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Idaho Smart Growth: Wonks who want us to walk

Scot Oliver, Idaho Smart Growth executive director, stands outside the nonprofit’s office on the third story of the Sonna Building near the intersection of Main and 9th streets in Boise. Oliver is a fan of the Sonna and other repurposed buildings Downtown.
Scot Oliver, Idaho Smart Growth executive director, stands outside the nonprofit’s office on the third story of the Sonna Building near the intersection of Main and 9th streets in Boise. Oliver is a fan of the Sonna and other repurposed buildings Downtown. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Idaho Smart Growth’s goal, “bringing people together to create great places to live,” sounds simple enough. But tackling vexing modern problems — sustainability, the lack of affordable housing, long-term problems created by sprawl — takes serious planning wonkiness.

That’s what Executive Director Scot Oliver and the three full-time staffers at the nonprofit offer. Idaho Smart Growth studies transportation, housing, growth and other matters across the state. With grants and corporate sponsorships, the group conducts studies and acts as consultants for cities, developers and anyone else who requests its services.

Idaho Smart Growth is mostly apolitical. Oliver says Program Coordinator Elaine Clegg, who sits on the Boise City Council, takes steps to avoid overlap in her duties, which she accomplishes mostly by tackling Idaho Smart Growth projects outside of the Treasure Valley.

Oliver previously worked at Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s urban-renewal agency, where he worked his way up from intern to special programs manager over 12 years. He joined Idaho Smart growth in 2013.

Q: What is smart growth about?

A: The two most important principles of smart growth are to make communities walkable and to mix land uses. With suburban sprawl, you have to drive to get anywhere. It alienates people. Productivity goes down. Obesity goes up. You lose a sense of community you have when people walk and talk. You want to put development where there’s already infrastructure, roads, sewer, all of that stuff. That’s how you build economic vitality.

Q: What’s an example of a small-town topic that Idaho Smart Growth has studied?

A: We’ve looked at highways that are also main streets running right through downtown. There’s a conflict between moving people, goods and services as quickly as possible and the safety and prosperity of their little town. We try to broker a good solution that allows traffic to flow but helps build downtown vitality, so that, occasionally, somebody passing through might stop and spend some money.

Q: What’s an example of the type of neighborhood that can benefit from smart-growth principles?

A: In the Boise metro area, early suburbs, like Orchard and Emerald, are really having trouble. You have malls and strip malls, the early examples of sprawl. People moved past them because they started to fail. Strip malls get bypassed. The next big mall gets built somewhere else. Then, the vitality comes back Downtown. These close-in, inner-ring neighborhoods get leapfrogged in both directions.

Q: Boise city planners hail Bown Crossing as a successful development in terms being a walkable community easily accessible by surrounding housing stock. What does Bown Crossing do well?

A: Bown Crossing was a ground-up development. When you have a blank slate for greenfield development, you can make it more compact and more efficient. You can bring in the mix of land uses. If you have patience and hit the market right, it can really pay off. Bown Crossing looks pretty good right now.

Hidden Springs has been held up as an example of smart growth, and inside it, it is. It has schools. It has shops. It has a community. But it was built three miles away from anything. That’s expecting people to hop in their car and drive there.

Q: Are there any governmental actions that you’d like to see?

A: We in Idaho cling to the idea that we live in a rural state, yet more than 70 percent of us live in urbanized areas. We’ve got to bridge that divide. The state Legislature is stuck on it. There are so many things communities could do better if the Legislature allowed power to devolve to communities.

Q: How so?

A: Taxation. If a community wants to tax itself to do something, why shouldn’t the Legislature allow that? Home rule. The government closest to people does the best.

Q: Do you like any of the recent Downtown projects in particular?

A: We really like what they did with the Owyhee. It would be great if we had more of that kind of stock. It’s a unique building. It’s like what Ken Howell did with the Idanha and Idaho buildings. Thank goodness that those survived. In some cases, especially with those two buildings, they accommodate lower-income residents. It’s hard to imagine anybody building with that level of craftsmanship, detail and pride anymore.

Q: What misconceptions do you run into about smart growth?

A: There’s a running meme that smart growth is no growth, though now it’s come full circle, to where some people think we’re too pro-growth. Hopefully if you do your job well, you are equally attacked.

Q: Idaho Smart Growth wants more housing options. Does Idaho have an affordable housing shortage?

A: It’s not just a Boise problem, or an Ada County problem. We see it in pretty much every community. If every case of NIMBY [not in my backyard] prevails, all of a sudden our communities will be clogged with people commuting back and forth to another town where they can afford to live.

Q: If I’m a developer, why should I incorporate smart-growth ideas, such as infill or mixed-use, into my projects?

A: If you develop and hold the development rather than flip it, and if you mix uses to include residential, retail and office or even light industrial, then you may be better equipped to ride ups and downs in any one of those markets. But the reality is that developers just keep doing what they are used to doing.

Q: You said green building concepts save costs in the long term. Does that persuade developers?

A: Developers always want to be the second to do something. Everybody has to find out if a new idea will work. There are still a lot of people who aren’t sure that people want to live Downtown.

Edited for length and clarity. Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464 , @IDS_ZachKyle. This story appears in the Jan. 20-Feb. 16, 2016, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of a special section on commercial real estate.

Idaho Smart Growth’s 10 guiding principles

▪ Provide a variety of transportation choices.

▪ Mix land uses.

▪ Create a range of housing opportunities and choices.

▪ Create walkable neighborhoods.

▪ Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration.

▪ Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place.

▪ Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective.

▪ Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas.

▪ Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities.

▪ Adopt compact building patterns and efficient infrastructure design.

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