Perhaps more Boise planning and development meetings should be held aboard a school bus. As soon as the bus trip—which curled through the streets of Boise's Vista neighborhood—had concluded, the riders, representing nearly every city of Boise department and agency, began buzzing. The wheels of the bus hadn't even stopped turning before the occupants turned to one another to begin brainstorming.
"Do you know what I think Vista really needs?" was an often-heard conversation-starter as soon as the bus came to a stop. Some of the riders thought the Vista neighborhood could use more sidewalks; others thought another small park might help; still others saw a need to access affordable home improvement loans; and yes, one or two even talked about an ice cream stand.
Earlier this year, Boise Weekly reported on the Energize our Neighborhoods project, which solicited neighborhood-inspired ideas to improve livability. City leaders went elbow-to-elbow with citizens to talk about jobs, parks, transportation, health care, crime and sustainability. Among the takeaways from the first community meeting in early summer was an idea about an ice cream shop (BW, Annual Manual, "One Scoop At a Time," Aug. 6, 2014), representing not only a viable business entity but a cultural touchstone to share common space (and some ice cream).
City officials walked away from that meeting with a list of suggestions from Vista residents, who were all-too-eager to share their wishes for a better neighborhood. But instead of huddling in City Hall conference rooms, department heads returned to Vista in late October to hop aboard a white school bus and do some fact finding.
Sue Pisani was more than willing to be their tour guide. Pisani, the former president of the Vista Neighborhood Association, is anything but shy; when city leaders asked her opinion about a particular property as they rolled by, she didn't hesitate to speak her mind.
"Yes, that's a problem house, and there's another one," said Pisani more than once, pointing to neglected or forgotten properties. Boise officials later told BW that they were anxious to beef up code enforcement on trouble- or absentee landlords as a "stick," while encouraging other homeowners with a "carrot" by steering them toward affordable home improvement programs.
For more than an hour, Pisani acted as the colorful—but blunt—tour guide of the neighborhood, but she was always ready to add a healthy dose of optimism.
"I'm proud to say that over the years, the neighborhood association has brought in about $1.3 million in direct and in-kind donations: bus shelters, historical street lights along Vista, speed bumps, sidewalks, curbs and gutters," she said. "But yes, we could use your help. We have a lot of ideas."
More sidewalks may be the first order of business for Vista. Throughout the tour, it became clear that too many streets in the neighborhood were absent sidewalks, allowing weeds and debris to proliferate instead of pedestrians.
"We love to walk our streets. And traffic is always a big issue with residents; so some more stop signs on Nez Perce and Shoshone [streets] would be nice," said Pisani.
As the bus made dozens of tight turns onto Vista's narrow roads, Pisani pinpointed several issues—big and small—that are commonplace to most Boise neighborhoods: safer streets, home improvement, more cultural opportunities, recreation for the children and sensible transportation options for adults.
On this particular afternoon, Pisani had the full attention of the men and women who could help orchestrate significant change to the Vista neighborhood sooner than later.
Boise Councilman Ben Quintana sat just a few feet from Pisani.
"The first word that popped into my head was 'opportunity,'" said Quintana. "Let me add a couple more words: 'Plenty of opportunity.' I see so many projects here, big and small. I'm certain that this Vista neighborhood project is going to get some traction."
Quintana confirmed that the project had "100 percent commitment from the Council; and we're pulling in department heads from across the city to take advantage of this opportunity. We want this to be a model that we can customize and take to neighborhoods across Boise. This is a big focus for us right now."
The demographics of the Vista neighborhood—which is framed by Overland Road to the north, the New York Canal to the south, Federal Way to the east and Roosevelt Street to the west—paint a very specific picture of a working-class neighborhood. Residents are younger (median age is 32), but live in older homes (61 percent were built before 1979) and a good number of them rent (47 percent).
"But I think two particular categories jump out of those statistics," said AnaMarie Guiles, Boise Housing and Community Development manager and chief architect of the Energize Our Neighborhoods program. "The assessed single-family home value in Vista is $99,850; that's about half of the citywide average. It's also important to note that 68 percent of the students at Hawthorne Elementary and 85 percent of the students at Whitney Elementary are eligible for a free- or reduced lunch.
"The need here is rather compelling," she added. "I think there's great opportunity to make some significant change."
And the wheels of that change have begun turning with the wheels of a school bus.