Boise & Garden City

This land was your land for bigger library, Boise. Then city leased it out — for 45 years

Sixteen years ago, the Boise City Council voted to buy an old grocery warehouse just west of the Downtown library and the land it sat on. One day, the council and then-Mayor Brent Coles reasoned, the library would need to expand to keep up with Boise’s growth. The city would need that land.

But when Mayor David Bieter announced plans this year for a big new library designed by a prominent international architect, the warehouse site wasn’t included. Instead, the proposed library stretches east toward Capitol Boulevard and south toward the Boise River. Its design calls for relocating The Cabin, the 1940 log cabin just south of the current library on Capitol Boulevard.

That choice is drawing criticism from some Boiseans who want The Cabin to stay where it is. They say the city made a mistake by allowing a business to move into the old warehouse with a 45-year lease.

“If we had had this in play, I think there might have been a chance to do both: keep The Cabin where it is and build a new library,” said Boise resident John Bertram, who wrote the 1996 operating plan for the literary group that operates The Cabin.

The criticism comes as a private campaign is raising money for the library and as the City Council prepares to move The Cabin across Capitol Boulevard into, or just north of, Julia Davis Park.

Most city leaders support the proposed library and say the early private fundraising, to pay for part of it, is going well. However, the plans have drawn critical letters to the editor and social-media comments over the fate of The Cabin, parking and the $85 million estimated cost. A new group calling itself Boise Working Together, cofounded by state Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, wants to put the library and a proposed stadium to citywide votes.

When Biomark leased the building in 2011, it requested a long-term lease to justify spending more than $1 million to refurbish the aging building. In exchange, the city provided the lease to the company that makes electronic tags and monitoring devices for fish and wildlife. Katherine Jones

How this happened

How did the parcel next door end up excluded from the expansion for which it was purchased?

In 2002, the city bought the parcel, the old Shaver’s grocery warehouse at 705 S. 8th St., for $1.5 million. It faces the back of the existing library across 8th Street. “We have the funds to purchase the property,” Coles said then. “We don’t have the funds to build libraries.”

Mike Wetherell, then a City Council member, said property available near the library was always considered for future expansion or for added parking. “We were always looking in that area, if there was something that came around at a decent price,” Wetherell told the Idaho Statesman.

Coles resigned early the next year over a spending and travel scandal that sent him to jail. Bieter was elected in 2004. Downtown library expansion plans were put on hold as the city opened branch libraries and the Great Recession slowed growth and tax revenues. The library and its friends group used the Shaver’s warehouse for storage and used-book sales.

In 2011, the city abandoned plans to save the site for library expansion by signing the 45-year lease with Rocky Mountain Management & Development. Rocky Mountain arranged for Biomark, a company that makes electronic tags for fish and wildlife research, to move into the warehouse.

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The Cabin, built in 1940, is the only example in Boise of what’s known as Finnish log construction, said Frank Eld, a member of Preservation Idaho’s board of directors. This style of construction requires no chinking because builders cut the logs so precisely that there’s no space between them when they’re stacked on top of each other, Eld said.

The city decided to lease the building — with 15,000 square feet of space and a 1-acre lot — to Biomark after learning the Boise company needed more space than its former headquarters on Americana Boulevard provided, said Mike Journee, a spokesman for Bieter. The city was still feeling the effects of the recession, and leaders felt leasing the warehouse would be worth it to keep the company from possibly leaving Boise, Journee said.

“Mayor Bieter was eager to create some economic opportunities, and we were doing everything we could to support businesses, doing everything we could to give them the tools so they could be successful in a very difficult economic environment,” Journee said in a phone interview.

Bertram questioned why the city gave Biomark such a long lease rather than a term of five or 10 years, with an option to renew, which might have allowed the city to use the property for library growth.

“To lock it up for 45 years makes no sense,” he said.

Journee said the building was rundown and “needed some tender loving care.” Biomark and its developer, Rocky Mountain, agreed to spend more than $1 million to improve it in exchange for a long-term lease.

This year, Biomark paid $39,074 to lease the building, Journee said. Because it is a city-owned property, no property tax is paid, but the lease is a fair deal considering its price and the improvements, Journee said.

How Moshe Safdie’s design for the proposed new library (in beige) would affect The Cabin. The bulbous shapes to the right of The Cabin are a children’s room and an adjoining outdoor children’s garden. This map also shows a new outdoor pavilion that opened this year in the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial just north of The Cabin. Provided by the city of Boise

Whither The Cabin?

Lori Dicaire, a Boisean who runs a Facebook group called Vanishing Boise, echoes Bertram’s criticism of the deal.

“Imagine that architect Moshe Safdie had an additional 1.32 acres of land on which to design the new library and that the city had instructed him to include the Cabin in his design,” Dicaire wrote in a post earlier this month. “There is a very good chance that the iconic 78-year old Cabin would be staying in its original historic location.”

Journee isn’t so sure. The consensus among hundreds of people who attended several workshops on the possible design for the library emphasized connecting the new library to the adjacent Greenbelt and the Boise River, he said.

“They said if we’re going to build this, it really needs to engage strongly with the river corridor and the Greenbelt,” Journee said. “Right now, that (existing library) building, which is in an old warehouse, doesn’t do that at all.

“I’m not entirely sure that having the Biomark property in play would have made a difference. It might not change the decision that The Cabin should move.”

Safdie’s design calls for the south side of the new library to be located 35 feet north of The Cabin’s north wall. An outdoor pavilion would come within 10 feet, something backers of The Cabin have lamented since the design first surfaced.

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Architect Moshe Safdie visited Boise in September 2018 to talk about his design for a new main library. Katherine Jones

Safdie: No one will know difference in 1 year

In September, Safdie told the Statesman that when The Cabin was built, no one thought its site would one day be considered for a major institution.

“As an outsider, I asked myself, would The Cabin and its users in the community lose anything if we picked The Cabin up, which we know we can do, carefully and responsibly, and moved it to another park setting with similar attributes?” Safdie said. “And my conclusion was, no, it would be fine, and nobody would know the difference after one year.”

Last month, the Boise City Council voted to move The Cabin but did not decide where it will go. City staffers presented three options: just north of Julia Davis Park and northeast of the Black History Museum; slightly south of that spot, just east of the museum and inside the park; or northwest of the Gene Harris Bandshell.

Council member Lisa Sanchez voted no, saying she wants to leave The Cabin where it is. Councilwoman Elaine Clegg also voted no.

“I would like to see our new library incorporate and make space for what is already there,” Sanchez said in November.

The council vote freed the city’s staff and Safdie to proceed with design and other work on the library knowing that The Cabin would go elsewhere. The council could decide in January which Julia Davis location will get it.

Reporter John Sowell has worked for the Statesman since 2013. He covers business and growth issues. He grew up in Emmett and graduated from the University of Oregon.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.