College students, middle-income families, single mothers and the elderly face a dwindling stock of places to live in downtown Boise. At the same time, rental prices for cramped apartments in the nearby North End neighborhood are much higher than a part-time salary or fixed income afford. While urban renewal programs have helped create some new housing projects, those apartments and condos are primarily classified as “luxury” or “high-end” places of residence. Prices for The Jefferson, located at 323 Jefferson Street, range from $299,000 to $419,000—far outside the budgets of single mothers or college students. Some units in The Aspen Lofts, a series of condos atop BoDo, top $1 million.
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Where is the workforce housing project proposed for the C.C. Anderson Building—formerly home to Macy’s? Why does Boise’s newest skyscraper, the glass tower at 8th and Main Streets, have no housing as part of its offerings? Why is the City of Boise allowing the Central Addition—arguably the only place for low-income earners to live close to the core—to wither on the vine?
Rarely is the Central Addition, Boise’s low-rent, historic neighborhood, mentioned in documents at City Hall. For city officials, the historic homes left in downtown Boise are good for nothing more than demolition as the city grows. For people like me — until recently, a resident of the Central Addition — it’s a distinct neighborhood.
A plan to convert the former Owyhee Plaza Hotel into a hip housing complex, when opened, will house 36 apartments at around $900 per month, developer Clay Carley told Boise Weekly. If so, those prices may be more manageable.
In a former life, the forgotten neighborhood found at the southern tip of downtown Boise was home to both business owners and citizens of more modest means. In 1894, Edmund and Sophia Fowler, owners of a jewelry shop located on Main Street, built their once beautiful home at 413 S. 5th St. Today, the white-and-pink painted home sits boarded up, one side covered in graffiti. A Queen Anne cottage was gutted by fire. Three homes — including the immaculate Second Empire style Lubken House on Fourth Street — were recently listed “for sale.”
Bounded by Front and Myrtle Streets — each carrying upwards of 30,000 cars per day — the Central Addition has undergone urban attrition as the city matured. First by electric streetcar, then by automobile, Boiseans moved to farther flung neighborhoods outside the central core. A Union Pacific rail line placed the Central Addition, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. Before the car, walking was the default mode of transportation. The Central Addition was an early annexation to the city’s original grid system, and because of its close proximity to downtown employment, was a natural choice for home-owning city fathers. Frank Ramsey, a former Idaho state legislator, lived on Fourth Street. Joseph Straughan, appointed surveyor general of Idaho by President Grover Cleveland, built a house across the road. Both homes still stand — but their days are numbered. Many of the area’s homes have been demolished, some for surface parking. With a suburban style Trader Joe’s under construction just a few short blocks away, the days for this once dense, tree-lined, urban neighborhood may be numbered.
You won’t find the “Central Addition” mentioned in many official documents on the desks of Boise City Council members, in the minutes of Planning and Zoning commission hearings, in official urban renewal plans or in the city’s comprehensive plan, Blueprint Boise. It seems that in assembling the blueprint, city planners opted to call the Central Addition what it is not by choice, but by neglect — future area for downtown expansion. Never mind that the neighborhood’s been poorly served by city zoning. The R-OD designation for the Idaho Independent Bank Building allowed a six-story, sun-blocking tower complete with a drive-through and a squawking bank teller’s box, right across the street from four über urban row houses on Broad Street.
From Blueprint Boise:
“Downtown housing is viewed as a key to offering the sizable workforce in Downtown the option of living close to where they work, and decreasing commuting, fuel consumption, traffic capacity. Residents living Downtown add to Downtown vitality and safety and support Downtown businesses.”
If that’s the case, why is housing hardly mentioned at State of the City addresses, or City Council meetings? What programs exist to make it possible for employees working in downtown Boise to live close to where they work?
“Fewer than three percent (6,121) of Boise residents lived in Downtown in 2009,” according to Blueprint Boise. “However, demand for urban housing has been increasing and residents are projected to more than double to 13,686 by 2025.”
Who will constitute this foreseen influx of new residents? In 2005, 33,000 workers were employed in downtown, the highest concentration of employment in the state. By 2030, that number is expected to jump 63.5 percent, bringing the total number of jobs in downtown Boise to 55,175. But while the plan proudly trumps 700-plus “multi-family units” built in Boise between 2000 and 2007 — no note is made about their degree of affordability — the loss of single family residential units, including those in the blighted Central Addition, were “removed and replaced by development, or where parcels were cleared to make room for parking needed by adjacent businesses.”
In recent years, the homes left in this neighborhood have been neglected, serving as little more than temporarily occupied lots available for future developers. Preservation Idaho and local advocates have worked to preserve the neighborhood, but city officials have turned a blind eye.
“[The] Central Addition, one of Boise’s most interesting and arguably one of its most architecturally significant neighborhoods faces considerable threats to its continued existence,” according to Preservation Idaho, the state’s historic preservation council, which listed the area as one of a half dozen threatened sites. “Though passively threatened by ongoing neglect, the most immediate threat is more pressing — demolition for surface parking.”
What isn’t mentioned, however, is that not only is the neighborhood historic — it offers something that the new generation of housing in Boise can’t, or won’t — a cheap, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood in the urban core, accessible not just to condo owners, but poorer residents as well.
“Downtown is the only planning area that lost single family residential units (52) from 2000 to 2007,” according to Blueprint Boise.
Elaine Clegg, Boise City Council member and Idaho Smart Growth project coordinator, admitted that pressure to develop the area has led to less than ideal change in the Central Addition. Part of the issue is the available affordable housing, according to Clegg, but also the historical assets, and the city’s desire that the Central Addition isn’t converted to a sea of surface parking.
“If you look at [Blueprint Boise], obviously, we’d like more housing in downtown. Given the economic conditions, recently, it was pretty obvious that the pace of housing was going to slow, the addition of new housing. I guess the question is, as this area does redevelop, and I think there’s now pressure for something to happen there, what does it redevelop into? Is it just office buildings, or is it housing? I happen to agree that the notion is correct that there is an opportunity here for more housing. There’s also, I think, an opportunity to retain some affordable housing in this area. If all that happens is affordable housing is maintained, I don’t think the district will live up to its potential. From a policy perspective, I’d like to see affordable housing, but I’d also like to see some middle class housing and some potentially, overlooking the parks, some higher-end housing. There’s an opportunity for this to be some mixed use housing,” said Clegg.
But scenario has not played out to date. New projects have been commercial and office, not townhouses, condos or apartments. Recently, parking fields have come to the neighborhood, as Clegg acknowledges.
“I think the pressure on the housing right now is a perceived lack of parking. I don’t think there’s a lack of parking, I think it’s perceived, and a perceived lack of marketability for anything else, at the moment. If there was a supply of parking, I think that supply would induce market forces to help encourage redevelopment, rather than ‘de-development,'” said Clegg.
When asked why the city hadn’t taken a more active role in the neighborhood, Clegg said if there is a reason, it’s because the city has been working on a number of other development initiatives.
“[The] 30th Street [redevelopment project], obviously, took a fair amount of energy; the Lusk Street area has taken a fair amount of energy. Now that both of those are on their way to being self-managed, there’s energy to look at some other issues. I know that staff’s been watching [the Central Addition] closely, but the city hasn’t directly done anything yet,” said Clegg.
Existing historic homes could take a more central role in the redevelopment of the neighborhood. As Clegg notes, the structures aren’t low-quality housing: they were built in an era of craftsmanship from high-quality materials.
“The other thing that we don’t think about as a city, and we probably need to in this case, are historic resources. I think there’s a perception that people want to preserve them just for the sake of preserving them, but I think they offer a real opportunity to brand districts, and offer an eclectic mix of styles, and uses in buildings that you often don’t get in a district that’s newly built. At least for me, I think there’s a real hope that there could be both a mix of preserved historic structures and new structures in a district like this. Having the two juxtaposed,” said Clegg. “It does concern me that these buildings are in imminent danger, and If I had a couple million bucks just laying around to do nothing with, I might consider doing something, but I don’t know who does. It’s a long-term investment.”
Still, the result is a failure to capitalize on the neighborhood’s existing assets. Planners and bureaucrats allowed what were once the foundations of functioning homes to become more parking — lots that remain empty outside of the 9 to 5 work week. I’m left to wonder: If city officials want a successful downtown — one with permanent residents, active streets and lively establishments — why isn’t urban housing Priority No. 1 for the administration of Mayor Dave Bieter. What, exactly, is the City of Boise’s urban housing policy?
How must the owners of hip restaurants and businesses on 8th Street feel, knowing that most of their customers have to drive to spend money at their establishments? That casual shopping atmosphere is remarkably neutered without regular passersby, and the lion’s share of downtown workers leave at 5 p.m., shuttling back to their suburban housing tracts after the proverbial whistle blows.
And when they do, they drive through the Central Addition, blissfully unaware.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.