contamination and add infrastructure like sidewalks, curbs and gutters. That could make property more attractive to developers.
"The tank farm is always in the conversation," Brunelle said. "It's a great location, and it's probably the wrong use in this day and age."
Before the pipeline arrived, agriculture dominated the area around the terminal, Boise architectural historian Dan Everhart said. Shortly afterward, housing developments took root. Gradually, businesses appeared to support the people who lived in those homes. Strip malls and stores dating to the 1960s replaced orchards along Orchard Street.
Some planners believe the area hasn't lived up to its potential. Those strip malls are occupied, but they're aging. Warehouses and storage units are more common than iconic retail outlets. The fuel terminal's industrial presence has been a drag on the area, Everhart said.
"The closer you got to the tank farm, the less desirable those properties," he said.
In May, the renewal agency hired Missouri consultant PGAV Planners to study whether a swath that includes the tank farm, the area north of it to Fairview Avenue and strips along Orchard Street, Overland Road and Vista Avenue is deteriorating or underdeveloped, making it eligible to become a new urban renewal district.
The agency has no schedule for establishing such a district.
In May 2017, the city's Aviation Department hired Armbrust Aviation Group, a Florida consultant, to study whether moving the tank farm could benefit Boise. Its answer: yes.
"The age of the system makes it inherently inefficient and potentially harmful to the environment," according to Armbrust's report. "While it is not yet known the condition of some of the tanks, it is likely that some tanks have most likely exceeded their life cycles or will approach that level soon."
The pipeline crosses city-owned property in an industrial area near the airport that could house a new farm.
Though it doesn't estimate cost, Armbrust's report said public debt could finance the move. The borrower, likely the city or urban renewal agency, could pay back its loan by assessing a fee of one penny for every gallon of fuel that moves through the new terminal. This fee would generate more than $10 million a year.
"Due to the age of the terminal facilities, it is possible that some level of remediation will be required after relocation," Armbrust's report said.
Stephen Ball, who monitors the tank farm for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Sinclair spilled fuel there several years ago, cleaned it up and installed a new liner in its containment structure to make sure future spills don't leak into the soil. Ball said that was the only major spill he knew of.
Several obstacles besides cost and difficulty stand in the way of the tank farm's move, said Rebecca Hupp, the airport director.
One is a recently announced merger between Andeavor and Marathon Petroleum Corp., which operates oil refineries on the Gulf Coast and in the Midwest. The merger agreement prohibits Andeavor from major undertakings — like moving a terminal — without Marathon's consent, Hupp said.
A decision on the tank farm's fate will occur "well after the first of the year," Hupp said.
A park? Branch library?
Moving the tank farm might make sense if the logistics line up, Boise City Councilwoman Elaine Clegg said. More people are coming to the Treasure Valley. So more fuel will be pumped into the terminal, and more trucks will deliver it to gas stations and other fuel outlets in the area. Those trucks will be in conflict with the surrounding streets' traffic, which will increase with new development.
Clegg thinks a project that mixes commercial and residential uses would be appropriate.
"I can think of a hundred things, but you'd want to go through a planning process with the community," Clegg said.
Johnson, the Central Bench neighborhood association president, said he'd like any makeover to include open space, such as a small park. Development should be aimed at turning Phillippi and Cassia streets into bicycle corridors, he said, and make bus service a central feature.
A park "would be awesome," said Andrew Dreiling, a manager at Emerald Lanes on the corner of Emerald and Orchard streets. Dreiling thinks a development that attracts lots of people to the area, such as a shopping center, would help his business, too. Office buildings would have less impact.
"Anything's better than just some tanks sitting there," Dreiling said.
John Grizzaffi, president and general manager of Stein Distributing, at 601 N. Phillippi St., agreed. Redeveloping the terminal might not affect his business much, Grizzaffi said, but it would be good for the neighborhood.
Jenkins, whose Liberty Park neighborhood includes St. Alphonsus' hospital campus, said any new project should take into account the area's demographics. Much of Liberty Park is in a census tract whose median household income is barely half the citywide median. Twenty-nine percent of the households are in poverty, city spokesman Mike Journee said.
"We need to have a robust dialogue that includes some of these people who are traditionally underrepresented," Jenkins said. "They don't get out to many public meetings, because when you're working to put food on the table, you have a hard time engaging in the rest of the political process."
High-end restaurants and stores wouldn't be appropriate, Jenkins said, because many people who live in his neighborhood wouldn't frequent them. More medical offices wouldn't help, either, he said, because they are magnets mostly for people who live elsewhere, increasing traffic and frustration for residents.
Instead, Jenkins said, Boise and the neighborhoods ought to encourage development that's attractive to lower-income families, such as a small branch library, possibly surrounded by commercial and residential components.
"An elementary school would be fantastic," he said. "I think that would go a long way to uniting our neighborhood."