A lot of dominoes fell into place over the past two years to make the Gardner Co.’s new Downtown Boise project possible.
First, the economy has been recovering from the Great Recession.
Gardner finished the Eighth & Main building, Idaho’s tallest structure, early last year.
A few months later, the Utah-based developer started construction of City Center Plaza, a project whose plans include office, restaurant, meeting and parking space, an underground bus station and an expansion of Boise Centre, the Greater Boise Auditorium District’s convention venue.
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Now, Gardner COO Tommy Ahlquist has fixed his eye on Parcel B, the five acres immediately west of the JUMP lot. Ahlquist said he’s sure Gardner will build a 300-room, full-service hotel on Parcel B.
The other thing he wants, but is less sure of, might be more impressive: a stadium with up to 5,000 seats that would be the home field for a future Boise minor league soccer team.
If that sounds crazy, remember that Ahlquist’s own staff thought he’d lost it when he pitched some of the ideas for City Center Plaza.
Ahlquist expects the hotel-stadium development to cost up to $78 million. The company hopes to start construction by the end of the year and finish it in early 2017.
Meanwhile, the family of Idaho agriculture king J.R. Simplot is building Jack’s Urban Meeting Place, a combination of arts, craft, meeting and recreation space between 9th, 11th, Front and Myrtle streets. Simplot is building its company headquarters at the northwest corner of the same lot.
The Simplot headquarters will be a natural draw for the four-star hotel Gardner envisions. JUMP will give guests a place to check out and a pleasant path to Downtown and the convention center.
But even with all the factors in its favor and multimillion-dollar projects under its belt, can Gardner really pull off Ahlquist’s latest vision?
Steve Hosac hopes so. Hosac built CitySide Lofts, a five-story condominium project, across Myrtle from Parcel B in the mid-2000s. He said he still owns about 15 of the units.
For years, Hosac has waited for somebody to build something on Parcel B. He’s tired of looking at dirt and weeds instead of the extension of Downtown he envisioned when he built CitySide.
“If Gardner wants to buy it and do something with it, clean it up, get something nice there, yes, that would be an obvious benefit for CitySide Lofts and I think it would be a benefit for all of Boise, frankly,” Hosac said.
Parcel B has tantalized developers for years. It’s one of the few undeveloped pieces of ground in or near Downtown. It has enough room to accommodate a variety of commercial developments. Its visibility to traffic on Myrtle and Front is tough to beat.
The auditorium district bought Parcel B from Simplot in 2000. It has invested a total of $5 million in the property, executive director Pat Rice said. The fact that it’s available to Gardner today is a result of Gardner’s own project, City Center Plaza.
Before City Center Plaza, Parcel B was destined to be the location for a new convention center and, possibly, a hotel. Despite a few serious proposals, that plan never worked out, and the auditorium district’s hopes for new convention space foundered for years.
“If GBAD had not purchased it, then it probably would be developed right now. And that’s not to say that I think GBAD should not have purchased it. It had good intentions and good motives, and it just didn’t work out for them,” Hosac said. “The problem I have is it’s just sitting there and it’s ugly and it grows weeds and it’s near part of Downtown, and I just think that’s wrong.”
In 2013, Ahlquist proposed an unusual solution to the district’s problem: Gardner would build a ballroom and other convention space as part of City Center Plaza. A few months later, the district agreed, and the Boise Centre expansion was underway. Suddenly, Parcel B was on the market.
No, Ahlquist said, his proposal to expand Boise Centre wasn’t part of some deep plot to get his hands on Parcel B.
“I wish we were that smart,” Ahlquist said. “City Center Plaza was such a monster to get done that, literally, just figuring out how to thread that needle was plenty.”
If Gardner ends up acquiring Parcel B, it could pay the district the $8 million appraised price in cash or by reducing the amount the district owes for the Boise Centre expansion.
Occupancy rates and prices of hotel rooms have hit records over the past year in Boise. Lured by those market forces, two developers besides Gardner have proposed Downtown hotels since early March.
Boise native Jared Smith plans to build a 180-room franchise hotel on the southeast corner of Capitol Boulevard and Broad Street. Brian Obie, of Eugene, Ore., thinks Boise’s ripe for the 104-room luxury hotel he wants to build south of Myrtle Street and east of Capitol.
Gardner’s hotel would have at least 300 rooms, Ahlquist said.
The market for hotel rooms is hot, but can Downtown really support three new hotels and some 600 additional rooms?
“I wish success for all of them,” Ahlquist said. “There’s only so many rooms a market like this can support, so I think it will be a bit of a race for everyone to get up and out of the ground and develop a property that attracts nights that people want to stay.”
An agreement the auditorium district’s board of directors approved Thursday requires Gardner to build a “convention hotel” similar in quality and amenities to an Embassy Suites, DoubleTree or Marriott Renaissance if it buys Parcel B.
Typically, a convention-style hotel offers features and services such as a restaurant that’s open for all three meals, a full bar, room service, a pool, gym, laundry service and, sometimes, concierge service, Rice said.
The Parcel B hotel would be a four-star facility, Gardner executive vice president David Wali said. It would be a local franchise of a national chain. It would have an independent restaurant on the premises.
Gardner would own the hotel and hire a contractor to run it.
The coming presence of JUMP and Simplot’s headquarters across 11th street are a big draw for a hotel, Ahlquist said. But the conventions the auditorium district books in the expanding Boise Centre will be the core source of business.
“We want to give the district the type of hotel it needs to host events in the new convention center,” Wali said
A STADIUM. REALLY?
For years, Boise developers and government types have tried to figure out a way to build a minor league baseball stadium in Boise that replaces Memorial Stadium at the Ada County Fairgrounds, where the Boise Hawks play.
Ahlquist is a baseball fan. He would love to solve the baseball stadium puzzle. He tried, but even a small ballpark won’t fit on Parcel B, he said.
The lot is big enough for soccer, though. The property is a little shorter than 700 feet but is plenty wide.
The likelihood of building a soccer facility on Parcel B depends on the interest a Major League Soccer team has in putting a minor league team here, Ahlquist said.
“As a passionate Boise resident and significant investor in Downtown, we’ve got a whole bunch of reasons to have more people come Downtown, and we just think it’s a great fit,” he said. “We just haven’t had enough time to explore all of the potential flaws of the plan and that’s what we’re going to spend a lot of time doing next.”
Besides the home team’s soccer games, Ahlquist said, the stadium could be used for high school soccer tournaments, lacrosse games or high school football. It could also serve as a venue for outdoor convention-style events and concerts. Gardner hasn’t decided whether it would retain ownership.
So far, Gardner hasn’t found a fatal flaw that would kill the stadium idea. If one comes up, Ahlquist and Wali still want to build out the rest of Parcel B with condominiums, office buildings or something else.
No matter what kind of development they put on Parcel B, Gardner will have to provide parking. The location and number of parking spaces depends on what the ground ends up being used for. The Parcel B development likely will include some retail shops, Ahlquist said.
If a stadium becomes a reality, Gardner Co. will consider a single level of parking under the field, Ahlquist said. That level would be half-buried and elevate the playing field a few feet. Wali said the half-buried parking concept is fairly popular because it makes ventilation easy, but he didn’t know of any stadiums that have applied it.
Stadium or no stadium, the auditorium district is ready to let Parcel B go, Rice said. With the Boise Centre expansion underway and developers proposing a variety of commercial and residential projects around Downtown, the district’s staff doesn’t expect many slow days for a while.
“I just truly believe this is the most exciting five years coming up that we’ve had in the last 25 years, since Boise Centre construction and the Grove Hotel,” Rice said.