Special Reports

Boise, Idaho, finds 'power of the plan'

BOISE, Idaho — When Jimmy Hallyburton was growing up here, downtown was a dud. "There wasn't much down here," he said. Fast forward 27 years: Hallyburton spent a recent Friday pumping up the crowd at the second annual Bicycle Block Party on Eighth between Bannock and Idaho, the Boise Mountains in the background and puffy white clouds sauntering lazily across bright blue skies.

The number of people and bikes grew as the afternoon wore on, hit-and-miss music by students of the Boise Rock School blaring from the stage.

"In the last five years, downtown Boise has become a great place to hang out," said Hallyburton, executive director and co-founder of the Boise Bicycle Project, a nonprofit cooperative. "It didn't used to be like that."

Downtown Boise is on a journey similar to Wichita's, though a little farther down the road.

Parts of it — like the Old Boise Historic District at Sixth and Main — have a vibe similar to Lawrence's Massachusetts Street with its bars and restaurants and college crowds. Other parts, such as the four-block BoDo (Boise Downtown), read Bradley Fair with shops such as White House Black Market, Ann Taylor Loft and Jos. A. Banks.

Then there are the sidewalk cafes and bars along Eighth Street, which are popular whenever the weather cooperates. Some refer to the sidewalks as the "community's living room."

In the background are the state's capitol and about 36,000 people who work downtown for city, county, state and federal government, medical centers, tech companies and Idaho Power.

Overseeing the vision for downtown is the Capital City Development Corp., a quasi-public urban renewal agency formed in 1965 as the Boise Redevelopment Agency by the Boise City Council.

"Downtown is our job," said executive director Phil Kushlan.

The agency does a bit of everything — it owns some chunks of downtown, it puts in roads and sidewalks and bike racks.

Kushlan said downtown used to be pockmarked with used car dealerships, gas stations and shabby bars.

"There were a lot of vacancies," he said.

Now it's "the" place to go out, said Angella Eckert, a downtown worker who was enjoying drinks with friends at the Modern Hotel and Bar in downtown's Linen District recently.

They talked about their days over the din of martinis being shaken by hip bartenders.

"I only go out downtown," Eckert said.

Plan is critical

When efforts first got under way in the mid-'60s to redevelop downtown, the idea was to bring in a regional mall.

"Over a 20-year period, there were five different designs," Kushlan said.

The city went on a spree where it tore down downtown buildings.

"The mall could just never really get off the ground," Kushlan said. "It just flamed out, and editorially, thank God it did."

Next, a team of five or six architects from the American Institute of Architects was brought in. They prepared a report that said, "Stop tearing things down," Kushlan said.

It also said Boise, similar to Wichita in that it too is isolated, should "concentrate on improving the urban fabric that you have."

At the same time, the corporation retained a Portland architect who has been downtown's "design inspiration," Kushlan said, since 1987.

What lessons has Boise learned about downtown development?

Success depends on one thing, Kushlan said: "The power of the plan."

"You have to have a well-articulated plan and the ability to stick to it," he said. "We've benefited over the years by that. Our council has been pretty consistent about downtown. You don't see a lot of political winds bouncing back and forth about what downtown is supposed to be like."

The vision: Downtown is supposed to be just what Eckert sees it as, the place to be.

There have been failures. One of them is pretty visible — essentially a hole in the middle of downtown. A quarter of a block, it once housed a historic building. The corporation, which owned the building at the time, found someone to develop it, and just as everyone was ready to move forward, Kushlan said, the place burned down.

The corporation eventually signed an agreement with a Washington state developer who proposed a 23-story mixed-unit development, including 18 floors of condominiums. Construction started, but then financing fell apart in 2002. The agency had to sue the developer to get the title back.

"It's been an empty hulk for a long time," Kushlan said. "It's kind of an ugly embarrassment."

A restaurant server across from the doomed development joked, "What downtown development?" and gestured to the lot.

That mentality exists in Boise — just like in Wichita —but "the downtown for a good number of our residents is like a regional theme park. This is where people want to hang out," said Bruce Chatterton, director of planning and development services for the city.

Mostly private dollars

Downtown has been financed by a mix of private and public dollars — mostly private.

"We generally try to achieve a ratio of $5 of private investment for each dollar of public investment," Kushlan explained. "We often do better than that and will consider less favorable ratios if we can see a catalyst public investment that will stimulate private investment beyond the original project. Over time, that ratio has proven pretty reliable."

Chatterton describes the need for private-public partnerships this way:

"Local government can set the table by providing TIF funding and providing infrastructure. It's up to the private sector to come in and dine."

A TIF, or tax-increment financing district, is a development tool Wichita is using downtown.

As an area develops, the city issues bonds to pay for streetscapes and parking garages. Then the property taxes paid on new buildings goes into a fund to pay off those bonds.

Downtown Boise has three TIFS, which it calls revenue allocation districts.

Although it pushes for private funding, the corporation was willing to put in more public money for the Grove Plaza project, one of downtown's first redevelopment areas.

The Grove is where downtown's free weekly "Live After Five" concerts attract thousands of people each Wednesday night.

The Grovel Hotel Boise, connected to the 5,000-seat Qwest Arena, was about 75 percent private financing and 25 percent public. The public portion covered streetscaping, some utility work and an underground parking structure.

"It is certainly the gathering place of downtown," said Karen Sander, executive director of the Downtown Boise Association.

BoDo, a shopping and entertainment area, was a joint investment of about $63 million, Kushlan said. Of that, the corporation provided $8 million for parking facilities, utilities and streetscaping for a mix of 87 percent private funding and 13 public funding.

Other projects the corporation has implemented include:

* Redesigning Eighth Street from Bannock to Main to slow traffic and to open up room for outdoor cafes and events such as the Capitol City Public Market.

* Streetscaping eight blocks in the downtown business district, including installing brick pavers, old-timey street lights and bicycle racks.

* Constructing six parking garages, all of which offer the first hour of parking free.

* Building a transmit mall on Main and Idaho between Capitol and Ninth.

* Selling properties at a discount or providing land to promote new development.

Downtown living key

A city of Boise study showed that 92 percent of respondents believe in investing in the area, Kushlan said.

About 2,200 people live in broader downtown in a mix of rental and owned units. A study by a Portland, Ore., firm said downtown should be able to support 2,600 condo units.

Having people live downtown is key, Kushlan said.

"We learned that a downtown worker will support half a square foot of retail," he said. "A downtown resident supports 10 square feet of retail."

Angela Thomas, who joined Eckert for drinks at the Modern, said the condos and lofts downtown are "cool but expensive."

Job is never done

The Downtown Business Association promotes and manages a 60-block business improvement district.

The association is funded by an annual assessment paid by businesses in the district. Businesses downtown are about 80 percent local — from Proto's Pizzeria Napoletana to Ella's Room lingerie shop — and 20 percent national — from Anthropologie to P.F. Chang's.

"That really gives us our uniqueness," Sander said of the mix of mom-and-pop and chain flavors.

Macy's closed downtown earlier this year. That's been a blow because national stores have bigger promotional budgets to bring people downtown than local retail stores do, Sander said.

"Macy's was a stand-by department store that we'll certainly miss," she said.

Macy's still has an anchor store at Boise Towne Square Mall.

Sander said in the spring "State of Downtown" publication that downtown Boise had the lowest vacancy rates in the region, ending last year with a 9 percent rate for offices and about 3 percent for retail.

Denise Joy owns Ella's Room, an independent lingerie shop near the Macy's that closed.

She opened her store originally in BoDo. At the time, rents were less expensive there, and she noticed that some longtime stores were heading that way.

But, she said, "I shot myself in the foot."

BoDo is more of a night hangout for people.

When her lease came up, "I found a smaller, better-priced space over here" in the central district, she said.

Now she has a customer base of women who work downtown and stop by on their lunch hour, she said.

Joy has been in Boise about 3 1/2 years. She started her business in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and for a while had stores in both places.

She likes Boise, but in the time she's been here, she said, she hasn't seen much change downtown.

Leaders now are working to get more residential developments — stalled because of the economy and problems with financing — off the ground as well as more retail. A new transit center is in the works.

Kushlan said Boise also is working toward growing its small companies.

From a planning perspective, Chatterton said, "if you lead with your downtown, if you get the core healthy, so many opportunities follow."

Sander offers this advice for Wichita: "Your job is never done. It is constant. You can never take your eye off the ball."

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