Boise & Garden City

Still a year to go on Vista improvements, but Boise, residents hopeful

See inside Boise's "Idea House"

Energize Our Neighborhoods is a Boise City program that aims to bring new programs to challenged neighborhoods across the city. The "idea House" on Atlantic Street will give residents an up-close look at the latest in sustainable, affordable livin
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Energize Our Neighborhoods is a Boise City program that aims to bring new programs to challenged neighborhoods across the city. The "idea House" on Atlantic Street will give residents an up-close look at the latest in sustainable, affordable livin

A preschool program so popular it has a waiting list. A new police substation. A house demonstrating the latest in sustainable construction.

They’re among several projects that are either done or in the works in Boise’s Vista neighborhood. It’s bordered by Overland Road, Federal Way, the New York Canal and Roosevelt Street. Two years ago, it became the first focus of the city’s Energize Our Neighborhoods program, which aims to spur economic growth and improve the standard of living in the city’s challenged areas.

Now, with one year left of the program’s three-year commitment to Vista, staffers and many residents are taking stock of what the program has accomplished and what comes next.

“I jokingly call the Bench ‘Brooklyn,’ ” said GiGi Huntley, owner of The Bench Salon and Gifts, referring to the New York City borough that became hip after residents and creative types got priced out of Manhattan.

Huntley is a 20-year Bench resident whose gift shop favors items made by local artists. Her salon is in the Hoppie Building at Vista Avenue and Overland. She and other Bench business owners began hosting First Fridays on the Bench this year as a counterpart to Downtown Boise’s First Thursdays. Her efforts meshed perfectly with the city’s Energize program, she said.

Area business owners are also awaiting the result of a Healthy Corridors grant from the Urban Land Institute that will assess business development opportunities as part of a look at Vista Avenue’s layout and character, including its pedestrian access and status as a main roadway into the city. The ULI will share its recommendations this fall.

In September, Huntley and several other business owners will establish the nonprofit Vista Bench Business Association. She looks forward to a day when Vista becomes a destination.

“At one time, even Hyde Park was nothing but a service station and Goody’s,” she said.

Programs for the people

The city chose the Vista neighborhood because the average median income there is below that of the city as a whole.

At the same time, said Energize program coordinator Melinda McGoldrick, the neighborhood has assets to build on. Because of the modest incomes of many residents, the area qualifies for federal commercial development block grants that can pay for public art, pedestrian safety and other projects, McGoldrick said. Before beginning projects in the Vista area, city staffers met with residents who identified eight areas where they wanted improvements, including economic development, educational opportunities and public safety.

$41,729 average median income on the east side of Vista

$35,376 average median income on the west side of Vista

$49,209 average median income of Boise as a whole

“The Boise pre-K project is one of the most exciting projects,” McGoldrick said.

The program, a partnership between Energize and private donors, enrolled its first students at Hawthorne and Whitney elementary schools in 2015. Three classes are operating and there’s a waiting list. Idaho is one of a handful of states that puts no state money into preschool.

“So there’s definitely a lot of desire for that in the neighborhood,” McGoldrick said.

Most of the students took screening tests when they started the program, checking for things like familiarity with letters and sounds. Students took the test again at the end of the school year. Nearly every student in the pre-K program had improved, McGoldrick said. The city and schools will have more evidence to go on after students take their first state reading tests in kindergarten.

“But teachers are definitely looking forward to having those students in class,” McGoldrick said.

For adults, Energize has helped produce city walking tours (one is planned Aug. 10) and workshops on housing issues, self-defense and safety precautions for homeowners. City staff partnered with the American Red Cross and the Idaho Air National Guard to install 260 free smoke alarms in Vista homes. After residents said they wanted a closer working relationship with police, the department established a substation in the neighborhood near a city-owned affordable housing complex. Residents have also received loans and grants through Boise’s housing department to upgrade their homes’ energy efficiency, or make them ADA-compliant. Crews broke ground in July on a new fire station, moving Station No. 8 to 3575 W. Overland Road. It will be completed in 2017.

Along with reading scores, the city shared a list of other indicators — such as crime statistics and the median value of homes — that staff will track to measure progress toward the program’s goals.

Sometimes, people just need to know who to call.

Melinda McGoldrick, Energize Our Neighborhoods

The Atlantic Street “Idea House” is another neighborhood amenity in progress. The Energize program is remodeling the modest city-owned property at 2108 S. Atlantic St. into a demonstration house filled with sustainable features and open to the public. The city will eventually sell the house as low-income housing.

Real estate agent Dave Kangas, president of the Vista Neighborhood Association, grew up in the neighborhood and returned 12 years ago.

“Residents in so many neighborhoods have gotten apathetic. I think that’s changing,” he said, crediting the “Energize” effort.

His neighborhood association board is now eight members strong. He hopes the results of the Healthy Corridor project will help business owners attract more customers.

“A lot of businesses look at car count activity. The reality is many of those cars are just passing through our neighborhood, on their way to somewhere else,” he said. “They have to look at the quality of traffic, who’s going slower, stopping to look. Those are the neighbors businesses need to serve.”

Ongoing evolution

Energize is still a relatively new program. The City Council approved McGoldrick’s hiring just last fall. Part of the program’s development will include figuring out the best methods for the city’s future involvement — balancing requests from residents with the city’s own goals and outreach.

In the future, the program will be “scaled” to meet specific neighborhood needs. Vista was unique, said McGoldrick, in that residents wanted so many kinds of improvements. Some projects will be more focused.

One example is the beautification underway in the Ustick neighborhood, where the West Valley Neighborhood Association wants to re-establish a sense of the townsite of Ustick that once flourished there. The group also wants to create a friendlier streetscape. Judy Herman, a director of the association, said it will partner with Energize in the near future to ask residents about other neighborhood projects they want to see.

McGoldrick and staffers have also created a neighborhood improvement “kit” for Boise residents that will soon be available online. It will list relevant programs and resources available through community partners, and include a series of how-to guides with everything from planning a community meeting to becoming a neighborhood president.

“We want something that everybody can access,” McGoldrick said. “Not all neighborhoods will need a ton of help. Sometimes, people just need to know who to call.”

Get to know the Vista Neighborhood

▪  First Friday, Aug. 5. Details on the Vista Bench First Friday Facebook page.

▪  Summer Strolls: Exploring the Vista Neighborhood, 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10. Meet at Pacific Cataract & Laser Institute, 2822 S. Vista Ave. Free.

▪  Want to know more about “Energize Our Neighborhoods”? The city offers a presentation for groups or organizations. Email Melinda McGoldrick at or call 208-570-6834 to schedule a speaking engagement.