In 2011—even before Gardner Company had begun filling the infamous “Boise Hole” at Eighth and Main streets in what would soon become Idaho’s tallest building—Gardner Chief Operating Officer Tommy Ahlquist started thinking about digging an even bigger hole right across the street. And as his Gardner colleagues began scraping the sky to construct the Eighth and Main Tower, Ahlquist was already noodling the company’s next venture: buying the US Bank tower and its surrounding parcel of land for a dense redevelopment known as City Centre Plaza.
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It’s not an overstatement to say Gardner’s $70 million grand plan will dramatically alter the footprint of Boise’s downtown core. In fact, you may be well advised to take a photo, sooner than later, of that prime real estate framed by Capitol Boulevard, Front, Main and Eighth streets, because heavy equipment will soon roll into the area. And in approximately 22 months, we’re told to expect a subterranean multi-modal transit center, aka MMC, to be operated by Valley Regional Transit; a five-story convention facility to be operated by the Greater Boise Auditorium District; a nine-story office building that will become the new headquarters of Clearwater Analytics; and some additional renovations (primarily on the ground floor) to the US Bank Building which, since Gardner’s purchase of the property, has become the company’s new Idaho headquarters.
But there has already been a short but serious delay.
THE OIL ISSUE
Boise Weekly first reported in April that shortly after its purchase of the US Bank Plaza, Gardner had hired Boise-based Materials Testing and Inspection to perform what it thought would be some routine testing of its new property.
“We found petroleum,” MTI project manager Jon Kruck told Gardner general counsel Geoff Wardle and officials with the Capital City Development Corporation, owners of the nearby Grove Plaza.
And that’s a problem, considering that CCDC was prepared to donate the land beneath the plaza to Valley Regional Transit for its use of the MMC.
It turns out that there were as many as three gas stations in and around the intersection of Main Street and Capitol Boulevard during the 1940s through the early 1970s. Upon hearing of the contaminated soil, CCDC agreed April 21 to pay a maximum of $200,000 for costs incurred to clean up any hazardous materials, including removal, treatment and containment.
“We’re going to be digging all that dirt up anyway,” Kruck assured the CCDC.
But the discovery of petroleum shouldn’t have been too much of a shock to CCDC commissioners. In fact, a December 2010 Brownfield Assessment report earmarked that exact land parcel in and around Capitol and Main as a prime candidate for grants to help fund a hazardous material cleanup.
Meanwhile, Gardner isn’t letting a little thing like petroleum in the soil slow down its desire to bring the project in on time. Company executives were set to stand before the City of Boise Design Review Committee on May 7 to unveil more details of their plans.
In anticipation of the high-profile effort, Boise Weekly and The Blue Review have teamed up to examine one of the more controversial pieces to the City Centre Plaza design—plus we consider the unprecedented number of public partners who have jumped on what has now become a very crowded bandwagon steered by Gardner.
BASQUES, ZEBRAS AND A CANTILEVER
David Wali, a 13-year veteran broker with Colliers International who was recently hired by Gardner to serve as the company’s vice president of operations, said the construction will be relatively quick. “By the end of the summer, you’ll see another hole downtown,” he said. “But 18 months later, you’ll see a completed project.”
But the proposed City Centre Plaza’s neighbors to the east of Capitol Boulevard, in Boise’s Basque Block, aren’t thrilled with the speed of the project or with Gardner’s design choices.
“I would say probably 95 percent of the people in Boise do not know that this is coming down like this, and that Capitol Boulevard is going to be changed this way,” said Patty Miller, executive director of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center. Specifically, Miller said her colleagues don’t like the plans that include steep in- and out-ramps, a contra-lane to accommodate buses that will be turning into the in-ramp on Capitol, and a cantilever overhang to the Centre Building, blocking out an open view of the Grove Plaza.
“We started from the beginning saying we were not opposed to the project. But we were very much against doing that to Capitol Boulevard. And if you were to look at their plans… looking down Grove Street to the West [toward the Grove Plaza], there will be 120-feet of ramps down there. And we think that that’s very unsightly, and totally unnecessary.”
Wali and Miller can only agree to disagree; both said negotiations have been unproductive.
Miller claimed Gardner Company had failed to respond quickly to their complaints, adding that she received a phone call from Gardner only after she took her concerns to City Hall.
“I think, more than anything, they’ve just been patronizing, meeting with us. Because this was pretty much set already in January, even before our discussions began,” said Miller. “I don’t even know if you could call it dialogue, really.”
A renovated US Bank tower with two buildings on its west and south sides will be rebranded as City Centre Plaza. New ramps will flow on and off of Capitol Boulevard and Main Street to access the MMC below the plaza. Making matters even more complex will be a new lane running against traffic on Capitol—called a contra-flow lane — in order for buses to enter the MMC. And squeezing all that into what’s left of a 2.14-acre parcel is no small feat.
“[It’s] a limited footprint, and a limited amount of money,” said Wali.
The foundation, quite literally, of the MMC will be an eight-bay underground bus terminal, designed as part of Valley Regional Transit’s plans to expand and improve its services.
Atop all of that will be the US Bank building, the to-be-built nine-story Clearwater Building to the west and the five-story Centre Building to the south. In addition to GBAD’s meeting and banquet space, the Centre Building will also include two floors of parking and retail space. Gardner has indicated that there will be six to eight retail spaces on the ground level, and it expects three or four of the spaces to be restaurants.
But the Centre Building also includes a cantilever, in effect connecting the structure to the Grove Hotel, which will result in an 18-foot pedestrian walkway that will look and feel like a tunnel into the Grove Plaza. According to Wali, the cantilever is necessary in order to accommodate a 21,500-square-foot ballroom and related facilities inside the Centre Building — a major component of the convention center expansion.
“We’ve talked to the Basque Block about encompassing Basque signage throughout (the pedestrian walkway), but in short there’s no way to make them happy without eliminating the [Centre Building],” said Wali.
“You can put stripes on a horse and make it look like a zebra, but it’s still a horse. You can put fancy things on a tunnel, but it’s still a tunnel,” responded Miller.
To which Wali conceded that some of the project “is less pedestrian-friendly. But this is a very wide sidewalk that doesn’t carry much traffic.”
Planmakers principal John Bertram also expressed concern about City Centre Plaza. In a letter to the city’s Design Review Commission dated May 5, Bertram urged both public officials and Gardner Co. to consider design that would strengthen the quality and beauty of Capitol Boulevard. Look to “The Rise and Fall of Capitol Boulevard,” a TBR report about the decades-long decline along the city’s premier street.
“As the author of the 1989 Capitol Boulevard Plan and Action Program,” Bertram wrote, “prepared by the Idaho Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for the City of Boise, I believe we need to be vigilant in transforming the boulevard into a place of walkability, grandeur and vitality.”
THE PAPER CHASE
The sheer number of players in the City Centre Plaza, and the volume of paper they are pushing reveals how complex Boise’s newest high-stakes game of redevelopment really is.
And the papers are flying fast—a steady stream of some of Idaho’s largest public entities and a handful of private interests (mostly Boise law firms) have already queued up to become champions for Gardner, which has rapidly become a significant development force with its other Treasure Valley projects: the Eighth and Main Tower, St. Luke’s Nampa Medical Plaza, Eagle Island Crossing, the Mace River Ranch planned community and the Portico office and retail park in Meridian.
Among the public partners:
Ada County Highway District: Oversight of traffic requirements in and out of the multi-modal transit center (MMC), including lane changes and signal installations; will also be responsible for equipment traffic rolling in and out of the construction site.
Capital City Development Corporation: Oversight of changes to Grove Plaza; transfer of subterranean property to Valley Regional Transit to operate the MMC once it is built by Gardner; executor of bonding authority to help GBAD pay for the Centre Building.
The City of Boise: Oversight of planning and zoning, design review, code compliance, building permits and conditional use permits for the entire project.
Greater Boise Auditorium District: Ultimate owner and operator of Centre Building; will pay Gardner Company approximately $38 million for its construction once the building is complete.
Valley Regional Transit: Ultimate owner and operator of the MMC; will pay for the MCC with a $9 million Federal Transit Authority grant.
The highest-profile private partner is Clearwater Analytics, which will help pay for construction of what will become the Clearwater Building, where the company will take four of the building’s nine stories.
“Each group has an idea of what they want to see their city look like and it’s our job to try to take all of those different elements and bring it together in a realistic deliverable project,” said Wali. “Everyone wants their signature on the finished project, whatever it is. But it’s hard to take all these different needs and wants and cobble them together into something that’s useful when it’s done. This is not an easy project. You have to bite your tongue a lot.”
And there may not be much tongue left considering that Gardner must sit on the sidelines as some mind-numbing agreements are forged among the many public partners in order to make Gardner’s vision come true. For example, in order for CCDC (the region’s urban renewal agency) to help GBAD (which owns and operates the Boise Centre) finance the $38 million needed for the Centre Building through the issuance of bonds, a 25-page lease agreement between the two parties needed to include 12 distinct articles (sections) and 66 subsections. View the full details of the lease agreement, totaling more than 25 pages.
In addition to that contract, CCDC and GBAD have also drafted the following: a resolution to approve a predevelopment agreement for long-term financing (four pages); the actual predevelopment agreement (five pages); a resolution to approve a memorandum of understanding (five pages); the actual memorandum of understanding (five pages); a resolution to approve a development agreement (four pages); and the actual development agreement (eight pages). Still more contracts have been drawn up between CCDC and Gardner: a property use agreement so that Gardner can dig up the Grove Plaza (11 pages) and a so-called Type 3 participation agreement in which CCDC promises to pay for the cleanup of the contaminated soil, known as the “Grove Plaza subsurface parcel” (four pages).
Enter the lawyers: A number of the legal agreements are also sure to pad the coffers of a few Idaho law firms, including Elam and Burke PA, Sherman and Howard LLC and Piper Jaffray. Some will serve as “financial counsel,” while others are being brought in to draft the wording of the bonds. Fees will range from $6,500 to $25,000.
Wali insists that the project makes sense because it has so many diverse partners, not in spite of them.
“Having it as individual projects would make it very challenging,” he said. “But doing it everything at once brought the pricing down to a level that made sense for everyone.”
And keeping tabs on those costs—construction and legal—for the next two years will, most probably, pale in comparison with keeping all of the private and public stakeholders in line.
“Part of the reason why we’re so excited is that it’s so hard,” said Wali. “You put a project like this together and, well, the next one’s going to be easy, by comparison.”
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.