For some reason, local governments in Boise can’t put much value on historic preservation south of the Boise River. In the latest news, the Boise School District has announced it will tear down the Franklin and Cole elementary schools. These schools became obsolete after a 2006 bond election, which built new schools and consolidated the populations of old schools. Cole Elementary, at Cole Road Fairview Ave., was first built in 1888 and is Boise’s oldest-standing school building. Franklin Elementary, at Franklin Road and Orchard Street, was built in 1905.

I’ve lived in Boise since 1990 and over that time, it seems as though neighborhoods south of the Boise river consistently get shortchanged, especially in the areas of historic preservation and urban design. Bench developers are allowed to build new strip malls with little regard to preserving traditional neighborhood values. Zoning rules concern themselves with the caliper diameter of trees, not if the development comes to the street. Meanwhile, decrepit strip malls continue to decay while the city frets over light rail in the largely-completed downtown areas. The remaining Bench historic sites – all the more precious because of their fewness – are cast aside and prepared for the wrecking ball and a new life as a parking lot.

“Cole is the last bastion of early Boise history in a wasteland of nothingness,” Dan Everhardt, president of Preservation Idaho, told The Idaho Statesman. “There is no sense of place to those strip malls.”

To its credit, the city has been getting better about putting public art in Bench neighborhoods and has done well in establishing branch libraries in strip malls. These are the easy targets, however. The Bench really needs reinvestment and urban renewal, similar to what has successfully been undertaken downtown. Failing that, we should at least hold on to the good things we have.

The City of Boise had little interest in preserving the 126-year-old  Trolley, a small neighborhood pub made from a converted trolley car on Morris Hill Street. After a fire destroyed the Trolley,the city sent the owner a letter telling them to move their junk. No, the Historic Preservation Office wasn’t going to help, nor was the city going to use some stimulus money to preserve the Trolley. Just: Move your junk. Now. Likewise, the Boise School District demolished South Junior High School while the city did nothing to preserve it.

I served on a citizens’ committee in 2006 to help the school district pass the bond issue. At the time, school district leaders spoke of the need to improve the “doughnut” of original suburbs around Boise, which were losing middle-class families to the newer suburbs. Dilapidated schools, a lack of sidewalks and few public amenities were making these 1950s-1970s neighborhoods less desirable. The school district’s goal at the time was to not only replace aging schools with new ones, but to improve the neighborhoods and make them more attractive to middle-class families with children.

It was a visionary plan – I plan a suspect no one even remembers anymore. After these historic buildings are demolished, likely parking lots with strip malls will be built in their place; that is hardly the kind of development that endears a neighborhood to people. I hope the city of Boise and the school district can exercise some vision and think of something better.

Here is my suggestion, with a hefty dose of sarcasm: Move the Cole and Franklin schools to some place north of the Boise River. I suspect that suddenly, eyes will light up at City Hall and officials will show the leadership and vision we need now. They will search for federal stimulus money, marshal their historic preservation resources, and pull out all the stops to keep these important parts of our history.

A healthy city is full of places worth caring about.  The city’s and school district’s lack of interest in preserving cultural treasures on the Bench is unfortunate.

(Notes from Boise School District meetings with Borah Neighborhood Association members, May 10, 2006 and  May 17, 2006.)

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