Boise’s Capitol Boulevard was designed to emulate grand, Old World streets, but since the day city fathers cut it from sagebrush frontier, the street has shared little with the Champs-Élysées. Built during an era promoting urban revitalization by way of pageantry, known as the “City Beautiful” movement, engineers aligned Capitol along an axis to provide stunning views of two Idaho architectural jewels—the Boise Depot and Idaho State Capitol. Today, views of the growing city skyline, with Boise’s foothills as backdrop, are still quite majestic.
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But years of ho-hum development have wrought havoc on the city’s premier entranceway, creating a perplexing relationship between Boiseans and their once grand vision. Wide travel lanes, the incessant din of traffic, a hodgepodge of poorly coordinated architectural styles and a scarcity of cafe patios or bike lanes are inconsistent with its “boulevard” moniker.
It’s a problem that plagues city centers across America. Massive roads and thousands of cars eviscerate original street grid systems in major urban centers, funneling impatient motorists through thin strips of right-of-way. Urban residents are left with a constant struggle to attract potential consumers whizzing by their windows.
A car-filled roadway is a desirable place for a national retailer like Trader Joe’s, the trendy grocery chain slated to open in Boise by 2014. The Monrovia, Calif., grocer will be primary tenant of a multi-million dollar development on the site of a former parking lot, where Capitol Boulevard meets Front Street, a short walk from bustling shops on Eighth Street, stores in BODO and from the Eighth and Main tower, the city’s newest skyscraper.
But downtown workers, weekenders and lunch-goers may find walking to the new storefront an exhausting exercise. Unlike popular shops nearby, Trader Joe’s front door won’t face the sidewalk, but an asphalt parking lot, sure to be jam-packed with cars.
Occupying a single-story structure, with a design not much different than a Rite Aid, Trader Joe’s downtown storefront will be offset by an 80-stall parking lot and three small, single-story buildings. Chain eateries Chipotle and Panda Express will take up two of those locations, while Starbucks will occupy a small structure with a drive-through window.
It’s a design that shirks city plans stretching back four decades. City officials say they had little regulatory authority to force the company, intent on setting up shop in Boise, to build better.
A SUBURBAN DESIGN
In Berkeley, Calif., New York City and San Francisco, Trader Joe’s designed new stores to fit into existing downtowns—in New York, the company tucked a store into an East Village skyscraper. Developers in New York can’t afford the large parcels necessary to build parking fields, nor would a surface parking lot be as profitable as, say, 1 million square feet of office space. Most grocery shopping in the Big Apple takes place on foot, in corner bodegas, making car-focused development far from the norm for grocery stores.
Yet national companies from Starbucks to Office Depot prefer the perceived convenience offered by a large footprint with ample parking. In some city centers, market forces, zoning ordinances or government-sponsored incentives exist to make those designs less desirable, factors which may convince retailers to become tenants in larger developments.
In Boise, Trader Joe’s will stand in harsh contrast to the stated desire for people-focused places, building a center that would feel more at home in suburban Los Angeles. Surprisingly, the lot at 300 S. Capitol Boulevard wasn’t the company’s first choice. Developer Clay Carley told Boise Weekly News Editor George Prentice he proposed installing Trader Joe’s on a different downtown parcel, with a plan to build an attached parking garage and—in a later phase—a hotel.
“Trader Joe’s said, ‘Nope. We don’t want any construction going on around us after we’re open. We need to move in a year and you would have to build it all now,’” Carley told Prentice. “I was crushed. What a great anchor that would have been for that property. And Trader Joe’s has a lot of other urban projects which are vertical, so I couldn’t understand that.”
The Trader Joe’s design is disappointing for city of Boise planners as well. They envision downtown as an accessible place for bike riders, pedestrians and families with strollers, not just vehicles. In a Jan. 7, 2013 report to the Planning and Zoning Commission, city planners cited concern with the “suburban style” of the project, which “might be an underutilization of the site.” Then-chair of the commission Jennifer Stevens agreed, and told architect Andrew Erstad as much at a hearing that same evening. P&Z commissioners ultimately moved the project forward.
Bryan Vaughn, project manager for Hawkins Companies, the developer contracted by Trader Joe’s, told The Blue Review he had signed a nondisclosure agreement and couldn’t comment on this story. In an email, Alison Mochizuki, director of public relations for Trader Joe’s, also declined to comment.
“Thank you for the opportunity but unfortunately we do have to pass as we don’t talk about our business or real estate practices,” she wrote.
WHAT’S A TOWN TO DO?
Planning and zoning departments strive to incentivize tall buildings in downtown cores. Modern urban planning suggests dense buildings, constructed on a predictable street grid, create an efficient urban environment—and that planning for people is a more sustainable growth pattern than planning around the personal automobile.
For numerous reasons, Boise does not require density. But P&Z can require specific design considerations, including improvements to sidewalks along Capitol Boulevard. City plans codify a vision for the boulevard as “a ceremonial visual corridor to the State Capitol,” with “trees and other landscaping added to make the street stand out as an entrance to Boise.” In code, standards call for red brick pavers, long rows of flower-strewn planters, benches, trees for shade and other requirements. Hawkins is required to add those elements along the new Trader Joe’s development to help beautify the street and make Capitol Boulevard more “walkable.” However P&Z can’t, per current city code, force Hawkins to give visitors walking to Trader Joe’s a convenient, pedestrian-friendly entrance on Capitol Boulevard.
Despite red brick pavers, despite a wide setback and rows of planters, despite street trees, expensive landscaping and decorative steel panels, the small doorway located on the corner of Capitol Boulevard and Front Street isn’t an entrance. In the building’s architectural drawings, the doorway is designated as “EXIT ONLY.” Trader Joe’s sole entrance faces an 80-stall parking lot.
That detail was news to Elaine Clegg, a member of the Boise City Council and Idaho Smart Growth project coordinator. She regularly champions dense, mixed-use projects and better urban form. By procedure, city leaders see applications only after approval, or to consider a variance. Clegg is disappointed with the project, particularly the lack of a pedestrian-friendly entrance.
“Yeah, that’s not good. That’s a mistake. I think that’s a terrible mistake, and if our staff approved that, frankly, they know that we wouldn’t support it as a city council,” she said.
The result is a street that zoning code dictates should be walkable, but in practice will be anything but. City code requires well-designed sidewalks, but does not currently address building ingress and egress.
“It might be that they had no tools not to approve it, because we haven’t gotten our code changed yet,” Clegg explained. “We’ve got standards that aren’t up to date. If they’re meeting the minimum standard, it’s hard to require something else.”
On a parcel wedged firmly in Boise’s C-5 zoning area, a zone designated for dense development, Hawkins and Trader Joe’s is instead building a low-intensity project destined to generate little street life. Whole Foods, another high-profile project installed in what should be Boise’s most walkable part of town, shirked street-facing storefronts in favor of a wide parking lot.
“Like Whole Foods, it could have been done better. I’m not picking on Trader Joe’s. Whole Foods has all of the same problems, even more so because the building isn’t at the street,” said Clegg.
On the Whole Foods site, an adjacent dirt lot, slated for a mixed-use tower that never materialized, was converted into more parking. City of Boise planners have few tools to require more from developers. As written, the city of Boise’s zoning code doesn’t mandate dense projects, lacking a “minimum development standard” requiring even a two-story structure. But the city does provide some incentives, often for more density, incentives that are attractive only when the market is good.
“The option was there. They could have gone higher,” said Sarah Schafer, city design review and historic preservation manager. “If it was their desire, they could have been part of an overall mixed-use project, vertically, if they had wanted. A lot of times they’ll say it’s driven by [the] market, and that Boise’s market just isn’t there yet. You wonder what it is that would get them to that point.”
Clegg would have preferred a Trader Joe’s that takes better advantage of prime downtown real estate.
“I’m not afraid to be on the record saying I think that’s a real underutilization of a very prime site,” said Clegg. “And yeah, it’s a great use; I love that Trader Joe’s is coming here, but I think that site could have been much better utilized, and frankly, much better designed. I’m not convinced you have to have the suburban design to make it successful.”
Density is important to downtown, Clegg explains. In addition to promoting walking, which is better for human and environmental health, dense buildings make more efficient use of city services than endless miles of single story developments. A city grid system peppered with buildings of varying size, and featuring a dense network of places to go, promotes street life. It’s why P&Z strives to push buildings to the sidewalk, rather than in a sea of parking.
“The closer you get front doors to the sidewalk, the closer those destinations are in fact, and not just in theory,” said Clegg.
Historically, Boise’s zoning code has been lenient. Demolition wrought by early urban renewal efforts left little desire for redeveloping downtown. As interest in Boise’s downtown grew more recently, stronger teeth were added to the code, including better incentives for density. Numerous tools were created following a Downtown Boise Plan passed in 1993, and subsequent plans in the modern era of urban renewal.
Staff are currently rewriting Boise’s zoning code to fix some of these issues. Despite numerous amendments over the years, the code has never been formally overhauled. This time, city officials are considering adding minimum development standards. Staff are incorporating elements of “form-based zoning,” a style different than Euclidean zoning which dictated homes go in one zone, commercial in another. According to Hal Simmons, City of Boise Planning Director, code for the C-5 zone, the same zoning as the Trader Joe’s lot, will also receive a makeover.
“We’re to the point where we need to evolve our tools a little bit,” said Simmons. “But so far, they’ve worked well.”
Code has helped build the current downtown core. But it’s failed to encourage big retailers including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Winco Foods, who can afford to shirk the city’s meager incentives and build however they please, to design for density.
City streets themselves are part of the equation—pinning part of the blame on transportation planners at Ada County Highway District. Simmons notes that width and speed of streets bordering a parcel influence both how buildings are designed, and how people use them. But unlike most cities from Portland to New York, Boise streets are managed not by the City of Boise, but ACHD.
“ACHD likes wide roads, and lots of lanes,” said Simmons. “And we like narrow roads, and fewer lanes, and shorter blocks. We can get the shorter blocks, we have a more difficult time getting an agreement for narrower streets.”
City design guidelines call for attractive, multi-use streets. Wide roads negatively impact pedestrians, according to Simmons and Clegg. With Trader Joe’s, the absence of a street-facing door means Capitol Boulevard has little reason to develop street life. No matter how full of life the building’s display windows, without an entrance, few will take advantage of park benches and shade trees, and will instead take an unnecessary tour of the building’s perimeter before entering. Because the city lacks control of its roads, planning staff have taken a limited, roundabout approach to making “corridor” streets like Capitol Boulevard more walkable.
“I think at this point, the strategy we’ve had to kind of back into by default is that if we can get enough building done the right way along those corridors, you know gradually it starts to slow traffic down. The pioneers, number one, have a risk as to whether it’s going to succeed in the long run, and in the interim, their customers have a bad time trying to get to and from their buildings,” said Simmons. “But if you can line the street with Main Street style development, at some point traffic’s just going to have to move slower because it’s not comfortable to move that fast, even though you might have four lanes or five lanes.”
In other American cities, planners can initiate a “road diet” on wide streets to make pedestrians feel more at home. On-street parking doubles as a place to pull in and a barrier between travel lanes and sidewalks.
“If we had a street system that said, ‘Oh, let’s put on-street parking around that corner,’ that would be the visible parking and they could tuck the rest of it behind the store,” said Clegg.
Peter Henn, Developer-in-Residence at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, provides a different perspective on zoning, and the Trader Joe’s project. Henn is the former CEO of a private real estate company, and has more than 20 years of real estate development experience.
“Developers are very simple creatures,” said Henn. “It’s all about money. And it’s all about keeping the project alive.”
While zoning code provides for dense, walkable structures, there’s nothing requiring developers to build those projects, Henn said. Developers build what pencils out, and planners shouldn’t try to spend private companies’ money for them, he added.
“You have to realize: zoning codes are always encouragements. They’d like you to do this, and they put a limitation. I’ve never seen a zoning code that says, ‘it’s zoned up to eight stories,’ and they make you go the whole eight. Very rarely should the government be telling you you need to go the whole height,” he said.
He said most supermarkets want plenty of parking in front, to show customers they can get their shopping done easily.
“Planners hate that,” said Henn.
In other cities, better carrots—and sticks—are employed to build projects complementary to the existing urban fabric.
WALKING IN BOISE’S FUTURE
Numerous factors beyond mere zoning explain why downtown Boise looks different than Manhattan. Cheap land and an abundance of cars leads to single story development, siphoning off demand for diverse services in city centers. If Idahoans want to see a future with better land use, better air quality, better public health, adequate city services and farmland preservation, investing in walkable cities provides an answer.
Planners and policymakers in Portland, Ore., are better equipped to deal with urban issues than their Boise counterparts. The two metropolitan areas have undergone extensive growth, but where Boise has doubled down on cars in the past 30 years, in the same time period, downtown Portland has been reborn as a thriving market, and a place where residents and tourists can travel on foot and by alternative transportation. Part of the city’s smart growth stems from an influential Republican governor, Tom McCall, and the creation of urban growth boundaries around Oregon’s cities—a mechanism that controls urban expansion at the fringes, frequently contested in the state’s courts.
If Boise’s city leaders want to see better development downtown—including the vital influx of new residents—they may find that zoning tools alone won’t suffice. Better financial mechanisms (city leaders have asked the Idaho Legislature for local option taxation for years) and better zoning tools—like active use requirements, which stipulate that developments incorporate features like sidewalk cafes and vendors’ stands to encourage street life—may help make those developments profitable. Perhaps the biggest factor in building a better Trader Joe’s would have been nearby residents to walk to the store—Boise is remarkably empty of any downtown housing other than luxury condos.
Yet, recent studies show that even in the American West, with its well-documented addiction to urban sprawl, people are starting to come around to the idea of living in a place that provides walking as an option.
One study from the Sonoran Institute found that in Boise, over 10 years and more than 40,000 home sales, homes sold in neighborhoods considered walkable fetched prices 45 percent higher, on average, than their less walkable counterparts. Survey respondents in six cities, including Boise, indicated they would pay 12.5 percent more to live in a neighborhood where they could walk to schools, parks, restaurants and shops.
“I think people everywhere are beginning to intuitively understand that spending 10 or 15 or 20 minutes in a car to get to everything they want to go to is not a really desirable lifestyle,” said Clegg.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.