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These days, the Boise mayor and council seem deeply uninterested in addressing urban decay problems south of the Boise River. Hundreds of Boiseans are at risk of being evicted from rickety trailer parks and hundreds of school children walk to school in dangerous conditions without sidewalks, yet the city is spending huge amounts of energy (and, possibly, money) on a downtown streetcar.

Boise City should be spending stimulus and other money on finally helping neglected Bench neighborhoods with better housing, reinvestment and life-safety features such as sidewalks. Unlike the downtown streetcar, these are all urgent needs.

In the past two years, at least four mobile home parks have closed in Boise and Garden City. In contrast to the streetcar committee of movers and shakers, trailer park residents are the moved and the shaken. According to a Boise State University study, about 5,400 Boiseans live in manufactured housing. Half are seniors and a quarter, astoundingly, live on $900 a month or less. Most are women and nearly half have a chronic medical condition. One in four live in a park listed for sale or redevelopment.

This issue has receded with the economy, but it will return and what is the city doing now to prepare? Helping these people is complex job that will require imagination and commitment, but it could be done in partnership with local housing agencies, the Capital City Development Corporation and federal stimulus funds.

If that’s not enough of a priority, the city could focus on building sidewalks, the lack of which is a serious safety issue on the Bench. One of the reasons our family and three children moved from the Bench was the severe lack of sidewalks; we just didn’t feel safe letting our kids walk to school. Nowadays sidewalks are required – much like electricity, indoor plumbing and fire codes – but the city decades ago allowed Bench neighborhoods to be built to primitive standards. Now is a good time to go back and fix this and connect these sidewalks with the new schools the Boise School District recently built. (Indeed, the Boise School District has done far more reinvestment in neglected neighborhoods than the city.)

If the city really wants a streetcar for the economic benefits that come with it, I suggest it build a streetcar line between the crumbling strip mall at Orchard/Emerald and the mostly vacant strip mall at Orchard/Overland. Don’t laugh – a streetcar in fact used to run on Orchard Street! A modern line there would spark private-sector urban renewal the city wants and show Bench neighborhoods that they, too, are worth the good stuff. After 40 years, the city has done a great job with downtown. It is a decade overdue for the city to turn its urban renewal efforts to the Bench.

The city will say the federal funds are only for transit projects, not for sidewalks or developing decent housing, but I think that’s just hiding behind process. If there’s a sincere political will to build sidewalks or help people who are about to lose their homes, the city will find a way to do it; the money is out there. In fact, on Dec. 1, The Statesman reported new federal grants for “projects that connect destinations and foster the redevelopment of communities into walkable, mixed use, high-density environments.”

This sounds just like what we need in some places south of the Boise River. I implore the city to stop doting over downtown and get to the real work of improving lives and safety in neglected Bench neighborhoods. Follow your consciences.

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.)

Good work by the Greater Boise Auditorium District and the state for putting in a request for federal stimulus money to finally build a larger downtown Boise convention center.  I did some PR consulting work for GBAD in 2002 and I applaud their persistence in trying to get this important part of our economy in place.

The Idaho Division of Financial  Management has submitted a list of agency and private sector requests for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It’s asking for $30 million for a new convention center in downtown Boise, called the Idaho State Convention Center. The convention center will be on a parcel of land GBAD  owns between 11th and 13th streets on the east and west, and by Front and Myrtle streets on the north and south.

Agencies and companies all over Idaho have submitted $4.75 billion in requests. Smaller projects include $5,200 for doors at Blackfoot schools, while larger proposals include $48.2 million for a new Canyon County Jail, $33 million for wastewater system improvements at the City of Meridian and $210 million by Idaho Wind Energy LLC for a wind farm (hopefully environmentalists won’t oppose it too much).

GBAD has put funding the convention center to voters twice before, where it got a majority of votes but missed the 2/3 supermajority. A deal with a private developer also fell through, although GBAD Chairman Stephenson Youngerman said Oppenheimer Development may unveil blueprints for the new convention center in March. Given all the design that’s been done, this should be a shovel-ready project.

In the interest of public openness – and their own success – I encourage GBAD to announce the request formally, with a news release but not much other fanfare. This would give them a chance to talk about how many people they’d put to work on construction and the obvious economic benefits of having an expanded convention center. The stimulus money is exactly for projects such as this.

I do support the stimulus spending, as long as it’s for capital projects. If future generations are going to pay off a share of the stimulus, we should at least leave them some working infrastructure they will need to sustain their economy. That includes safe schools, good roads and bridges, airports, sewer plants, energy generation and, yes, convention centers

There’s been a lot of emotion but not enough light on the issue of a transit center in downtown Boise.

Hoping to get the project shovel-ready to take advantage of a federal grant that expires this year, officials from the Ada County Highway District, City of Boise and the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho are putting the proposal on a fast track. It would bring pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and busses together in downtown Boise, and a rail system could someday hook up to it. More than just a bus stop, the idea is that people could switch between different transportation modes at the center.

I think it’s a great idea and should move forward.  But, as The Boise Guardian says, “…it looks to us like a recipe for disaster jamming passenger cars, buses, and pedestrians into a narrow side street.” Yes, possibly – or it could be a recipe for success, assuming that moving more people in and out of downtown is a good thing. It all depends on how it’s done.

As a public relations consultant, I have to say the agencies could be doing a better job at making their case, especially in the media. So far, print and broadcast media coverage has been your basic journalistic tale of people fighting some proposal with which they are unfamiliar.

My unsolicited  advice: local government PR people should be presenting examples of where these kinds of transit hubs have been successful, why they have been successful, and how they could be successfully adapted to downtown Boise. This is a great opportunity to invite the media into explanatory stories and show under what conditions transit hubs benefit the public and merchants in other cities.

Here are some good examples the folks at COMPASS have refererred me to:

  • The Bellevue Transit Center seems close to what is contemplated for Boise, maybe a bit longer, but it looks nice.
  • The Courthouse Square transit center in Salem, Oregon, is part of a larger project, including a 150,000 square-foot office complex, but it’s a good example of a transit center in an urban setting.
  • The Plaza is the hub for downtown Spokane’s transit system and is designed to host many arts, entertainment and holiday events.
  • Denver has proposed the Union Station, which would involve rehabbing an old transit station for the modern “multimodal center.”
  • Eugene, Oregon, has a very attractive transit center.

Some of these plans are much more than what we are propsing. But I include them to show that other similar cities have successfully pulled off ambitious and successful transit center plans.

Of course, questions about the public process will remain. Also, historical preservation needs will have to be accommodated. But for the time being, local governments could make their job easier, and improve public understanding, job giving their transit hub proposal some grounding and context.

I was fortunate to attend a Fettuccine Forum last night, where a leading urban policy analyst showed the “drive ’til you qualify” trend actually costs people more.

Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for Policy, Transportation and Communications at Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology, presented some fascinating studies showing that higher transportation costs more than eat up the savings on the suburban mortgage. In some cases, suburbanites may spend two-thirds of their household income on transportation and housing, leaving one-third for food, clothing, utilities, education, recreation and discretionary income. When transit is available to these suburban residents, they can keep their transportation costs down, in some cases getting rid of one car altogether.

But transit alone isn’t enough; you need a certain kind of land use, one that allows people to comfortably walk from the transit stop to their home, store or office. The original downtowns of Treasure Valley cities are good local exmples, but certainly not the only way to do it. Grimshaw called for  for Transit-Oriented Development. Peter Calthorpe discusses TODs more detail his site, but it basically involves building high-quality but dense housing and neighborhood-oriented businesses around transit stops, a modern updating of the time-honored Main Street way of dense American development.

During questioning, a few people in the audience said the Legislature needs to give cities local option taxation authority, to better fund transit. For their part, however, cities haven’t done much in the past 90 years to build transit-friendly development, despite two decades of comprehensive plans calling for such development. Huge parking lots still intrude between streets and storefronts, cul-de-sacs and long residential blocks remain common and shopping centers remain walled off from neighborhoods. The Legislature isn’t developing our cities – we are – and until we show show they are serious about building for transit, we undermine our calls for greater taxing authority.

At the same time, cities shoot for the most expensive, least-flexible transportation option available: rail, which requires an extremely
dense urban form. I’d say less than 5 percent of the surface area of Boise is rail ready, none of it built in the past 90 years, save maybe for some upscale planned communities, and these are exurban or at the fringes. A busway (or bus priority system) is more suited to our Western sprawl; in a busway, existing rail corridors are paved for emergency and transit use only, retaining their crossing arms and priority to pass, but the busses can leave the busway and go onto city streets as needed. This combines the flexibility of busses with the priority of rail, but the idea isn’t even seriously considered in this area.

After the presentation, I asked Grimshaw if there was some intermediate type of development, something short of a full-blown TOD, that cities could shoot for. Grimshaw wasn’t immediately aware of such a development type, but agreed it’s something to consider. If and when the rails or bus lines do ever come, riders must be let off in a pedestrian-friendly area with housing, neighborhood commercial and workplaces all within walking distance. Such a development style could mesh well with efforts by Victor Dover and other planners to revitalize and redevelop strip malls, as well as with greenfield development.

If we ever are to make the leap from auto-dependent development to transit-friendly development, we will need some intermediate urban form. That’s more of question for professional planners than policy wonks like me, but I would like to see some suggestions on

that.