Boise & Garden City

From ‘a great dream’ to a Boise landmark, here’s how the Greenbelt came to be

In 1961, Boise officials were planning for growth when they commissioned a comprehensive general plan for the burgeoning city.

When that plan was unveiled in 1963, researchers at California-based consulting firm Atkinson Associates predicted that the city’s population of 53,000 would triple by 1985. The Atkinson plan mapped out guidelines for building Boise’s residential, commercial and industrial spaces to handle the boom. Amid the prescriptions for new schools, apartment buildings and arterial streets in the 50-page plan was a suggestion that would come to define the city.

“Acquire land along the Boise River so as to create a continuous green belt of public lands stretching along the river throughout the entire length of the community,” Atkinson Associates advised.

Boiseans took heed. For several years, officials and residents pushed the idea in fits and starts, finally adopting a Boise River Greenbelt plan and designating an official Greenbelt Committee in 1969, the foundation for the 50th anniversary of the pathway that the city celebrates this week.

The Boise River and Greenbelt

In the years before the city commissioned the Atkinson plan, no one would have ever proposed a pathway along the Boise River. Treated as a dumping ground, the water contained raw sewage and heaps of trash. Before dams were built upstream, the river regularly flooded and shifted in its gravel bed, said Brandi Burns, history programs manager for the city of Boise.

In the late 1940s, voters approved a bond for a sewage treatment plant and the city banned dumping outside of approved landfills.

“People started to think about the river as an amenity rather than something to treat as a toilet,” Burns said in an interview.

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The river and its banks were a dump before they were a beloved public amenity. Some old car bodies were filled with rocks, and then covered with topsoil to create landfill. This photo was taken in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Provided by Gina Onweiler
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By 1955, the creation of Lucky Peak Dam made the river flows easier to control.

“We started to get more flood control that shaped the river in a way it hadn’t been before,” Burns said.

The local Jaycees started a raft race down the river, solidifying its status as a place to recreate. But the banks of the river were still covered in poison oak and dotted with remnants of decades of garbage dumping, including old cars and piles of barbed wire.

When the Atkinson plan pointed to the Boise River as a place for the public to gather, the idea struck some residents as perfect. Among them was Bill Onweiler, a real estate appraiser who won a seat on the Boise City Council in 1965.

“Somebody else had the idea (and said), ‘Wouldn’t this be great?’ ” recalled Bill’s daughter, Gina Onweiler. “He just started establishing the foundation.”

Fighting for the Greenbelt

Onweiler quickly became one of the most vocal and well-known proponents of the Greenbelt, touting the idea alongside groups like the Kiwanis Club, Junior Chamber of Commerce and Girl Scouts. By January of 1966, the Boise City Council had adopted a joint resolution from Boise City Planning and Zoning and the Board of Park Commissioners outlining “the green belt concept,” according to Statesman archives.

The city began sourcing federal grants to fund the project and “broke ground” on both sides of the Capitol Boulevard Bridge in November of 1966, moving dirt from the YMCA building excavation to grade the bank down to the river as part of a landscaped tourist rest stop, the Statesman reported.

“The city administration has discussed the Green Belt frequently the past year,” the Statesman reported, “but few realize it has been actively engaged in obtaining right-of-way at several points along the Boise River. This has been accomplished largely through horse-trading, since the city has budgeted a minimal amount of money for outright land purchases.”

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Officials broke ground on an early version of the Greenbelt in November of 1966 near the Capitol Boulevard Bridge. Idaho Statesman archive

Clearly proponents would need a larger budget if they hoped to create the citywide pathway they envisioned. So in 1967, Bill Onweiler and fellow councilman Sherm Perry headed to Washington, D.C., to drum up funds. The pair met with Sens. Len B. Jordan and Frank Church, and returned home with a check for $100,000.

In 1968, Boise Mayor Jay Amyx recruited Gay Davis Hammer, an avid supporter of the Greenbelt with a history of studies in land use planning, to promote a Greenbelt plan. Hammer said in a phone interview that she “worked with the best and brightest in Boise at that time” to commission the design report from former Boise City Planning Director Arlo Nelson.

Nelson completed the comprehensive plan for the Boise River Greenbelt through his consulting firm, Planning Research/West, in 1969.

“This submission is made with the confidence that the Greenbelt will be a lasting resource which will be a credit to the City and the State of Idaho,” Nelson wrote in the report.

He outlined a plan for a multi-use pathway stretching from the “rather rural” east end of the city down to Ann Morrison Park, which was built in 1959. The plan was ambitious, calling for horse rentals, an aquatheater, picnic areas and an arboretum, among other amenities.

The same year, the city established a Greenbelt Committee. The city marks the committee’s creation as the official anniversary for the pathway, according to Boise Department of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Bonnie Shelton.

“We know that the Atkinson Report and other planning for the pathway was well underway ahead of 1969, but the city has celebrated the Greenbelt’s anniversary related to 1969 due to these important steps that truly helped make the Greenbelt a reality,” Shelton said in an email.

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Boise City Councilmen Bill Onweiler, left, and Sherm Perry, center, make their Greenbelt pitch to Sen. Frank Church in Washington, D.C., in 1967. Provided by Gina Onweiler

Building the Greenbelt

With the creation of the committee, work on the Greenbelt moved forward in earnest.

“I think (initially) people had a raised eyebrow, like, ‘OK Councilmember Onweiler, that’s a great dream,’ ” current Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said in a phone interview. “And then people started to see it wouldn’t come together overnight. It would come together in pieces.”

Committee members scouted pathway locations, worked to acquire land and promoted the Greenbelt whenever they could. Bill Onweiler created a film about the Greenbelt that he showed to Boy Scout troops, Rotary clubs and “anyone who would watch it,” his daughter said.

“It wasn’t easy to get the financing together,” Gina Onweiler said. “(The video) was part of trying to get the public’s support.”

The public largely supported the idea. In 1971, the Statesman reported that “a recent survey showed a sizable majority in favor of the Greenbelt. City Council candidates are spouting pro-greenbelt positions. Bumpers on Boise autos are greening up with ‘Greenbelt Now’ pronouncements.”

But the committee, now led by Hammer, was still working to transfer the Greenbelt “from a planners’ concept to the people’s reality.”

Under Hammer’s guidance, the Greenbelt Committee made several key property acquisitions, but it wasn’t easy. While scouting one site with other committee members, Hammer said the group was “held up by a landowner on a ditch bank holding a rifle.”

“He told us where we could put the Greenbelt ... and said there would never be a Greenbelt anywhere near his ditch,” Hammer said. “We had a lot of community support, but yes, there were people who objected.

“Those were the challenges. They were nitty gritty,” added Hammer, who now lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. “You all that live there now are the beneficiaries of building a solid foundation.”

As the committee amassed land near Ann Morrison and Julia Davis parks, development began. The first paved portion of the Greenbelt opened in tandem with Shoreline Park, 1375 W. Shoreline Dr., in July of 1975. By then $500,000 had been spent on land acquisitions and nearly $135,000 on development, much of it secured through grants.

The following year, the city of Boise asked Ada County to join in purchasing and acquiring easements as plans for the Greenbelt began to extend out to the Lucky Peak area. At that point, the city owned 75% of riverside land within city limits and was working to acquire the remaining land through deals with landowners and developers.

“There was no big donor for the Greenbelt,” said Burns, the city historian, “... so they had to be creative.”

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Tina Karlson and Suzanne Karlson ride along the Greenbelt with little Kyle Martinez enjoying the ride on Memorial Day 1999. Pete Zimowsky The Idaho Statesman archive

The city continued to develop — and, thanks to flooding, repair — the pathway through the ‘80s, though gaps remained near Eagle Island State Park, the Plantation development in Northwest Boise, the stretch from Glenwood Street to Willow Lane, and the Barber and Municipal park areas.

After building out the Greenbelt in the center of town, the city slowly started to acquire riverfront property radiating to the outskirts. By the summer of 1990, the Greenbelt covered 21 miles.

It was so popular that users worried it had become crowded, the Statesman reported, and arguments abounded over whether bicyclists and equestrians should have access to some or all portions of the Greenbelt. Some Boiseans balked at paving the pathway.

“People wanted the path to be different things,” Burns said.

The Boise Police Department began patrolling the Greenbelt by bike, and the Greenbelt Committee, which continued into the late 1990s, acquired enough additional land to bring the pathway total to 24 miles in Boise alone by 1999. The Greenbelt had also become an inspiration across the Treasure Valley, with extensions cropping up in Garden City, Eagle, Meridian and Canyon County.

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Officers Mike Riley and Dan Barber of the Boise Police Mounted Patrol ride their horses along the Boise Greenbelt in Julia Davis Park on Feb. 24, 2001. Idaho Statesman archive

50th anniversary of the Greenbelt

Today, at 25 miles long, the Greenbelt spans the length of the city on both sides of the river, the way Atkinsons Associates envisioned it would in 1963. Parks and Rec director Holloway said the pathway was finished in 2016, when the department constructed the last mile of Greenbelt on the south side of the river from Main Street to Americana Boulevard, creating tunnels under Main Street and Fairview Avenue.

“When I look at how difficult it was to do that last mile, I think of the visionaries who had to do that for 24 miles,” Holloway said. “It really took a lot of work from a lot of people.”

The city plans to continue working on the pathway, replacing aging asphalt portions with concrete, which will last longer, as needed.

The 50th anniversary events this week will be the first celebration of the completed Greenbelt. Hammer, who helped spur its creation, will be in Boise to attend, as well Gina Onweiler and her family.

Bill Onweiler, who died in 2010, never got to see the completed pathway, but Gina said he witnessed what he had hoped for: providing access to the public.

“He was so happy when he saw people using (the Greenbelt) for what it was intended for,” Gina Onweiler said. “I think he just wanted to contribute what he could.”

Hammer echoed that sentiment.

“We thought we had big dreams,” she said. “And we did. But I just think generation after generation has improved on what we did.”

Greenbelt Anniversary events

Thursday, Sept. 19: Kickoff event at the Egyptian Theatre, 700 W Main St., at 6:30 p.m. Mayor David Bieter will speak about the individuals who helped create the Greenbelt and who will shape its future. Tickets are free, but registration is required. Register online at cityofboise.org.

Friday, Sept. 20: Time capsule unveiling at Shoreline Park, 1375 W. Shoreline Dr., at 10:30 a.m. City leaders will open a time capsule buried in 1999 during celebrations for the Greenbelt’s 30th anniversary.

Walking and bike tours from the Ann Morrison Park Old Timer’s Shelter, various times. These afternoon history tours will be led by guides detailing the Greenbelt’s past. Register online at cityofboise.org.

Saturday, Sept. 21: Boise Goes the ExtraMile run/walk at ExtraMile Arena, 1401 W Cesar Chavez Ln., at 10:30 a.m. This milelong fun run/walk takes participants along the Boise River Greenbelt near Boise State University. A prerace party is scheduled from 9 to 11 a.m. Register for the race online at cityofboise.org.

Food truck rally and party at Ann Morrison Park, 1000 S Americana Blvd., from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Celebrations continue near the park fountain with food, games and more.

Free jazz concert at Ann Morrison Park, 1000 S Americana Blvd., at 6 p.m. This event is family-friendly.

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