Boise leaders’ vision for the city is embedded in two documents working their way toward becoming city law.
One aims for a residential revival in a sluggish neighborhood just south of Downtown. The other hopes to jump-start an industrial boom in an area near Micron that seems ripe but faces challenges above and below ground.
Government and business leaders are optimistic the plans will kick-start industrial and residential development in areas that have seen little.
“Sometimes you just need a little jab of a spur to get folks going,” City Council President Lauren McLean said in a telephone interview. “And this is a way that we can signal that these are priorities for us.”
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But there are detractors. A conservative watchdog sees the plans as government overreach that will raise taxes and make housing less affordable.
They will establish two new urban renewal districts.
One district, called Shoreline, would encompass 190 acres roughly bordered by the Boise River, Capitol Boulevard, River Street and the I-184 Connector, plus a chunk of land in the Lusk District south of the river between Capitol and La Pointe Street, two blocks east.
The other, called Gateway East, would have more than 10 times as much land, mostly west of Interstate 84 between the Broadway Avenue and Eisenman Road exits.
The City Council is scheduled to hold public hearings for the Shoreline district at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4, and for Gateway East at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 11. Final votes are scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 18. Passage appears likely. All of these actions will take place at City Hall.
If they give the go-ahead, Boise’s urban renewal agency, Capital City Development Corp., will have 20 years to install streets, utility lines, sidewalks, pathways, bridges and other infrastructure to attract the development the city wants to see.
What is urban renewal?
Urban renewal, in its current form, is an effort to spur growth or spruce up areas of a city that have deteriorated. The city created CCDC’s predecessor, the Boise Redevelopment Agency, in 1965, amid President Lyndon Johnson’s push for the Great Society.
Cities in Idaho establish urban renewal districts through ordinance, as Boise has done four times since 1987 and is doing now with Shoreline and Gateway East.
Property tax receipts are frozen for all taxing bodies. As the value of property in a district increases — through inflation or the construction of new buildings — CCDC takes any additional tax money above the amount property owners were paying at the time the district was established.
Idaho law requires urban renewal districts to expire after 20 years. The term was 30 years when Boise established Downtown’s Central District, which lies mostly between Capitol Boulevard and Front, Bannock and 9th streets, in 1987.
The Central District, the first urban renewal district in Idaho, expired in September. Over its 30-year lifespan, assessed property value inside its borders increased from $31.1 million to more than $370 million — almost 1,100 percent.
Supporters cite that as evidence of urban renewal’s value. A district can turn a suffering area’s fortunes around, they say.
CCDC took in almost $60 million in property taxes diverted from the city, school district and other taxing bodies during that time. In Boise, tax diversions to CCDC affect the city itself and the Boise School District the most.
The agency spent that money to build and renovate The Grove Plaza, install streetscape improvements, build parking garages and clean up the lot where Eighth & Main, Idaho’s tallest human-made structure, was built, among other improvements.
Now that the Central District is history, the taxing bodies will get more money. The city of Boise can expect almost $1 million per year, and the school district will get about $1.4 million, according to CCDC estimates.
Why opposition persists
That’s great, but it just shows what’s wrong with urban renewal, opponents say. All along, Boise has had to pay for police and fire protection for the Central District. This forces the city and school to raise taxes for everyone, Lindsay Atkinson of Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank, wrote in a Nov. 21 blog post.
The school district is concerned about the impact two new urban renewal districts will have on its bottom line, spokesman Dan Hollar said in an email. He said the district is talking to the city and CCDC to find ways to “mitigate some of the financial impacts.”
The key question — whose definitive answer is unknowable — is whether urban renewal spurs economic development, or if that development would have happened anyway.
Developers, economic development experts and politicians say the Central District played a big role in turning Downtown from a ghost town into the thriving residential-commercial district it is today.
“If you look at most successful downtowns, there has been an element of public-private partnership,” said Skip Oppenheimer, chairman and CEO of Oppenheimer Companies, in August. His company built the Wells Fargo building on 9th and Main streets in the Central District’s early days. “Cities that didn’t do this really have lost their downtowns. And it leads to just massive sprawl, which creates even higher public cost and a reduction in quality of life.”
Oppenheimer cites cities like Houston, Los Angeles and Phoenix, whose downtowns have for decades suffered from disinvestment and only now are recovering.
Atkinson is wary. She stops short of calling for the repeal of urban renewal but suggests several restrictions. They include requiring renewal agencies to get voter support before borrowing money to be paid back through property taxes, and limiting the number of districts a city can have, “so we don’t get instances like in Boise, where one district sunsets and then the city tries to immediately approve two new urban renewal districts to take its place.”
McLean, the City Council president, said there’s no connection between the timing of the Central District’s recent expiration and plans to establish two new districts.
“It’s just that we’re at a point in our history, or a point in our development, that we’re ready to do the next one,” she said.
Planes, trains and automobiles
For two decades, Boise government and Boise leaders have dreamed of an industrial corridor along I-84 southeast of Boise. It looks perfect — close to the airport, with quick access to two freeway exits and a major rail line.
A new urban renewal district wouldn’t be the first government attempt to spur commercial development in the Eisenman Road interchange area. In 1997, the Idaho Transportation Department built the interchange to open the door. A group of businessmen, including Leonard Eisenman, for whom the road was named, planned a 540-acre business park south of the Boise Factory Outlets mall. It never took off.
In 2000, the city bought 300 acres at the south end of Eisenman Road with the goal of kick-starting industrial development in the area.
That didn’t happen, either. There was a flash of hope in 2009, when, in the throes of the Great Recession, WinCo built a huge distribution center just west of Eisenman and north of the city’s land.
A few other businesses are sprinkled through the area, including Shopko and Fedex distribution centers south of Gowen Road; and Utility Trailer Sales of Boise and a car-auction business on Eisenman Road.
Across the Treasure Valley, vacancy rates for industrial space are pushing all-time lows, according to Boise commercial real estate firm Thornton Oliver Keller.
“This low vacancy rate, which indicates that the supply of industrial facilities is very closely meeting the demand, is being used to justify the development of this area for industrial capacity,” Atkinson said in an email. “However, what this statistic really shows is: The industrial vacancy rate of Boise is so low that any desired future industrial development will occur naturally, without the use of tax dollars.”
In economic development leaders’ eyes, though, Gateway East needs a government nudge.
“Boise’s industrial vacancy rates would suggest that we should be seeing more development,” CCDC Project Manager Matt Edmond said. “And a lot of the area hasn’t seen anything.”
Why? Businesses interested in putting a shop or warehouse in the area have balked at the expense of developing it, Edmond said.
First, they’d have to build roads between their buildings and the existing road network.
Then there’s the basalt problem. Beneath the ground lies a 3-million-year-old layer of basalt, a hard volcanic rock. Digging trenches for utility lines through that rock will add around $30 per linear foot to the normal cost of installing sewer and water pipes, and $15 per foot for fiber-optic lines, Edmond said.
All told, the district needs about $100 million worth of upgrades — mostly roads, sidewalks, paths and water, sewer and fiber-optic lines — to fulfill its potential as an industrial corridor, according to an analysis CCDC commissioned.
The agency will use most of that money to help private projects along instead of spending it upfront and hoping for development, Edmond said. In the district’s early years, before much tax money has accumulated, he said, private investors will pay for infrastructure and collect CCDC reimbursement later.
CCDC can put in the improvements Gateway needs for less money than if private companies were to build those connections one at a time, Edmond said.
The first project CCDC anticipates is widening the south end of Eisenman Road from two lanes to three. Subsequent work would phase in a network of streets south of Gowen Road and west of Eisenman, utility lines along the Gowen corridor and a pathway along the railroad track.
“What’s driving it is jobs,” CCDC Executive Director John Brunelle said. “We could all just leave it tumbleweeds and sagebrush and basalt, but we’re missing out on a real opportunity.”
Potential impact on affordable housing
But Atkinson, the Freedom Foundation writer, thinks the Gateway East district could scuttle Boise’s push for more affordable housing.
If CCDC’s improvements succeed in drawing new business to the area, she said, those companies will hire people, some of whom will move from outside Boise. That will drive up housing prices here.
She pointed to another, more direct threat: the potential loss of Blue Valley, a neighborhood of 200 mobile homes north of the WinCo distribution center that Eisenman established. Blue Valley residents are fighting a proposed trucking terminal on their north border. The fight galvanized Blue Valley’s residents to form the South Eisenman Neighborhood Association.
Bonnie Hardey, the association’s president, said she’s excited — cautiously — about Boise’s plan for an urban renewal district around her home, because it may lead to a buffer to separate the homes from the industry.
“Currently, with the way the city has opened up and been inclusive of us, I feel good about it,” Hardey said in a telephone interview.
Brunelle, CCDC’s executive director, said the agency wants to make sure its activities protect, not harm, Blue Valley.
“We’re not going to just come in with bulldozers and asphalt,” he said. “We need to be, and we are, mindful that people live there.”
The Shoreline proposal
Tumbleweeds and rock aren’t the problem in the Shoreline district. Instead, it’s a pattern of drab, half-century-old, car-centric, low-density buildings.
Take a walk along Shoreline Drive or River Street, and you’ll see plenty of parking spaces, and not much architecture besides squat buildings with big footprints — like the former Kmart on Americana Boulevard and the Post Office on 13th Street.
There’s some housing, both single- and multifamily, andsome multistory office buildings, like the ones next to the Arid Club and the Cottonwood Grille, along the Boise River Greenbelt.
Over the past five years, as the rest of Downtown roared, the city issued only a few building permits in the Shoreline district, said Shellan Rodriguez, CCDC’s real estate development manager.
City leaders want a stable of apartments and townhomes, retail stores, restaurants, bars, coffee shops and office space.
CCDC has already put its weight behind residential projects close to the district, though just outside its borders. The agency gave developers land for new condominiums on the northeast corner of River and 9th streets, and for apartments on Ash Street. It contributed $150,000 for sidewalks, street trees, historic streetlights, benches, irrigation and relocation of utility lines for the River Street Lofts on the northwest corner of River and 15th streets.
All of those projects are inside another urban renewal district: River Myrtle, Boise’s largest, established in 1996 with 340 acres roughly between the Boise River, Grove Street, Americana Boulevard and Broadway Avenue, though it would be dwarfed by Gateway East’s 2,600 acres. Some of the district will be moved to the Shoreline District.
Boise has two other districts: Westside and 30th Street. Westside includes 144 acres mostly between State, 8th, Grove and 16th streets. It was established in 2003 and will expire in 2026. The 30th Street District lies mostly between Main Street, Americana Boulevard, the Boise River and 22d Street, with spurs running up 27th Street and Whitewater Park Boulevard. Boise created it in 2014. It’s set to expire in 2033.
Sidewalks, roads and bridges
In Gateway East, CCDC expects to invest in streetscape improvements, utility lines, lighting and riverbank restoration.
The Lusk District, just south of the river and across Capitol Boulevard from Boise State University, would get sidewalks, curbs and gutters. Shoreline Drive might be extended from just west of 13th Street, where it stops now, east to 11th Street. CCDC hopes for at least one new bridge for bicycles, scooters and pedestrians to connect the Lusk District to the north side of the river, possibly at La Pointe Street or Dale Street.
The agency hopes this spurs the construction of new buildings, primarily apartments and condominiums.
What it won’t spur, at least as far as anyone can tell, is a stadium. Though developer Chris Schoen’s proposal to build a stadium at the corner of Shoreline and Americana Boulevard was the catalyst for establishing the Shoreline urban renewal district, CCDC’s plans for the district have continued since Schoen moved his sights to the West End.
‘In a perfect world’
CCDC must acquire easements, buy property or get some other type of permission to see many of its projects through.
Mike Francis, owner of Payette Brewing Co. at 733 S. Pioneer St., in the Shoreline district, said he’d at least listen if CCDC wanted to acquire some of his property to build a path or other improvement on it.
“Without actually seeing what they’re suggesting, I’d say maybe,” Francis said.
He likes the idea of adding more housing to the area, especially if it puts prospective customers within a short walk of his business. But plopping buildings down on the wide parking lots like the one on River Street just north of Payette could cause problems, he said, because the building only has about 30 of its own spaces. The company has arranged for use of the big lot.
As nice as it would be for customers to walk to Payette, Francis said, some will still drive.
“In a perfect world, it’d be great to add buildings along River Street,” he said. “But in practice, can that happen? I’m not sure.”