As an unprecedented boom fills in Boise’s “urban fabric,” city leaders want to keep Downtown from becoming a stifling canyon of cement and steel walls.
They haven’t abandoned their desire for big, prosperous buildings, but they don’t want to lose Boise’s easy-going essence. So they hope to sprinkle little gaps between the buildings, places where people can sit in the sun, eat lunch, watch their kids play or take in a concert.
A plan inching its way through the city’s policy process formalizes this movement. “Downtown Parks and Public Spaces” emphasizes preserving and developing the city core’s increasingly scarce open spaces as mini-parks and other public leisure spots.
This is our effort to stay a step ahead of (Downtown development) and make sure that we’ve got places in Downtown, just like we do in the Central Bench and the West Bench and on the East Side.
Boise Parks and Recreation director Doug Holloway on the Downtown parks plan
These parks might be as small as one-eighth of an acre — smaller than a typical housing lot — Parks and Recreation director Doug Holloway said. Some would be “passive,” he said, meaning amenities would be limited to things such as benches. Others might be “activated” and include anything from splash pads to playgrounds to dog-walking areas.
The Grove Plaza is a good example, Holloway said. It’s a public space where anyone can gather and play, read or just enjoy the surroundings. In fact, the photograph on the front of a “Downtown Parks and Public Spaces” draft shows children playing in The Grove’s fountain.
These gaps make the concrete jungle more pleasant. Most important, Holloway said, is that they serve the “fundamental benefit of parks and public gathering spaces” anywhere in the city, which is to foster a sense of community. City Hall shouldn’t miss an opportunity for a balanced city center because of its enthusiasm for growth and economic development, he said.
“No question. That’s certainly a concern,” Holloway said. “As the buildup continues Downtown, will there be opportunities to create gathering spaces for the people that actually are going to utilize the services?”
In the throes of the Great Recession, City Hall’s main Downtown goal was encouraging projects that could jump-start the economy and leave a lasting urban feel.
A huge catalyst came in 2012 when Gardner Co. broke ground on Eighth & Main, now Idaho’s tallest building. Since then, construction has taken off. New office buildings, apartments, condominiums and hotels have appeared all over the city’s core, and developers are planning more projects.
Mission accomplished. Boise’s economy is resurgent.
Philosophically, this is not a compromise for city planners, who generally embrace the density and intensity of use the city’s center embodies. At some point, though, Downtown’s physical presence needs to reflect City Hall’s overall goal for Boise: to make it supremely livable.
“If you are going to have a dense place, then you also have to have good gathering spaces and good public spaces,” City Council President Elaine Clegg said. “So that, in return for living in a more dense place, you get these other amenities. And that makes it both more livable and also more sustainable.”
The good news is that Boise has big leisure assets in place for people who either live Downtown or go there for business or pleasure. Those include Julia Davis Park, Ann Morrison Park, the Boise River Greenbelt and Rhodes Skate Park, all of which are a long walk or a short bicycle ride from the heart of Downtown. A future pathway and park-like space dividing Jack’s Urban Meeting Place and the Simplot World Headquarters between 9th, 11th, Front and Myrtle streets will add an even closer leisure space to the inventory.
Holloway said his department wants to flesh out those bones with several small parks in places such as the area near El Korah Shrine northwest of the core.
Most city parks offer a combination of active and passive pursuits.
Downtown parks, because they’ll be so small, likely can’t copy that model, Clegg said. But as a whole, the collection of public spaces needs to provide a variety of options.
This is especially important in light of City Hall’s push to increase the number of residences Downtown, Clegg said.
“If you want to make it attractive for families to live Downtown, then some of those need to have amenities for kids,” she said. “If you want to make it attractive for people with pets, then you have to have some amenities that serve folks with dogs.”
Parks benefit what Clegg called the “triple bottom line.” That means they improve the economic, social and environmental value of the city.
Parks’ social value is obvious. On the environmental side, Downtown parks could be engineered to clean stormwater so that it doesn’t contaminate the nearby Boise River, and trees provide shade and clean pollutants from the air.
Developers see the economic value of parks, Holloway said. Adding pleasant, open-space components to their projects makes them more attractive to buyers or tenants, even though it cedes precious square footage that could be used to stack several stories of high-rent living or commercial space.
Holloway said Boise likely will pursue partnerships in which the developers develop mini-parks or other public leisure spaces on their properties and then turn them over to the city to maintain.
A good example is a plaza that developer Clay Carley is proposing to include as part of a condominium project on the corner of 5th and Idaho streets. The plaza would be accessible from Idaho Street. Obviously, it would be most valuable to the people living in Carley’s building, but it would be open to the public.
Efforts to contact Carley for comment were unsuccessful.
The city is in discussions with other developers about including mini-parks as part of their projects, Holloway said.
Clegg likes these partnerships.
“It’s well accepted in subdivisions for developers to either donate land or even develop a park and then donate it to the city,” she said. “And so, it only makes sense that in a Downtown area, you’d look for those same kind of opportunities, albeit smaller in scale.”
The city of Boise’s plan, “Downtown Parks and Public Spaces,” is scheduled for a Parks and Recreation Commission review Oct. 20. After that, the Planning and Zoning Commission will weigh in, and the City Council will vote on whether to finalize it.
Reducing reliance on driving is a big reason Boise’s planners embrace density and infill.
That approach makes parks important, Holloway said. Many people who live Downtown choose that life because they can walk to restaurants, bars or their jobs. Putting parks within a few blocks of their homes keeps them from getting in a car to go have a picnic lunch or give their dogs some exercise.
“The more gathering spaces we can provide that will provide a multitude of amenities for different people, the better,” Holloway said. “The whole idea is to get people, if you live Downtown, to be able get all of your services Downtown within walking distance or biking distance.”
In some cases, he said, parks don’t have to be permanent. Cities around the world have allowed tiny, temporary parks to pop up on street-side parking spaces or other public spots. The Idaho Walk Bike Alliance and Uber did this on 8th Street in Downtown Boise in September.
These are the kinds of things Boise can do to ensure Downtown is fun, prosperous and a good place to live, Holloway said.
“Where are the places where people are congregating?” he said. “Where do we have the higher density of folks? And then, what do we have in those areas that service those folks?”
Update on big projects
The Treasure Valley’s surging economy has put developers in competition with each other for the services of skilled laborers. Some projects, such as the mixed-use City Center Plaza, have been delayed. Other developers say they’ve struggled but managed to keep on schedule. Here’s a look at when some of the biggest projects should be completed:
Location: 1024 W. Bannock St.
Project type: 152-room hotel
Owner/developer: Rafanelli and Nahas
Status: Broke ground Jan. 27; completion expected spring 2017
Location: 119 S. 10th St.
Project type: 26 condominiums with private, covered parking
Owner/developer: Sawtooth Development Group of Ketchum
Status: Completion expected October or November.
MARRIOTT RESIDENCE INN HOTEL
Location: 410 S. Capitol Blvd.
Project type: 180-room hotel
Owner/developer: Jared Smith
Status: Broke ground in December; completion expected June 2017
Location: 500 S. Capitol Blvd.
Project type: 110-room boutique hotel
Owner/developer: Obie Development Partners
Status: Completion expected late 2016
Location: 401 S. 5th St.
Project type: 159-unit apartment building with covered parking and retail space
Status: Completion expected spring 2017
Location: 611 S. 8th St.
Project type: 28-unit condominium with private parking garage
Owner/developer: Mike Hormaechea
Status: Completion expected spring 2017
MAIN STREET STATION
Location: Underground, southeast corner of 8th and Main streets
Project type: bus station
Owner/developer: Valley Regional Transit
Status: Construction finished, opening set Oct. 24
SIMPLOT WORLD HEADQUARTERS/JUMP
Location: South side of Front Street between 9th and 11th streets
Project type: office building
Owner/developer: J.R. Simplot Co.
Status: Move-in October to January; landscaping spring 2017, which will allow adjacent and completed JUMP, which shares its grounds, to fully open.
Location: between Myrtle, 11th, Front and 13th streets
Project type: hotel, office, parking, retail
Owner/developer: Gardner Co.
Status: Completion expected in phases from summer 2017 to spring 2018
When will it be done?
Inn@500: Late 2016
Simplot World Headquarters: Spring 2017
Marriott Residence Inn: June 2017
SEE OUR UPDATE ON THE MANY PROJECTS, 6A