Urban Intervention 

David Hale and the Linen District

Studying a jar of jelly beans in David Hale's makeshift office on 15th Street, I count what I know about him on one hand: He's young, he's rich, he's championing the revitalization of a six-block area west of downtown Boise while maintaining seven companies, three personal residences and the impending birth of his first-born son (OK, maybe two hands). I imagine him vibrating with the pressure of it all: cell phones, laptops and supermodels grafted to his body as he multitasks his way to Forbes' Top 100. Maybe he's an alien, or a sweater vest-wearing Bill Gates type. Somehow, thinking he's a freak makes me feel better about my own rung on the cosmic ladder ...

I'm on the phone when he walks in, which saves me from gaping at his striking resemblance to Patrick Dempsey. Shaking the image of him riding a lawnmower in a cowboy hat, I hang up and greet the president of Hale Development Inc., an urban infill giant with projects all over town. I'd heard Hale was young, but it shocks me anyway--the trendy clothes, the oversized shades, the meticulously messy hair.

His office, on the other hand, is just as I pictured it--big enough for a desk, some knick-knacks and a wall-sized blueprint of "The Linen District," Hale's dream for the forgotten parts of downtown Boise. We talk about his resume, trips to Thailand, our mothers, and in the middle of a conversation about the construction business, he holds up a pair of expensive sunglasses someone left at his house and says, "Do you want these?"

This ability to speak his mind without thought to decorum is one of Hale's defining characteristics, and it appears to have worked in his favor. At the age of 32, he heads up the aforementioned Hale Development Inc., Boise City Building Co. and Hale Investments in addition to being a partner in Sparks Commercial Construction, but the distinction comes with a price. Hale has enemies, most of whom are angry residents of old neighborhoods operating under what he calls the philosophy of "NIMBY," or "not in my backyard." He is careful to always go through legal channels and encourages citizens to speak their minds, but projects like a row of rentals recently built on 13th Street inevitably raise some hackles.

"I see it as the lesser of two evils," said Rich Wright, Hale's marketing director. "I would rather see modern housing built smart and energy conscious in old neighborhoods as opposed to subdivisions that bring more traffic, taxes and pollution."

Hale and his supporters insist that such "infill development" is a necessary, lesser evil than the sprawling suburbs threatening to swallow the land from Meridian to Melba. Ironically, Hale learned the construction business managing subdivision projects in Portland, but he insists the experience is what motivated his desire to "repurpose underutilized space."

"I started doing construction when I was 22 years old and still forming my beliefs. I didn't have the opinions that I have now until I worked for this guy who was all about profit and cranking out houses," Hale said. "I got a great understanding of the business from him, but I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do."

After two years with RNP Properties in Portland, Hale packed up and moved to Boise to start his own company. It was 1997, and the young entrepreneur saw a market ripe for infill. His friends thought he was crazy, but between then and now, he has purchased and developed countless properties, most of them residential, in an effort to meet the growing demand for modern housing in old haunts. He continues to field criticism and vehement proclamations via e-mail that he's in it for the money and the ruin of all mankind, but Hale takes it in stride. He actually keeps a folder in his files called "hate mail," where nasty communications of all kinds are stored for comic relief and to remind him that what he does has a ripple effect.

Unlike some of the ventures that are funding it, The Linen District is a project that seems to please everyone--regardless of Hale's motives. The area targeted for redevelopment would run from 13th Street to 16th Street and Main to Front, and the dream compares to the reality of Portland's Pearl District or Ester Short Park in Vancouver, Washington. Both are Cinderella stories of industrial wastelands forgotten for decades being salvaged and built into thriving urban centers. Having traveled all over the world, Hale has seen successful revitalization from Tokyo to Texas and borrowed ideas from some of his favorites.

"When I first moved to Boise, it looked like Portland 10 or 15 years ago. Portland is on a much grander scale in regard to population, but not in terms of downtown atmosphere," he said.

The name of Hale's game is "creating a sense of place," not just one building or one block, but an entire sector of downtown reborn and bursting with culture, music, food, flea markets, antiques, condos and a sense of community, all within the existing framework.

"I picked that part of town for its existing infrastructure--roads, utilities, buildings--and business components that will help get revitalization going in an otherwise underdeveloped and underutilized part of town. The visibility factor is phenomenal. There are 85,000 car trips per day on the connector, and this whole area is the first thing you see when you drive into town," Hale said.

Several businesses have already committed to Hale's vision. One has been advertising for weeks with an old Airstream trailer crowned with plastic flamingos and a clothesline that reads, Coming Soon. What's coming is an upscale restaurant disguised as a hole in the wall, called donnie mac's Trailer Park Cuisine, which will feature countertops made of truck beds, motorcycle seats and special tables suspended on hydraulic lifts left over from the Goodyear Tire building. The mastermind is Don MacKenzie, founder of MacKenzie River Pizza Co. Although his pizza chain failed in Boise years ago, MacKenzie is looking forward to his second round in the fickle dining scene, this time armed with 3,750 square feet of abandoned garage space and a killer concept.

Down the block, construction is under way on a sleek, high-ceilinged warehouse that will pair urban design firms Guigon Olsen Studios and Good Boy Rufus Designs and a fully functional art gallery. The two parts constitute the Visual Arts Collective, or VaC, the brainchild of Samuel and Anneliessa Stimpert, Christophe Guigon and Corrin Olsen. VaC will express the essence of The Linen District by displaying and selling art that defies convention. Homegrown and international talent will hang on exposed brick in the front of the building while business is conducted in the back--a symbiotic relationship of pure and practical aesthetics and another metaphor for the district itself.

Across the street, Big City Coffee, a favorite of Boiseans who like non-corporate beans and fresh baking, will open a second location. Like VaC and donnie mac's, it fits into the jigsaw of established area tenants like Metro Express Car Wash and the SHIP (Supportive Housing and Innovative Partnerships) Second Chance Building Materials Center, as well as planned additions like a nightclub called Atmosphere and affordable urban housing.

"David wants this area to be an eclectic, artistic mix where you can have VaC next to recycled building materials next to dining next to housing. He wants to build a district where people can live and work and play," said Wright. Having known Hale for two years, Wright described him as "the kind of charismatic, dynamic guy you can tell doesn't let grass grow under his feet." He explained that Hale currently owns three large structures in the area, now named Furness, Lincoln and, of course, the historic American Linen Building. Growth will depend on the tenants that fill these and other spaces, and everyone understands that it will take time.

"This is a long-term, evolving project, and it's not going to happen overnight," Hale said, "but everyone has been really positive. Zoning is a challenge, but we're working with the ACHD (Ada County Highway District), DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) and city council to make it great."

Making The Linen District happen at all depends on several factors. The first is changing the current zoning ordinance to allow "mixed-use" development or a combination of commercial, residential and office space. At the moment, the area is zoned for strip-malls, though Hale has been asked by the Boise Department of Planning and Zoning to draft an amendment that can be woven with existing rules to allow a vision so "creative" it is unprecedented.

Until then, Hale is moving forward under the "specific plan" provision in the city's comprehensive plan, which some would say steps on the toes of the Capital City Development Corp. (CCDC), which oversees much of the funding and development of downtown Boise. Despite the potential for conflict, CCDC has been cooperative if not complimentary of Hale's work.

"The Linen District is a different animal. It's not a single project; it's a whole area, and Hale's revitalization plan is a more natural approach to development," said Katina Dutton, CCDC's development manager. Dutton was instrumental in a 2003 market study that included a survey about residential living downtown. The results suggested that demand was not the problem. The supply of available urban housing was either very expensive (The Veltex Building) or completely without charm (Civic Plaza), so people who wanted to move downtown filtered into the North End, the Bench or the suburbs. The study also showed that approximately 5,000 people would consider moving in the next two years, and Hale hopes proposed housing in The Linen District will draw a good portion of the next wave.

Having previously lived in Seattle and various parts of Oregon, Dutton has seen neighborhoods come back to life. She favors the "organic" qualities of infill and called Hale a "great visionary." "So often people come in with a bulldozer and just start over. He's using what's there, and it may not be as sexy as putting in a brand new building, but I appreciate that he's looking at the whole area and really making an investment of time, energy and emotion. You can tell what he's doing is really different."

And what does Mr. Hale think of his own endeavor? He will tell you straight out that it is a fantastic investment that also happens to be a lot of fun and of great benefit to the greater Boise community. Unapologetic. Blunt.

"This is not only for me," Hale said, "I'm in it for the good of the city, too--it just so happens that it's also my business and I enjoy it. It can be frustrating and difficult, but every day, there is something new and fun and challenging, and that's important to me." The prospect of failure has crossed his mind, but he has seen people bounce back just as vibrantly as old neighborhoods and would consider the predicament just another project. "Doing things that involve taking risks is my forte. Eight years ago, I decided to sell everything and put it all on the line for something that I believed in," he said. "Eight years, later I'm doing it again. I feel good about it. I want to make it happen."

Walking from Hale's office into the sunshine, I look down the quiet street toward the promise of something undeniably cool. I think about the hate mail and all of the conflict that progress brings and pop a red jelly bean in my mouth. Ten years from now, will I be standing on the same corner surrounded by a crowd of young, creative people doing creative things? Will donnie mac be celebrating his triumph, or will the growing color in the neighborhood dull once more to an empty gray? If Hale has anything to say about it, this place will be "happening," and for once, the neighbors are thrilled.

For more information, visit www.linendistrict.com.

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