Boise Shrugged 

Striving for Boise-centric design downtown

The chief bogeyman of downtown Boise sits on the corner of Front and Capitol like a gray citadel, seemingly casting shadows in every direction, no matter where the sun is shining.

click to enlarge Boise City Councilman Alan Shealy wants new buildings to make a statement. - JOSHUA ROPER
  • Joshua Roper
  • Boise City Councilman Alan Shealy wants new buildings to make a statement.

Tucked away from the street, the Grove Hotel's front entrance feels more accessible to cars than the pedestrians who cower along the smooth, stark fortress-like walls. It's a structure that does not so much invite a visitor to enter the building, as to storm it.

"Its problem was that they tried to do too much with a small site," said Phil Kushlan, executive director of the Capital City Development Corporation. "Most of the concern is that it is too massive at the street level. And that's what we don't want to have happen. You've got a first-class hotel and a downtown sports arena that most cities would kill for. But in order to get a hotel and an arena and all this stuff on a city block, they lost their flexibility."

When talking downtown urban design, the Grove Hotel and the nearby Hampton Inn and Suites have become two easy aesthetic punching bags. Kushlan said public reaction to the Capitol Boulevard hotels is part of a force that is driving the city to better define design standards for downtown.

In January, the city will convene a committee tasked with drafting downtown design standards. The committee—made up of members of the city's Design Review Committee, the Planning and Zoning Commission, the design community and architects—will break new ground. As of 2008, Boise's standards for building design are loose enough that one could question their existence.

Proposed buildings must get approval from the city's Design Review Committee. But the criteria for the committee's approval is left up to the opinions of its members—a subjective standard.

Sarah Schafer, Boise's design review and historic preservation manager, said that while the city does have the authority to mandate changes to designs, that authority is based on an ordinance that has, in her words, "some pretty broad findings."

"The problem with broad findings is that they can be interpreted several different ways," Schafer said. "You have to try to be pretty consistent with your findings to demand that changes be made. And that's sometimes hard, when you've got an ever-changing committee, to be able to get that standardized."

In theory, new downtown design guidelines will be a step toward the type of standardization city officials hope will give developers more direction, and Boise better downtown design. But it is also a step into a debate playing out in the design community across the country over the best way for a city to foster both smart and creative growth: Whether to take an authoritarian approach with rigid codes or foster collaboration between the city and builder by focusing on desired outcomes that are stated in what urban planners call "performance guidelines."

"We probably do need to tighten [design standards] in some ways," said Bruce Chatterton, Boise's director of Planning and Development Services. "We've certainly had folks who have been critical of buildings that have been built in the last few years. But more than anything, what we're looking at is improving the process."

Chatterton's ideal process of design—a back and forth between developers and city staff before the project is officially reviewed—falls squarely into "performance guidelines." These are sets of desired outcomes meant to guide developers toward structures that please both parties while leaving designers plenty of room for creativity. Schafer said that in drafting the guidelines, the city's objectives will include having buildings address the street by creating more pedestrian interaction, having an open second level, and integration of new designs with the historic character of downtown.

In short, everything that the Grove Hotel failed to do.

By all accounts, performance guidelines are the way Boise is heading. Specifics for the new guidelines are hard to come by, but methods are flexible. More important are the ends.

But according to Kushlan, the more open, collaborative approach wasn't always the direction in which the city was headed. Last year, the city brought in architects and urban designers from Portland, Ore., to run four half-day seminars on urban design while it was in the process of writing what Kushlan called "fairly prescriptive" design guidelines.

To call "prescriptive" design principles the opposite of "performance" is an understatement. Prescriptive design—checklists, height limits and setback requirements—is the very stuff that kills collaboration. If, in prescriptive design, the city is a whistle-blowing referee, enforcing even the most technical rules, in performance design, the city acts more as a coach, providing guidance during the design process toward a winning product. And in a system where fluidity is key, specific guidelines are certainly frowned upon.

"I don't think anybody really has an answer to specifics," said City Councilman Alan Shealy, a strong voice in favor of better downtown design. According to Shealy, performance guidelines are going to be the driving force behind the new standards.

Shealy said he "fired a shot across the bow" during last year's debate over the design of a proposed convention center, a battle that may turn into a Bunker Hill moment for downtown design.

"I sort of stepped in it with the folks downtown, and I didn't mean to," said Shealy. "But when I saw the first iteration of the convention center, it became clear to me that we were not seizing the opportunity with landmark buildings to make a statement."

Shealy sees the convention center as the fulcrum with which to leverage improved design standards in the downtown core.

"We don't want a prescriptive document that tells folks what buildings have to look like," he said. "It's extremely important that the street level and the first 20 [feet] up are designed to be conducive to the gathering of people, commerce and the flow of pedestrian and automobile traffic."

Mandating specific means to these outcomes through code and ordinance, rather than letting developers and designers achieve them through a collaborative process with city staff, would be a recipe for bad design, city officials said.

"When you try to design through zoning, you're not going to like the results," Chatterton said. "The intent ought to be for us to conform our zoning to a good design, as opposed to vise versa ... in order to make good things happen, you need more of a collaborative process."

Don Stastny, one of the Portland designers who led last year's design seminars, said that collaboration of this kind requires faith that designers will produce projects like the Wells Fargo building with its dark angular contrast to the backdrop of the foothills and its bands of stainless steel that catch the sun.

"I think there's a great potential in Boise to create a great downtown," Stastny said. "But you have to allow the creativity of people to create a city instead of saying 'This is the way it's going to be.'"

Scott Weaver recently relocated to Boise from Virginia, where he wrote for C-VILLE Weekly.

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