What is the role of “creeping suburbanization” in downtown Boise? The Blue Review asked this provocative question at a well-attended forum last week at Boise State’s new downtown center at Front and Capitol streets. The forum served as a coda to the most recent issue of The Blue Review, which covered development trends in Boise.

“If I look at it, I can see why someone would be confused that Boise works as well as it does,” said Jaap Vos, director of the community and regional planning department at Boise State University. Boise planners, planning students and interested professionals gathered Friday to discuss “creeping suburbanization” and its role – proper or not – in downtown development. More than 50 students and members of the public attended the forum.

“Its not really suburbanization, but it is suburban amenities,” Vos said “Look at our Walgreens; it’s not an urban Walgreens. In most cities, they are typically small and cramped, ours is not.” While other cities struggle to maintain downtown grocery stores, Boise has two (Winco and Whole Foods) and one more on the way (Trader Joe’s). People are coming downtown for shopping.

Part of what allows that are the much-maligned access roads to downtown, Front and Myrtle, oft viewed as a glaring detriment, or “knife to the jugular of the city,” as one city planning student referred to the one-way couplet.

Author and Boise State historian Todd Shallat pointed out that sprawl is creeping from the outer city into the inner city and the problem is that people are bringing their cars with them. This car culture adversely affects the life of the city. And yet if it were not for those cars, many of the businesses, including those large grocers, would not be able to stand on their own because of the lack of density, Vos countered.

“No matter how much residential development occurs downtown, that would not support the development of the three grocery stores currently housed downtown,” Vos pointed out.

Dean Gunderson, a planning student and one of the designers of the downtown Winco, pointed out that Winco was interested in five floors of housing above the grocery store downtown. But the very fact that made the grocer pencil out well in that location – five lanes of traffic passing by on either side – killed any notion of residential on the site. The store location does not make it convenient for residential, nor for bike riders of pedestrians.

Another reason residential units are limited around town is that the cost to develop these places is prohibitive, relative to the rental and sales market. According to local developer, Ken Howell, who has tried to build downtown, “economics and land price are the driving force behind what is built and what is not.”

“Does the city provide you with time?” Vos asked in a recent TBR essay and at the forum. Originally from Florida, he has experience with bigger cities. “South Florida is a place that sucks up all your time,” he said. It would take him two to three hours to get to work in his car and he would arrive stressed. In Boise, he rides his bicycle to work taking approximately 11 minutes. He is ready to work when he arrives, “I have a lot of creative thoughts after my ride,” he said. So it is also not just the time, he said, it is the quality.

Boise works, and that might be because it doesn’t work, pointed out one forum attendee. People who live here, find ways to get around any infrastructure hurdles. People get creative; they make downtown work because they want to be here.

Another trend, and a selling point for Boise, is the number of activities occurring around town, including events in “suburban” downtown parking lots, like the new Whole Foods. “We have the propensity to use different businesses for events,” said city planning student and TR graduate fellow Andrew Crisp. This brings people into the city and encourages them to stay once they are here.

Is “creeping suburbanization” really disrupting the development of Boise or are suburban amenities already part of the urban fabric? Let us know your thoughts and comments.

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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.