Meridian is emerging from its role as Boise’s bedroom community and becoming its own city with its own destinations, culture and, yes, traffic congestion.
The evidence is everywhere, from the growth of its population and the popularity of its shopping centers to a slew of apartment projects close to the Eagle Road-Fairview Avenue intersection.
Some 1,500 apartments are planned, under construction or recently built within one mile of Eagle and Fairview, according to Meridian’s Community Development Department. If all of those apartments are built, they will increase the city’s multifamily capacity by more than one-third.
This type of growth shows Meridian has a market for people who work in the city or want to live close to activity centers such as The Village at Meridian and Julius M. Kleiner Memorial Park, Mayor Tammy de Weerd said.
“It’s kind of the evolution of a city,” de Weerd said. “We were once a small community, and as we started to grow, at first it’s the rooftops. Then you get employment and services, and then you start getting the mixture of use with the higher density because people want to live closer to where services and employment are.”
7:1The ratio of single-family homes to apartments and other multifamily homes in Meridian
3.2:1The ratio of single-family homes to apartments and other multifamily homes in Ada County outside of Meridian
Meridian became Idaho’s second-largest city in a blink.
At the turn of the century, its population was less than 35,000. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that number is more than 90,000 now.
Like other cities around the Treasure Valley, though, it traditionally has been known as a place to live for people who work and play in Boise. As you’d expect, its ratio of single-family homes is much higher than the norm for Ada County.
That appears to be changing as planners lay the groundwork for more destination spots in the city.
City Hall and Meridian’s urban renewal agency are pushing a long-term revitalization of downtown, hoping it turns into a place where residents of Meridian and the surrounding area go to eat dinner, have a drink, shop or work. At the top of the city’s wish list are a new hotel and convention center, and a performing arts center.
Meridian’s leaders have also designated the area near the 10 Mile Road-Interstate 84 interchange as a future hub of commercial activity surrounded by a variety of housing types. The thinking is that some day this area will become an employment zone, said Caleb Hood, manager of Meridian’s planning division. Office buildings would be a major component of its commercial development. Other commercial space, including restaurants and retail shops, would be in place, too, along with a spectrum of homes ranging from high-density multifamily units to single-family houses on larger lots.
The Fairview-Eagle apartment projects are perhaps the strongest signal yet of Meridian’s maturation — confirmation that it is, in fact, becoming a destination.
This is exactly what city leaders had in mind when they sat down during the Great Recession and mapped out places they thought would be ripe for a mixture of residential, retail, office and recreation space when the economy recovered, de Weerd said.
Of all the irritations that accompany urban growth, traffic is the most commonly cited.
Meridian is no stranger to traffic, partly because of Fairview and Eagle, the busiest intersection in the state.
The last time Ada County Highway District, which controls public roads throughout the county, counted traffic there, more than 100,000 vehicles arrived at the intersection on Eagle Road in a 24-hour period. More than 65,000 cars came to the intersection on Fairview Avenue.
The employment center of the whole valley is really pretty much right at that intersection.
Carl Miller, demographics planner for Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho
The question is how much worse traffic will get when people start moving into the new apartments.
“Obviously, that’s an already stressed intersection,” said Carl Miller, a demographics planner for Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho. “Additional housing obviously will stress it even more. However, as things get to the point where they’re kind of at capacity, people start to get creative and they start to get strategic.”
Meridian planners hope their own strategies temper the new apartments’ effect on traffic.
Location is the most important one. Many of the new homes will be within walking distance of The Village, Kleiner Park, and the other shopping and leisure outlets around the intersection. The idea is that people with jobs at those businesses will move into the apartments and then walk or bike to work. Similarly, people who live there are more likely to go to dinner, drinks or a movie in a place they can walk to instead of driving somewhere else for almost the same product.
This is one of the principles of Smart Growth, an urban development philosophy that emphasizes reduced driving through dense residential development, high-intensity commercial development and a network of bicycle, pedestrian and public transportation facilities.
“I don’t think any new project is going to reduce traffic,” Hood said. “But if you can add some residents near where the jobs are, you can get people biking, walking and not having to get in their car to drive across town or across the valley to get to jobs.”
Smart Growth ideas are entrenched in the planning offices of Boise and countless major U.S. cities, but it’s new to Meridian. The fact that Hood and his team are talking about things such as “capturing” car trips is another indication that the city is becoming truly urban.
Another strategy for coping with traffic is bolstering nearby connections for cars, bicycles and pedestrians.
This includes connecting Records Avenue from River Valley Street north to where Records ends just south of Modelo Lane. Two projects are proposed in that area: the second phase of Regency at River Valley, a 96-unit complex just north of River Valley Street, and Meridian Town Center, a major apartment project that’s in the early planning stages. The city won’t issue a building permit for either project until the Records connection is done, Hood said.
The connection will give drivers another north-south option between Fairview and Ustick, which should relieve some pressure on the same stretch of Eagle Road and the Fairview-Eagle intersection.
City policy also requires developers of projects near the Meridian Pathways Network, a planned series of bike and pedestrian paths that crisscrosses the city, to build the portion of the network that would touch their properties, Hood said.
This requirement would come into play with Pinebridge, a development proposal that’s in the early planning phase and likely would include hundreds of new apartments. Several projects north of The Village benefit from an existing pathway that stretches from Eagle Road into the north side of Kleiner Park.
The hope is that people who move into all the new apartments will walk or bike — at least sometimes —instead of driving.
“National studies have shown that people who are willing to live in mixed-use areas, compact housing or transit-oriented development housing are also willing to use those modes,” Miller said. “And often times, what we’re finding with the millennial generation is they’re more likely to at least try public transportation and use bicycle and pedestrian to get to work.”
As Miller suggested, public transportation is a third strategy for mitigating traffic at Eagle and Fairview.
So far, that’s not much of an option. Bus routes don’t reach the Eagle-Fairview intersection. The closest pickup is 2 miles away at Fairview and Five Mile Road.
Someday, demand for destinations along Fairview in both Meridian and Boise might warrant some kind of streetcar or other transit train. Neither city is close to making that a reality, though.
The bottom line is that there’s no reason to think traffic on Eagle or Fairview will level out on its own. More lanes aren’t a long-term solution either, Hood said, because new lanes attract more cars and, eventually, there’s no more room to expand the road.
Someday, transportation leaders and city planners will have to make hard choices — the kind that irritate lots of people.
“It’s metro-area type stuff, right? Big-city type stuff,” Hood said. “Having HOV lanes or bus-only lanes, you know? Things like that that really, again, incentivize people getting in a bus. Because now, I can get to work quicker than if I get in my car, because there’s a dedicated lane for buses — or trains.”