Boise leaders have long said high-density development Downtown is one of the best ways to handle growth. It avoids chewing up undeveloped land and makes efficient use of existing public services. It can even help keep housing affordable, the thinking goes, by adding new housing units to reduce buying pressure on older, cheaper ones.
“Density allows us to create more residences for people,” said Mike Journee, a spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter. “The more supply that we can foster, the more that eases the price challenge.”
High density means tall buildings, especially Downtown. Some Boiseans were surprised, then, that height was one reason the Planning and Zoning Commission denied developer Scot Ludwig’s plan for two multistory buildings in the Central Addition neighborhood outside the Downtown core. Commissioners said the proposed buildings, at 118 and 158 feet, were too tall.
Ludwig, a member of the Boise City Council, said he won’t give up. His fight brings Downtown into a divide that’s emerging across the city as developers’ plans for dense projects collide with residents’ desire to preserve their neighborhoods’ less-dense characters.
“If Boise wants residential density Downtown, it’s going to have to support taller buildings,” Ludwig said. He said his plan is “going to test the city of Boise’s view on density.”
The commission found that Ludwig’s proposed buildings — a nine-story, 147,500-square-foot structure on the southeast corner of 5th and Broad Streets; and an 11-story, 130,200-square-foot tower on the northeast corner — are incompatible with the neighborhood and inconsistent with Boise’s master plan for the Central Addition, which recommends a lower height limit for the space where Ludwig’s south tower would go.
Some opponents of Ludwig’s project say he has a conflict of interest, since he’s a city councilman and a commissioner of the city’s urban renewal agency.
The renewal agency concluded that Ludwig’s involvement doesn’t violate state law. Ludwig said he hasn’t spoken to any city of Boise elected official or staffer about the project, except for about a year ago, when he notified Clegg, then the City Council president, of his plans. He said he will sit out the council’s appeal hearing, scheduled for June 5.
Ludwig appealed to the City Council, on which he has served since 2015. He has changed his plan to include 30 condominiums in the south building instead of three floors of office space. That aligns the project with City Hall’s goal of encouraging more housing Downtown.
His development has found an ally in the Downtown Boise Neighborhood Association. “We think it’s a vital component in moving Boise forward into having additional residential space for folks to live in,” said Marty Jacobs, the association’s president.
If density is good, why the denial?
Why the denial if Boise is so intent on promoting density Downtown?
First, it’s important not to read too much into the Planning and Zoning decision. The council often overrules it.
Second, the precise location of Ludwig’s project is one reason some Boiseans find its height objectionable. Yes, it is in the Downtown area. And the north tower, the taller of the two, is on a lot that’s zoned for unlimited height.
But the south tower’s lot is zoned to be a transition between the highest-density area of Downtown and lower-density commercial areas and neighborhoods. It has a height limit of 45 feet.
Such a transition is needed between Downtown’s high-rises and the Central Addition, said Dan Everhart, an architectural historian who lives a few blocks away.
The Central Addition was one of the first subdivisions outside Boise’s original townsite. Civic and business leaders lived alongside working-class renters after the neighborhood was platted in 1890. After the Union Pacific Railroad laid track on Front Street in 1903, the area declined rapidly. Most of its grand homes, some of which were architecturally unique in Boise, have since been demolished or relocated.
Neighborhood character lost forever
The last of them stands at 405 S. 4th St. Its original carriage house would be a few feet from the east wall of Ludwig’s south tower.
Everhart fought for more than a decade to preserve the the Central Addition’s old houses. He lost a key battle when LocalConstruct, a development firm, bought four houses so it could replace them with The Fowler, its new seven-story, 159-apartment building at 5th and Myrtle streets that is named for one of the neighborhood’s original residents.
Everhart has come to grips with the fact that the neighborhood is in flux and much of its character has been lost forever. He favors putting buildings on the neighborhood’s many empty lots, but he still opposes Ludwig’s project.
Its most egregious flaw, he said, is a 100-foot-wide skybridge linking the towers across Broad Street. But he also thinks the southern tower would create “a pretty jarring juxtaposition” so close to the carriage house and four two-story rental homes just east of Ludwig’s property.
“Density in Downtown is good, and we want more people living down here,” he said. “There are — I don’t think it’s an exaggeration — 100 places in Downtown Boise where that project, maybe minus the garage on the street, could or should go.”
Old Downtown core is now too small
In general, Boise zoning and its comprehensive plan anticipate Downtown will have the city’s tallest buildings, with gradually shorter structures radiating outward. There are some exceptions, such as property along Whitewater Park Boulevard, which also is zoned for unlimited height.
Beyond that, there’s not much guidance for the long-term future of Downtown. The city should consider changing that,said Elaine Clegg, a city councilwoman and planning expert who favors dense, walkable urban development. The high-rise area will grow outward, she said, and Boise mustdecide what it wants.
“Our Downtown core was essentially 10 square blocks for a really long time, and it’s clear that a city of 230,000 needs a bigger Downtown core than that,” Clegg said.
Seattle allows extremely high density and tall buildings — the 933-foot Columbia Center or, just across 5th Avenue, the 722-foot Municipal Tower — in a small downtown footprint. By comparison, Downtown Boise’s tallest building stands at 323 feet.
Washington, D.C., has a different approach. It allows medium (by big-city standards) density with height limitations of around 100 feet across a much wider area.
Portland strikes a good balance between the Seattle and Washington, D.C., models, Clegg said. She said Nashville, Tennessee, is grappling with a need for bigger downtown buildings and the preservation of historic buildings — something Boise is likely to confront.
She said Boise zoning hasn’t caught up to the amount of development Downtown Boise has undergone the past five years. For example, the transitional zone that applies to Ludwig’s south tower could use some tweaking, perhaps allowing for taller buildings, she said.
More housing promotes affordability
Housing has become more expensive as Downtown has grown up. Most of the new construction has been office buildings or hotels. Those projects have driven up the cost of Downtown property, which makes it harder for residential developers to keep rents down.
And though many new apartments and condos are being built now, the extra supply hasn’t decreased prices. At least not yet.
North Endresident Patrick Spoutz thinks that decrease will happen, as long as developers like Ludwig keep building new housing. Spoutz points to Seattle, where rents show signs of stabilizing after more than 30,000 new apartments came on the market between 2013 and 2017.
He shrugs off opposition to a skybridge. “Aesthetic concerns like that, for me, weigh relatively small compared to the benefits of people spending less than 30 percent of their income on housing,” he said.
“People in denser areas are often more productive,” Spoutz said. “You can support more interesting cultural things when you have a dense city. People can walk. People can bike. Mayor (David) Bieter has this fantasy of this [public transportation] circulator. Well, the more dense the Downtown is, the more that would make sense.”
Journee, the city spokesman, said density fosters a variety of prices for housing, which makes for a fairer, more economically diverse area.
“As density improves, then services and other things like restaurants and grocery stores ... follow it into those areas through simple demand, making that area even more livable,” he said. “Then people are able to walk or bike to do things that they normally would have to get in their car to go do if they lived in a more traditional single-family home neighborhood.”
Ludwig warns of empty lots for parking
Ludwig said his project will help Downtown. He pointed out that, although the Central Additionneighborhood master plan anticipates a residential zone with buildings of three to six stories on his property, the same document calls for the elimination of surface parking lots, which is what his parcels are being used for now.
And the master plan isn’t a set of specific rules. Instead, it offers general guidance about what types of buildings belong where, city planner Cody Riddle said. Projects that don’t follow the letter of the plan can still comply with its broad intent. Ludwig believes his does.
Ludwig predicted that his lots and others in the Central Addition will remain empty parking areas for the foreseeable future if the city enforces height limitations. Land and construction costs have increased so much that only taller buildings will be profitable, he said.
“As you try to handle all the growth and do it in a smart way, density Downtown is the answer,” he said.