Car after car passes through downtown during rush hour on a Monday evening — but Josh Evarts is walking.
He strolls to the intersection at Main and Idaho and, puffing on a cigar, surveys the block he is halfway through transforming. Part of what he sees is hard to imagine if you haven’t spent the months in planning that he has. What he sees aren’t the small buildings against the sidewalk. Forget the concrete one-story Meridian Library branch. Forget the children’s theater. And if you do happen to remember it’s there, forget the Old City Hall, too.
Evarts wants Meridian to see what he envisions in their place: two four-story mixed-use buildings. Pedestrians flocking in and out of restaurants on the first floor. Residents emerging from the apartments on the floors above, maybe heading to their cars, maybe walking down the street for coffee. Don’t see it yet? Evarts has renderings.
For some Meridian residents, it may be hard to conjure images of downtown from memory. The time it takes to traverse downtown by car can be measured in seconds. If you blink, you could miss it. If you don’t get into the right lane of Main Street driving north from Interstate 84, you actually do miss it.
That’s how traffic engineers designed the streets around downtown a few years ago, when they routed northbound through traffic off Main Street and onto Meridian Road, one block west. They left the heart of downtown free to accommodate the much-reduced traffic from cars that actually do stop there. That allowed downtown to become a destination — a place you choose to go.
But it’s still not much of a destination for anyone who doesn’t work there. Within the city core — bounded on the north by East Carlton Avenue, on the south by East Ada Street, on the west by North Meridian Road, and on the east by East Third Street — “you see businesses come and you see businesses go,” said Meridian City Council Vice President Luke Cavener.
It has struggled to survive while other retail locations, like The Village at Meridian, expand. Lease rates there are about $28 per square foot per year, compared with $18 downtown, said Steve Winger, associate broker at Colliers International.
In the last five years, Mayor Tammy de Weerd and the City Council have tried to figure out what brings people downtown. What makes them stay. What makes people spend money there.
“I want our downtown to be a destination, not just a place that people drive through,” Cavener said.
In 2015, the city’s urban renewal agency asked for proposals to redevelop two downtown sites it owned: 703 and 713 N. Main Street, home to the children’s theater and library. Evarts came up with one.
Evarts, 45, has lived in Meridian for 27 years. A serial entrepreneur, he made his money in software and defense contracting. He and his wife, Lori, bought their first downtown property in 2013 — the Heritage Building at 729 N. Main St. — for office space.
The 1902 building required $115,000 in renovations.
“I had to get up to speed and learn about old buildings — preserving them, restoring them — and how those can play a key role in downtown,” Evarts said. “That drove a love to buy other buildings and got me plugged into our urban renewal district.”
In 2014 he bought the former Bank of Meridian at 140 E. Idaho Ave. and later opened a cigar shop there, The Vault. He removed siding that had covered the original brick walls and, with an aging photograph as inspiration, restored the building to its original look. That project, costing $127,000, earned him an Orchid award from Preservation Idaho. Later, Evarts joined the city’s Historic Preservation Committee.
Just as Evarts was finishing the renovations, the urban renewal agency put out its request to redevelop the two Main Street parcels. Evarts and his wife, Lori, offered to tear down the children’s theatre and build a three-story building with a local restaurant on the first floor, plus office space and two lofts on the floors above.
They were the only ones to submit a proposal. That made the city’s choice easy, and officials approved it. He figured the work would cost less than $2 million.
He soon realized that estimate was too low. So Evarts convinced Caleb Roope, CEO and president of The Pacific Companies, an Eagle residential and charter school development company, to bring his money to the project.
Bringing residents downtown
As Meridian sprawls outward, Evarts’ world has shrunk.
Downtown Meridian has become the backdrop of much of his life. He works, smokes and drinks, at The Vault. He lives downtown, too — in a 2,100-square-foot home built in 1913, a five-minute stroll from work.
“We have a very transient community of people who come in to work in professional offices and salons and the few restaurants that we have, and then they’re leaving this area and going home,” he said.
He wants others to live as he does.
Encouraging people to live near where their work is why so many cities, including Boise, are pushing mixed-use development, with buildings offering commercial and residential space. As Evarts walks down Main Street, he passes only commercial buildings, many of them with storefronts that have changed over in the last year. He stops in for a coffee at Deja Brew Laugh a Latte, 112 E. Idaho Ave., leaving his cigar on a bench outside.
The city’s 2015 request for proposals generated some excitement among business owners who leaped to invest there. Some, though, say they moved too soon.
“There was a lot of talk of bringing more of a downtown Boise feel, which didn’t end up happening as quickly as we were hoping or expecting,” said Stephanie Billinger, manager of Blue Sky Bagel at 3161 E. Fairview Ave. Last year, Blue Sky tried opening a second location downtown at 126 E. Idaho Ave.
“It was super not busy,” she said. On a given day, just a few area office workers stopped in for lunch. No one else would go out of their way to stop by that location. “You try to avoid downtown if you don’t have to be there,” she said.
Blue Sky closed after just 10 months. “We probably tried to hang on longer than it was worth it,” Billinger said.
That same dilemma now looms before the owners of Potter’s Tea House at 917 N. Main Street, which opened in August 2017. On a Monday night at 5 p.m., Potter’s is empty save for its owners, Ashley and Sage Potter. The couple moved to Meridian from Boise 15 years ago. In 2017, they invested about $100,000 to start the tea shop. Sage quit his day job at DirecTV. Ashley still works a logistics and trucking company.
“Downtown has not been able to support us like we hoped,” Sage said. “We were thinking downtown Meridian had a lot of growth.”
“I think we were a little early,” Ashley said. She said they might close the store and offer a mobile option, such as a tea cart.
Even the coffee shop Deja Brew, buzzing and rarely empty on a weekday morning, isn’t yet profitable since it opened in May 2017, owner Cecyle Brock said. She anticipates Evarts’ development will bring in new customers and help build her business.
For as many businesses that have struggled, plenty have survived. Sunrise Cafe, 805 N. Main St., remains a breakfast staple. Cruisin Biker Wear, 706 N. Main St., moved from Boise to Meridian eight years ago. At 116 E. Broadway Ave, the Frontier Club became smoke-free after renovations and the addition of a new porch, and as a result has seen an influx of new customers.
“The city has been really supportive of us,” Brock said. She pointed to some of Mayor Tammy de Weerd’s initiatives like the summer farmers markets and concert series on Broadway.
While some businesses haven’t necessarily seen an impact, others attribute some of their best sales to Meridian-sponsored events. This year’s tree lighting brought Deja Brew its best day of sales not just this year, but ever.
She also praised the new trees and signs lining Main Street featuring illustrations of some of downtown’s oldest buildings.
“We wanted to make sure that when people came into downtown, they knew they had arrived,” De Weerd said in a phone interview. De Weerd also oversaw the city’s partnership with the Ada County Highway District on the traffic flow in downtown.
“We spend a lot of time and attention to downtown, because I truly believe that the heart and soul of the community needs to be vibrant,” De Weerd said.
Back outside of Deja Brew, Evarts picks up the cigar that he left. It’s still lit, a slow burn — similar to the way economic development in downtown has gone so far.
Downtown gets denser
After Evarts decided to go in on the project with Pacific Companies, the scope of the project started to expand.
“The original design only involved two residences,” Evarts noted. “That doesn’t fix the problem.”
But two buildings, both full of apartments? That could.
“What it really needs is that residential, 24/7 type of presence,” De Weerd said. “We do need greater densities near the downtown.”
So in 2017 Evarts proposed a new idea to the city: in addition to the two properties the city had already granted him, why not also put up for grabs the old City Hall? The building is leased by startup incubator New Venture labs.
The city agreed. But that required a second round of proposals. This time, Evarts had competition. A proposal came from Dean Papé of Oregon developer deChase Miksis.
Papé offered to build a two-to-six story building with residential, office and commercial space. His plan called for the city to spend $12 million on a public-private parking garage. Despite grumblings about the state of downtown parking, the city wasn’t willing to front the millions a garage would require.
So the council and the urban renewal agency, the Meridian Development Corporation, stuck with Evarts. With the additional property to play with, Evarts’ new proposal did away with his first design. This time, he offered to build two four-story buildings, including 17,000 square feet of retail space on their first floor and 103 residential units among the three remaining floors. Those apartments will be offered at market rate for around $900 to $1,100 per month.
“That means 103 families that are now living in our downtown and shopping and spending money right here,” Evarts said. He hopes the project will bring in a mix of people, from young singles to retired couples to families.
With Roope’s financing, Evarts’ project will be nearly $18 million bigger than the $2 million he estimated for his first proposal.
Ashley Ford-Squyres, Meridian’s urban renewal administrator, said the project will house some of downtown’s workforce and help provide density Meridian wants. “This is going to be a game-changer for downtown,” she said.
Evarts plans to break ground in March, but already the project has gotten people talking. De Weerd said that Meridian is preparing to announce another private project slated to break ground in the coming months.
Papé also said that he’s still willing to work with Meridian in the future. “We still think there’s an opportunity for Meridian to be a nucleus,” he said. “We’re just waiting.”