Struggling Boise neighborhood seeks growth
Alysha Prisbrey and Brandee Devine walk from their home to CopenRoss Growlers and other businesses in the Hillcrest Shopping Center at Overland and Orchard streets.
They like that they can walk rather than jump into a car to drive Downtown or somewhere else. They like that employees at CopenRoss, Granny C’s Bakery and Planet Fitness, among other shops, make them feel appreciated.
“It’s like a community in your neighborhood,” Prisbrey said.
A lawsuit filed last month by hometown grocery giant Alberstons against CopenRoss, Granny’s C’s and the Hillcrest Shopping Center’s California owner brought an outpouring of support for the two small businesses. The outcry highlighted Hillcrest itself and, by association, its neighborhood: a once-thriving shopping center in a struggling neighborhood that’s seen better days, but where residents aspire for amenities, like small businesses whose owners greet them by name.
Overland Road, which the shopping center faces, marks the southern edge of the Central Bench neighborhood, known as “the Bench” since at least 1900. It takes up a square mile, bordered also by Curtis Road to the west, the railroad tracks north of Franklin Road to the north, and Roosevelt Street to the east.
It’s home to 4,715 residents who mostly live in modest single-family homes or small apartment complexes and earn a median income of $28,813 per year, just over half the city’s $52,417 median, according to a neighborhood plan published earlier this year that uses data from the 2016 American Community Survey. Home values are a quarter less than those in the rest of Boise.
Across Overland is the newer, somewhat more prosperous Hillcrest neighborhood, also encompassing roughly a square mile, with a population of 4,094 and a median income of $42,587. The bakery, growler shop and other Hillcrest Shopping Center businesses are as close to them as Central Bench dwellers are.
Before the mall: Hillcrest center’s heyday
The Central Bench traces its neighborhood roots to its original hub, the one-room Franklin School, built in 1892, at Franklin and Orchard roads and replaced by a two-story sandstone building in 1905.
Dairy Farms and fruit orchards served by the Ridenbaugh Canal began disappearing during World War II, replaced by inexpensive residential lots. Stores and offices went up on Orchard and Overland roads. New homes were built west of Orchard Street from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s.
The shopping center opened in 1963 and quickly became a bustling destination filled with shops including Woolworth’s, Alexander’s Men’s Store, Welles Department Store, Kinney’s Shoe Store and Thrifty Drug Store. Grand Central, a department store later bought by Fred Meyer, came later, along with Albertsons and the Plaza Twin theaters.
“That was a place that drew people from all over before the mall was built,” said Randy Johnson, president of the Central Bench Neighorhood Association.
The 1988 opening of Boise Towne Square drew customers away from Hillcrest, as it did from other shopping centers in Boise. A few years later, the Central Bench also lost WinCo, the discount grocery then known as Waremart, which began in 1967 with an Overland Road store east of Hillcrest, near the current Country Club Reel Theatre. The Boise company abandoned that store for new ones on Fairview Avenue and across from the Ada County Courthouse, areas of greater wealth.
A decade ago, the city of Boise opened branch libraries at Hillcrest and two other shopping centers, Collister on State Street in West Boise and at the recently renamed Idaho Asian Plaza at Cole and Ustick roads.
“We believed that putting the libraries helped revitalize these shopping centers,” Council City Council Pro Tem Elaine Clegg said. “It was such an inexpensive idea to try.”
Other factors also took their toll: changing buying habits, commercial development along Milwaukee, Emerald and other streets near the mall, the revitalization of Downtown and development along Overland Road a couple of miles farther west of Hillcrest.
In recent decades, many Central Bench businesses suffered as commercial development went elsewhere. Building owners earned fewer profits to reinvest in their buildings. Many Central Bench buildings have become rundown.
Three years ago, the neighborhood association opposed plans by Maverik to open a gas station and convenience store at the corner of Orchard and Franklin roads. Neighbors felt the gas station was incompatible with a planned park that opened last year.
Across Overland, freeway helps businesses
Business is more robust in the Hillcrest neighborhood, with its more robust mix of businesses, especially on Orchard Street south of Overland, said Dan Loughrey, president of the Hillcrest Neighborhood Association.
“That’s pretty much all developed, as far as businesses go,” Loughrey said by phone. “There’s a Jackson’s and a Maverik and Tates Rents and a great big car dealership [Dennis Dillion GMC and Fiat].”
The proximity to the freeway has made that corridor good for business, he said.
Albertsons lawsuit’s impact
At the Hillcrest Shopping Center, Albertsons has been an anchor tenant for decades. Its importance allowed the Boise company to dictate lease terms that prevent competitors from moving into the shopping center.
Late last month, Albertsons sued CopenRoss, the growler ship; Granny C’s, the bakery; and the shopping center’s owner, FPA Shoppes at Hillcrest. The owners of CopenRoss and Granny C’s, said they weren’t told about the restrictions when they located there.
After the lawsuit made news, CopenRoss and Granny C’s business exploded. CopenRoss saw “nearly every customer we have, plus new ones” come through the doors, owner Lisa Copenspire-Ross said.
Albertsons quickly dropped the two shops from the lawsuit, leaving only Hillcrest’s owner, which has declined to comment.
Some small businesses have struggled in the Hillcrest center. Strongline Espresso closed earlier this year. Prisbrey and Devine lament the loss.
Last year, the Hillcrest Shopping Center, with a number of store vacancies, was listed for sale for $19.6 million. The listing, which offered 25.5 acres, 173,476 square feet of shop space and 1,024 parking spaces, was later withdrawn.
Other stores in the shopping center include Family Dollar, Idaho Pizza Co., Camp Rhino, a state liquor store and May Nails & Spa Salon.
The Hillcrest library, located west of the Albertsons store in the main section of the shopping center, expanded a few years ago into a former thrift-store space and now attracts 20,000 library users a month, Clegg said. That provides Hillcrest merchants with a chance to attract added customers, she said.
Homes rise in price, but still below Boise average
Home values are rising, as the rising tide of Treasure Valley housing prices lifts all boats. Last year, the median price of the 547 homes sold in the real estate industry’s zone that includes both the Central Bench and Hillcrest neighborhoods was $240,700, up from $135,450 five years earlier.
But many neighborhood streets lack sidewalks, or the ones in place are crumbling or have bicycle tire-puncturing goathead weeds growing through the cracks. Improvements would make it more enticing for residents to shop in their own neighborhood.
The neighborhood plan was developed by the city and the neighborhood association. It’s meant to help revitalize the Central Bench and guide residential and commercial development. It reflects residents’ desire for activity centers, such as possible public plazas at Hillcrest and the Country Club Plaza shopping center.
Johnson said it’s hard for the Central Bench Neighborhood Association to play a large role in bringing new businesses to the area. The association, he said, focuses on providing input stressing neighborhood values when a new business looks to locate there.
“We’re not developers,” Johnson said. “We’re not opening businesses. When we have developments going in we try to be advocates for our neighborhood to put out what we’d like to see.”
Needed: More multifamily, leader says
The key to creating more business demand within the Central Bench, Johnson said, is to create more population density through multifamily housing projects.
It would help, Johnson said, to create places “like CopenRoss that are bikeable, that are walkable in the neighborhood so that when we get home from work, we get home from school, or we’re a stay-at-home parent, we can connect with places within our own neighborhood.”
“We want to create a place where people can come live, work and play,” he said.
Earlier this year, the city bought the Maverik lot at Franklin and Orchard for $1.9 million. The nearly 5-acre site could be used for mixed-use development, including housing and retail.
A proposed urban renewal district, under consideration by the city and the Capital City Development Corp., the city’s urban renewal agency, could help breathe new life into the Central Bench, as it did Downtown.
CCDC is eyeing several commercial districts on the Bench, including Overland Road, the gasoline tank farm between Curtis Road and Orchard Street south of Emerald Street, Latah Street and Vista Avenue for designation as an urban renewal district. A portion of the district would be located in the Central Bench neighborhood, with the rest in adjacent neighborhoods.
A feasibility study is expected to be completed next summer. CCDC could approve the plan and send it to the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council before the end of 2020.
“Urban renewal could be an important tool for helping that area evolve into a highly livable mixed-use area,” Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor David Bieter, said in an email. “Projects like the one we will undertake with our new property at Franklin and Orchard could set the tone for the entire area.”
For now, neighbors want places to gather. Devine said she’d like to see another coffee shop. “And while we have a lot of fast-food places nearby, I’d like to see more sit-down restaurants,” she said.
Copenspire-Ross of CopenRoss Growlers wants people to keep coming to the shopping center. She is happy that her business got a lot of new customers because of the publicity over the Albertsons lawsuit.
“We hope it continues and that people see the Hillcrest area as a viable place to shop,” she said.