Sandwiched between the Boise River and one of the busiest roads in town, a small, unassuming neighborhood lies on the threshold of a transformation.
For decades, the area of Boise surrounding 27th Street and Pleasanton Avenue has sat largely undisturbed despite the fact that it's nestled between downtown and the river. It has long been a stronghold of affordable housing, and despite a recent reputation for being what some call run-down, the area being called Boise's West End is home to a loyal group of residents.
Now, the neighborhood has been identified as the next great redevelopment project in Boise, and the city is unveiling an array of plans that has the potential to redefine the area.
From the much anticipated 55-acre Esther Simplot Park and a $1.5 million whitewater park, to the creation of a main north-south thoroughfare connecting State Street with Fairview Avenue and Main Street, city and regional planners have big plans.
The West End will go from a predominantly residential area to one that combines single-family homes, townhouses, condominiums and apartments with commercial hubs designed to serve the surrounding neighborhoods. Add a tree-lined avenue and buildings with clear design standards, and the area could become the city's next fashionable neighborhood.
Even many of the residents who have taken part in the expanded planning process seem to agree that there is plenty of room for improvement, but at what cost?
Some worry that new development could force lower-income families out of the area, and in the process, destroy the character of the diverse neighborhood.
"It's a question of affordability," said Miguel Gaddi, senior planner at HDR Engineering. "Are you going to enforce, or come up with some incentives where you ask developers to maintain a certain level of affordable properties?"
Gaddi has been studying the West End neighborhood as part of his work completing the specific area plan for the city. "If you don't have that mix, that vibrancy is not going to be there," Gaddi said.
But he also believes that the potential for change in this area makes it the perfect place to experiment with some of these social-policy questions.
"The worst thing that could happen there, is to get into some kind of monotony, in any way," he said. "The value is in that diversity and that change and that mix and that eclecticism."
"We've got such a mentality that ... the only people who have a right to live [on the river] are people who can afford $200,000 and $300,000 homes," said Shirley Randolph, former president of the Veterans Park Neighborhood Association. "Is that the best use? Is that the fairest use? Is that the most desirable?"
City planners said they are trying to sidestep the glaring possibility that the neighborhood could become an exclusive area in which only those with high incomes could afford to live.
The city's great weapon in affordablity is a comprehensive plan maintaining the character of the neighborhood while creating opportunities for business and residential development.
"We want to reassure the neighborhood this is not going to come in and take over," said Kathleen Lacey, Boise City project manager of the 30th Street master plan. "They will be involved in every step of any development process, and that fact is accentuated throughout the plan."
That plan has been decades in the making. It started as a basic plan to create better transportation corridors between the Boise Bench and the river. In 1997, 30th Street—now a disjointed route within the neighborhood—was identified as a future north-south corridor, linking State Street with Fairview and Main.
At the same time that homes in the North End became increasingly desirable (and substantially more expensive) and downtown came alive with new businesses and residential projects, the West End has remained a throw-back to an earlier era.
The narrow streets are lined with an array of single-family homes that are testaments to the concepts of "unique" and "character." There's no resemblance to the more modern cookie-cutter subdivisions here.
Interspersed are small apartment buildings and the occasional condo-style developments. The majority of businesses are constrained to the edges of the neighborhood, lining State Street and Fairview Avenue.
It may be just that antiquated, unpolished nature that has kept the area from being part of the larger redevelopment trend sweeping the core of the city.
"[It's] a very eclectic neighborhood, and it has a considerable amount of attractiveness and some charm in a number of the structures that you wouldn't find in other areas of the city," Lacey said.
Of course, eclectic is in the eye of the beholder.
"It's definitely a little run-down," said Jason Stotts, who has owned a home in the neighborhood for 11 years.
Stotts freely admitted that his house isn't the epitome of design or architecture, but said he has held on to the property because believes the city's plans will substantially increase the value of the land his house sits on.
Within the next decade, Stotts' home will go from being an out-of-the-way lot in the middle of the city to a desirable property near the river, three parks and with easy access to a major road in the downtown area.
If plans for 30th Street move forward as planned, Stotts may lose part of his property to eminent domain, but he's keeping his options open. He plans on selling his property within the next few years, but depending on the final road extension design, he may choose to redevelop his property rather than leave.
And he's not the only one banking on increased property values.
Already, Stotts has had several unsolicited offers from real estate agents looking to buy.
"It's still a lot of talk," he said. "The city is taking awhile."
For decades, the West End has been filled with rental homes used as investments by property owners. But within the last three years, more homeowners are actually living in these homes and have started investing money in remodeling.
Both Stotts and Stan Kolby, co-owner of Idaho River Sports, which relocated to the area two years ago, said they've noticed more and more changes.
"When we first looked at this area, there were a lot of run-down buildings and a lot of places for rent," Kolby said. "It's going to be totally redeveloped within the next 20 years. This part of the city will get cleaned up and still have affordable housing in the area and have a nice place for families to come that's still a neighborhood."
Kolby only sees his property increasing as more amenities are added.
"It was kind of a slumlord place, and now it's definitely coming around," he said.
These ignored areas are found in communities everywhere, Gaddi said.
"You always find some portion of cities that are forgotten for years and years until something happens [that is] significant enough to revitalize it," he said.
The Boise City Council has been well aware of the status of the West End for years, but has never before dedicated the kind of investment in the area that it has in other parts of town.
"That area has been pretty status quo for a while," said Boise City Council Member Maryanne Jordan.
Council Member Elaine Clegg brought the issue to the council, championing the idea that the West End offered an opportunity for the type of guided growth and development city leaders have been touting for years. Jordan quickly joined the cause. "It's an area that has some very stable parts that have been there for a very, very long time, and [we] want to see it preserved," she said. "But it's also an area that's ripe for redevelopment."
Through his survey for the city, Gaddi said he found that the neighborhood already has a strong core, but its greatest asset is its diverse makeup, both in architecture and in demographics.
Many international refugees have moved into the area, adding a distinctive feel to the neighborhood.
"In almost every city, when it reaches a certain size, you start finding these more international areas," he said. "This is the right place for something along these lines to happen."
Gaddi pointed out that there is a mosque, Christian churches and a synagogue all within 10 blocks.
Bringing in Business
In order to successfully redevelop this area, Gaddi said the city has to make it attractive for both business and residents.
"For a long time in the United States, you had a segregation of uses: You shop here, you play here, you live here," he said.
Instead, planners are moving toward a more integrated model, where residents live, shop and play in the same place.
To achieve this, the city's draft plans call for several smaller areas within the neighborhood: Each would have its own personality fitting with the existing neighborhoods, but with an added commercial element.
City planners also hope to increase density regulations, and through this, promote the development of apartments and townhomes along the expanded 30th Street, while focusing commercial businesses along State Street and Fairview Avenue.
Lacey said there is also the possibility in the distant future that the Idaho Transportation Department may redevelop the large property where its headquarters currently sit off of State Street. With the increasing value of the land, she said the area may one day include residential construction, as well as retail.
In the past, the problem has been that "the area didn't have any particular draw," Gaddi said. But the addition of two parks and the 30th Street extension is making it more attractive to businesses.
"You need visibility and traffic volume," Gaddi said. "The challenge is you need circulation, you need people and vitality, but how do you do this in this area without destroying or [having] huge trade-offs in terms of character?"
Idaho River Sports is one of the few commercial businesses within the core of the West End neighborhood.
After nearly two decades in Hyde Park in Boise's North End, Kolby and co-owner Jo Cassin decided to take a chance and move the rafting business to an out-of-the-way location. The relocation raised more than a few eyebrows, but Kolby is banking on what the area could become in the future.
"It was a no-brainer," he said.
If redevelopment happens as planned, the business will end up with frontage property along a major roadway, and backing up to not only Esther Simplot Park, but both the whitewater park on the river and Bernardine Quinn Riverside Park, which consists of three public ponds. On any given summer afternoon, Kolby said those ponds attract 100 kids per day who come to swim, while SCUBA divers take advantage of the clear water for training dives.
"All of a sudden, we will be major front-row commercial property," Kolby said.
Kolby has been working with the city for 15 years on getting a whitewater park built, and with those plans moving ahead, Kolby is focusing on what will be.
With work on the whitewater park expected to begin this fall, and talk of a pedestrian bridge over the river connecting the area with the Waterfront District in Garden City, Kolby believes recreationists of all types will be drawn to the area.
Plans for the area were not without controversy.
"In the very beginning, there was a huge uproar," Kolby said. "It's a lot more positive now than it was three years ago. Now it's 'hurry up and get the park in.'"
A big part in gaining neighborhood acceptance was a long series of meetings the city organized to find out what residents wanted. "The meetings the city put together [were] a positive thing with all the neighbors," Kolby said. "They got to voice their opinions."
"That's our neighborhood," Randolph said. "It's a very proactive neighborhood, and it always has been."
It's a new approach to long-term community planning for both the city and the Ada County Highway District, the agency in charge of completing the 30th Street extension. "The City Council worked to delay the concept design of the roadway until there was an opportunity for extensive public involvement," Lacey said.
"Had the council not made that request, ACHD would have moved ahead with the typical public involvement process, which looked basically at the roadway, and wouldn't have been able to consider, to the extent this project does, the adjacent land uses and impacts on land uses," she said. "We would not have been able to do the advanced planning."
Jordan said more than 300 people turned up at the meetings, not only to look over plans, but also to share their concerns and ideas.
"There are going to be impacts, but that's why we wanted to do this," Jordan said. "They know the neighborhood better than anyone who doesn't live there."
Those ideas were actually used to shape a new proposal—one very different from the original road-improvement project.
Residents said they wanted to see a mixed-use area with a small-town feel, something like that of the Hyde Park area. It's a design that would put the focus on residential, but integrate it with commercial businesses.
Additionally, residents said they wanted a focus on quality design and construction, giving the area a cohesive feel, without being another bastion for strip malls.
Lacey said this would involve promoting development with character that fits the neighborhood, and may mean that the city will have to enact a more stringent design review process than it has. While all aspects of the plan call for more apartments, townhomes and condos, Lacey said homeowners don't need to worry.
"There is no intent to displace single-family homes," she said. "There is an intent to achieve intermixture."
The design plan is in the middle of what Lacey calls "significant revision," taking the residents' comments into consideration and strengthening language to emphasize the importance of the existing neighborhoods.
"I think that it's going in a good direction," Jordan said. "We're happy with the way we've handled it.
"I don't think we looked in terms of what we'd like to see, but how we'd like to guide the inevitable growth," Jordan said. "It's easy to look at the area and see that it's going to be the next changing area. The concept is that redevelopment doesn't happen in a disjointed manner," she said.
Part of the delay comes from the work ACHD is doing to re-evaluate its plans, incorporating both the needs of the neighborhood and those of the city, with the agency's transportation goals.
"It's going a little slower, but that's to be expected," said Craig Quintana, ACHD communications manager. "It's not just a road project or land use plan, but a combo. It's gotten bigger and will take a little while longer to get all of those elements down on paper and have one plan."
The approach is an early example of ACHD's new project process implemented several years ago, and involves more up-front neighborhood involvement in the planning process.
"In the past, ACHD was the classic mode of a public works agency," Quintana said. The agency would make a plan, then announce it and finally defend its decision. "Clearly, people want something more," he said. "Now, it's not as many projects out there as possible, but put a project out there that meets the needs and still moves traffic."
ACHD completed a concept design for 30th Street in 2002, but with input from the neighbors, the design changed, shifting the location of the road and how it connects with both the park and the neighborhood.
The street is now designed as a five-lane road, with a landscaped median in appropriate locations. ACHD is also looking at the feasibility of two roundabouts serving as entrances to Esther Simplot Park, at the request of city officials.
Quintana said 30th Street will ultimately be a street with multiple personalities, with a more typical urban look on its northern end, but widening out and including more landscaping as it enters the neighborhood.
The agency has already secured some of the needed right-of-way, but still has some to purchase, said Timothy Morgan, 30th Street project manager.
By extending 30th Street, ACHD will actually be able to take some of the traffic pressure off of the heavily used 27th Street, which will be narrowed to a three lane road when the project is completed. ACHD estimates that by 2030, 30th Street will handle 29,000 vehicle trips per day
The project is part of ACHD's five-year plan, and right-of-way acquisition is scheduled for 2013, with construction in 2014, although Quintana cautioned that budgetary restraints may cause it to be delayed further. Currently, the roughly mile-long project is estimated to cost $6 million.
As part of its long-range plans, the city has suggested that Fairview Avenue be narrowed to included bike lanes and a possible streetcar line, but Morgan said ACHD has no current plans to do this work.
Residents of the area are watching those plans closely.
"How ACHD puts 30th Street through there is going to determine what happens to the neighborhood," Randolph said.
"Somebody has got to decide: Is 30th Street going to be a Harrison Boulevard because it's along a park, or is it going to be a freeway to get traffic through?" she said.
Randolph said she does worry about the neighborhood being able to maintain its personality.
"You're at risk of losing it if you don't watch out," she said. "It's a big area and it could go any number of ways. We're so fortunate that we're able to get Esther Simplot Park in there, it's another gem along the river, but it also creates more challenges for the neighborhoods."
But those involved in the planning process said they are as committed to the neighborhood as the residents. "It's going to become an enhanced version of itself," Jordan said. "There's a lot of housing stock there that is much desired.
"The park is an enormous investment in an area that hasn't seen a lot of investments in the past," Jordan said. "This is one that certainly meets that need."
For Lacey, it's the fact that the residents of the area care that will preserve the area.
"The neighborhood is very involved in what they want to see in the future, and they are going to continue to shape the look, the feel, the types of development that occur in the neighborhood," Lacey said. "I see it as enhancing what's already there. It's already vital in its current condition."