Boise wants a fire station on this vacant lot. Some neighbors ask: What about our park?

The 1.43 acre field on Gary Lane in the Pierce Park neighborhood has signs posted by the Boise Parks and Recreation Department. The city has had plans to build a fire station there since at least 2001.
The 1.43 acre field on Gary Lane in the Pierce Park neighborhood has signs posted by the Boise Parks and Recreation Department. The city has had plans to build a fire station there since at least 2001. mlaganga@idahostatesman.com

To residents of the Pierce Park neighborhood in Northwest Boise, the small swath of bright green grass studded with wildflowers represents both an oasis along busy Gary Lane and a promise from the city.

To Boise officials, however, the vacant 1.43 acre lot is the answer to a problem in an era of rapid growth and stretched resources.

Neighbors want a park on the city-owned land and have long assumed that one would be developed. But the city now wants to put a fire station there instead. Some neighbors are crying foul.

The plot sports signs posted by the Boise Parks & Recreation Department laying out the rules of use: “No motor vehicles.” “No dumping.” “Manage your dog.”

On the city’s interactive parks map, the lot is described as “undeveloped” and marked “Park status: planned.”

But the land originally belonged to the fire department, which was scheduled to build a station there in 2001. When plans later changed, it was transferred to Parks & Rec.

City seeks better fire coverage

Now Fire Chief Dennis Doan wants it back. It is a key piece of a complicated plan that he says will give Boise and Garden City better coverage from fire stations and save money.

If a station can be built on Gary Lane, Doan said, Boise Fire can shutter aging Station 16 on Glenwood Street, scrap plans to build an additional station on Pierce Park Lane and reopen Station 18 in Garden City. In a memo to Mayor Dave Bieter, Council President Lauren McLean and Council President Pro Tem Elaine Clegg, Doan said a Gary Lane station would put Boise firefighters closer to newly annexed areas in the city and allow the department to cover the city's northwest with one centrally located station, not two.

Doan said it is too soon to tell how much a new station would cost to build. Boise Fire is under contract to serve North Ada County Fire and Rescue, so the two agencies would share the cost of staffing the new station, which would also be called Station 16. Boise would contribute $1.1 million per year.

“I get there’s not a lot of park land out there, and the people are frustrated,” Doan said. “So far, I haven’t had one person not think it’s a great idea for fire-response coverage. Unfortunately, the neighbors, some of them, want a park there.”

Crissy Kojima, president of the Pierce Park Neighborhood Association, said her organization's board supports first responders and understands the fire department’s view. But the neighborhood, she says, “is in desperate need of a park.” And the planned fire station “seems to take away any hope of this ever happening.”

Pierce Park lacks even a pocket park

In fact, the city standard is that community parks should be within half a mile of each other, said Doug Holloway, director of the Parks and Recreation Department. The goal, he said, is for no Boise resident to be more than a 10-minute walk from such developed green space.

This part of Northwest Boise is a conundrum for a city that prides itself on its proximity to nature, the protected open space in its gently rolling Foothills, a Greenbelt that invites cyclists and walkers to amble along the Boise River, and generous recreational offerings at parks like Esther Simplot and Julia Davis.

But the formal Pierce Park Neighborhood, which stretches from Gary Lane east to Pierce Park Lane and from State Street north to Hill Road, has none of those — not even a pocket park. The parks map shows a lone yellow circle marking the spot in contention.

“In comparison to other parts of our city, the Pierce Park neighborhood is severely lacking in public parks and open spaces,” Kojima said. “If you look at the aerial map of the current park areas, once the Gary Lane lot is removed, our neighborhood will have no established or planned public park areas.”

A park would provide “an area where neighbors can meet and get to know each other, adding to the safety and enjoyment of a neighborhood,” Kojima said. “In addition, we are becoming an increasingly dense area with traffic and development surrounding us. Having a park area would allow us to enjoy the outdoors in spite of the surrounding busyness.”

Gary Lane separates 2 neighborhoods

There is green space in the area: the 51-acre Optimist Youth Sports Complex off West Hill Road Parkway is about two miles away. It has sports fields, an off-leash dog area, open play space and a fishing pond. There is also space around Riverglen Junior High School. But neither of these is a walkable neighborhood park.

In 2015, the city purchased 2.1 acres north of the neighborhood at 7018 N. Pierce Park Lane that could serve some Pierce Park residents. Holloway said there is "no immediate plan to green it up."

The fire station controversy began Feb. 28 during the neighborhood association’s regular board meeting, when Doan and Holloway announced that the fire station was in the works. Membership in the association is voluntary and informal, Kojima said, adding that the neighborhood is home to about 1,600 homeowners and residents.

Gary Lane is the border between the Pierce Park Neighborhood and the North West Neighborhood. The proposed station would be across the street from homes in the North West .

But the city did not notify the North West neighborhood of the proposal or the meeting. Instead, it was Kojima who alerted the North West Neighborhood Association and invited its president, Richard Llewellyn, to hear the city’s presentation.

The NWNA is already tangling with Boise officials over a proposed 307-unit subdivision on what it calls farmland but the city deems 38 developable acres, which were annexed in 2014 and 2015 with the express purpose of building. On the group’s Facebook page — Old Hill Road — Llewellyn described the meeting and the fire-station-vs-park-controversy.

A basketball court, a swing set?

He acknowledged that the city has been working “to make the new station fit into the neighborhood as much as possible” and that Holloway is looking for a spot for a replacement park nearby.

The fire department is making plans to add some recreational amenities to the proposed station. Possibilities could include a basketball court, a community garden and a swing set. Holloway is set to meet with the Kojima again next Thursday, April 26.

"We're going to put in whatever amenities the neighborhood wants," Doan said. "The City Council was very concerned about park access in the area. They wanted me to see what I could do to work with Parks and Rec to add amenities. Not only are we partnering with North Ada County Fire and Rescue, we're partnering with Parks and Rec, and the neighborhood will get some amenities sooner" than if the the vacant lot were eventually turned into a park.

But Holloway “has said that it is very difficult to find any large enough lots that the city might obtain in this compactly built neighborhood,” Llewellyn wrote. “From the perspective of NWNA, this loss shows a lack of detailed long-term planning that must accompany the high-density development.”

The hoped-for park, Llewellyn said, “was meant to maintain livability for our neighborhood upon the loss of the open space that is now the Kensington Apts and associated commercial hub.”

The Kensington Apartments is a 323-unit complex of four-story buildings on State Street just west of Gary Lane that opened in 2016. Other commercial and apartment buildings have been going up in the same area.

Park 'really wasn't on the radar'

City officials sent the Pierce Park Neighborhood Association's board a list of options for other possible park space, but "the Board determined these spaces were not adequate to meet neighborhood needs that would have been served by the Gary Lane location," according to the minutes of the board's April 3 meeting.

At the same time, board members agreed to create an overlay map to enable an assessment of what limited open space exists and to research whether schools ever sold land or shared space for neighborhood park use. The board wants the city to consider land owned by Boise School District behind Riverglen Junior High.

In an interview, Holloway said his department has plans out to 2025. Those plans do not include a park on the Gary Lane site, he said, regardless of what the neighbors presumed. The lot is bordered with wooden fences and one- and two-story houses on three sides and busy Gary Lane on the fourth.

“Our capital plan determines what year projects get done,” Holloway said. “At the end of the day, it really wasn’t on the radar. It was just some open space on Gary Lane that potentially could become a park or community garden down the road.”

Asked whether the fire station is a done deal, Holloway said, “Between the chief and I it’s a done deal. The City Council makes a final decision on everything.”

The council, he said, has asked that Parks and Rec look for other possible park locations. But “a funding perspective is the first hurdle. Available land is another.”

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