In the 1990s, as she was campaigning for re-election, City Councilwoman Carolyn Terteling made a point of visiting neighborhoods in West Boise.
The area was growing rapidly, and people who lived there suspected that City Hall thought of them as second-class citizens compared to people in the East End, where Terteling lived, the North End or Downtown.
Terteling knew all about this perception. That’s part of why she went.
“And I remember going into one fellow’s home, and I was very apprehensive,” Terteling said. “He told me to sit in this big wing-back chair, and I said, ‘Is this the electric chair?’ And everybody laughed. And they were very kind and good to me, but they expressed that concern.”
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At the time, pro-Downtown bias might have been a fair charge to level against city leaders, she said. Half the City Council lived in the East End neighborhood and another member lived in the North End. The lack of diversity at City Hall was one reason Terteling, after she became mayor, appointed Maryanne Jordan from West Boise to fill an empty spot on the council.
Fair or not, some Boiseans still believe their elected leaders care more about Downtown and its next-door neighborhoods than the city’s outlying areas.
“I hear this from a lot of people,” said Sara Baker, a West Bench resident who served with Terteling on the City Council and is now an Ada County Highway District commissioner. “What I hear is, ‘They only care about Downtown.’ ”
Today, council members Elaine Clegg and Lauren McLean live in the North End. Mayor Dave Bieter lives in the East End, as does Scot Ludwig, appointed to the council by Bieter early this year. Councilman Ben Quintana lives east of the East End in Harris Ranch. Jordan, now council president, recently moved to the Depot Bench neighborhood. TJ Thomson lives on the edge of the West Valley neighborhood.
“My current perception would be that they’re very much more deeply committed to the whole picture than maybe we used to be years ago,” Terteling said. “I don’t see the bias. I think I see more concern and understanding and willingness to deal — I hope.”
THE CITY’S HEARTBEAT
To some degree, as Downtown goes, so goes Boise.
Downtown is the most intensely used part of the city. More people work there than on any other piece of ground its size in the state. It is the home to city, county and state governments, as well as lobbyists and a dozen other types of businesses that cling to those governments.
Many of the people who live on the Bench or in the North End, Harris Ranch and Northwest Boise have Downtown jobs. It’s home to a dense collection of bars, restaurants and cultural outlets.
“A lot of it is just the function of scale. It’s a function of a cluster of restaurants and bars and things that attract people like parks — anything from the Anne Frank Memorial to the new cancer pavilion (at Julia Davis Park),” said Rob Perez, president and CEO of Northwest Bank Idaho, on the western edge of Downtown. “There are those things that create this attraction and this sense of place. It’s hard to replicate that.”
For those reasons, Perez said, it’s natural for the city government to put a special focus on getting Downtown right.
But Baker said the resources City Hall spends on Downtown detract from Boise’s neighborhoods, even nearby ones such as the East End and North End.
“Quite frankly, I don’t see them concentrating on pretty much any other area in the city at all,” she said.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
About 80 percent of Boise’s general fund goes to services such as police, fire protection, parks, public art and libraries, which are spread fairly evenly across the city. In recent years, the city has opened community centers and fire stations on the Bench and in West Boise, bought land for parks and launched the Energize our Neighborhoods program to help neighborhoods communicate their priorities and ideals to City Hall. City Hall West, headquarters for the fire and police departments, is located in West Boise.
Jordan said the notion that the City Council, mayor’s office and city staff are dismissive of those areas “could not be more wrong.”
“Unless a person can give me a data-driven reason for that opinion, I strongly disagree,” said Jordan, who is now president of the City Council and a state senator representing much of the Central Bench.
In 2008 and 2009, the city opened library branches in the West Bench, Central Bench and Collister neighborhoods — a project that started when Baker and Terteling were on the council. It is now designing a fourth branch in Bown Crossing in Southeast Boise.
Library director Kevin Booe said the city deliberately set out to breathe some life into neighborhoods that had deteriorated.
“One of our goals was to take some gray space, if you will — some of these shopping centers that needed a little bit of help and neighborhoods that needed a little better access — and put a library there,” Booe said. “A stable tenant, an anchor, a gathering space. And I think it’s been very successful. At all three of those locations, I think it revitalized their shopping centers, gave the neighborhood kind of an anchor and a focal point. You know, you see between 500 and 700 people a day visiting each one of those locations.”
Police Chief Bill Bones plans to establish a Downtown station soon, but on some level that’s a math decision. The urban core generates a disproportionate amount of calls for police service because lots of people from all over town and the Treasure Valley go there for activities, many of which involve alcohol. Bones believes a station that headquarters Downtown officers will provide a more effective law enforcement there. His long-term goal is to open additional police stations around the city.
Organized neighborhood associations can make a lot of noise when they unite behind a cause.
Those neighborhoods tend to be populated by well-off, well-connected residents. Poorer neighborhoods have official associations to represent them, but they tend to be less responsive when, say, a developer proposes a controversial project.
That is a worrisome dynamic, Brandy Wilson, a former Boise Planning and Zoning commissioner, told City Council members at a June 30 public hearing. Wilson said she saw too much of it during her tenure.
“The problem I saw was an economic justice issue,” she said. “Affluent neighborhoods with lawyers living in them and neighborhoods with a person like a Brandy Wilson or (former East End Neighborhood Association President) Deanna Smith received far more attention because the applicants knew they’d need to go above and beyond the city’s process. By contrast, I saw poor neighborhoods become subject to significant developments where they had little to no say. Applicants in these areas tended to only do their one required neighborhood meeting, even if the development created as large of a traffic impact as similar developments in more affluent and better supplied neighborhoods.”
But money, organization, connections and noise don’t guarantee victory.
For example, the East End neighborhood, which has perhaps the most effective association in the city, came out in force to stop one of the most controversial projects ever to come through City Hall: a proposed $400 million expansion of St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center’s Downtown campus. Dozens of East Enders showed up at City Hall at the same June 30 hearing where Wilson testified. They urged the City Council to deny the St. Luke’s plan because it would include closing part of Jefferson Street, the main connection between the neighborhood and Downtown. The meeting lasted eight hours.
A week later, the council voted to approve the St. Luke’s plan with a few conditions. Still, the neighborhood had the council’s — and the news media’s — attention for months.
Jordan acknowledged that some neighborhood associations are more consistent about monitoring development and changes in their areas. But even the least active ones educate themselves and form coherent, united responses when something big comes along.
“The level of activity tends to ebb and flow depending on the issues,” Jordan said. “It’s been my experience over the years that any neighborhood association, given a controversial issue, can turn out a great number of people if a great number of people are concerned.”
Parks are one amenity that’s long been lacking on the Bench and in other outlying neighborhoods.
In large part, that’s because of geography. The city’s biggest and most popular parks — Ann Morrison, Julia Davis, Marianne Williams and Kathryn Albertson — lie along the Boise River in what’s now called a “Ribbon of Jewels.” Even though some of the Bench neighborhoods are close to those parks as the crow flies, getting into them requires a trip through Downtown or close to it.
City leaders know this and have been working on plans for years to put more parks in the outlying areas. In 2013, Bieter proposed and the council approved putting a bond measure on the ballot to raise $5.5 million for parks in the Central and West Bench neighborhoods, the most underserved in the city.
The bond failed in November 2013 when the votes in favor came five points shy of the two-thirds required for passage.
Since then, the city has worked on plans to pay for the Bench parks out of a city account set aside for all types of big projects. They include Sterling Park on the corner of Mitchell and Irving streets; Pine Grove Park at Shoup Avenue and Maple Grove Road; and Franklin Park, located at the corner of Orchard Street and Franklin Road.
Opportunity is one reason some areas around the city have more parks than the Bench, Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said. Sometimes, a benefactor donates land or money to develop a park. The city jumps at those offers because park development is a huge upfront cost. Donations are a chance to get new parks without dipping into city savings.
A good example is Marianne Williams Park south of the Harris Ranch area. In the 1990s, the city of Boise identified the need for a park in that area, Holloway said. Larry Williams, who moved to Boise from Midvale in 1966, donated 72 acres in 2005 for a park in honor of his wife as part of negotiations over the larger Barber Valley development.
Those are great opportunities for the city, but there’s no easy way to guide which neighborhood they’ll come from.
Terteling said she heard suggestions when she was on the council that Boise elect council members by districts as a way to make sure all areas of the city were adequately represented. Today all six council members and the mayor are elected at-large.
She said she resisted the idea then and still opposes it. Jordan is in the same camp for the same reason.
“It can make people very parochial,” she said. “If their only accountability is to a certain district, then they’re not going to be making decisions on a citywide basis. Right now, when we sit down to do budgeting and talk about parks, planning and everything, what are we looking at? We’re looking at where the needs are citywide, not people making deals and fighting for their own districts.”
Baker offers a middle ground: Elections in which candidates can only run for council seats that correspond to the districts they live in, but allowing voters from all over the city to decide those contests. She said that could improve the Boise council’s responsiveness to issues in every corner of the city without encouraging the parochialism that worries Jordan and Terteling.
“Philosophy and geography are different things, but they’re both very important. And sometimes, your geography forms your philosophy,” she said. “If everybody lives in the East End or everybody lives in the North End, they have no idea what’s going on in the Southeast, the Southwest, the Bench, the West Bench, the Northwest. They just know their basic little area. They have their own little routes that they follow and that’s where they stay.”