Field Trippin in the 2C 

Boise's Western neighbors strive for something more urban

A few weeks ago, the BW editorial team left our urban office space armed with cameras, pens, spiral notebooks and a stack of Google maps. We hit the open road looking to shed our Boise tastes and embrace the cultural bounty of Canyon County. What we found was bittersweet.

A stone's throw from BoDo, the BW office with its exposed rafters, sidewalk art and shiny Mac Minis, is no stranger to the concept of urban renewal. Though downtown Nampa's smattering of hip vintage boutiques and downtown Caldwell's newly restored Indian Creek are steps toward urban revitalization, both cities' downtown streets are far from Portland hip or Seattle cool.

In fact, the opening of the Karcher interchange on Interstate-84 two years ago has led to the rapid emergence of Anywhere, USA-strip malls like the Treasure Valley Marketplace, where stores like Target, Best Buy, Kohl's and Old Navy make the landscape virtually indistinguishable from intersections in Meridian, Eagle or Pocatello.

It's a story that Boise's breadbasket to the west experienced once before, with Karcher Mall, the Treasure Valley's original consumer cultural center.

Mention Karcher Mall to any longtime Treasure Valley resident and they'll undoubtedly have a tale to tell. From reeling off Christmas lists on Santa's lap to slurping an Orange Julius on a first date, Karcher Mall was, at its peak, the place to go in Canyon County. But trudge through the mall's mostly desolate hallways today, and you're likely to find more vacant storefronts than loitering teens. As cities nationwide pour money into urban revitalization and new suburbanites flock to stand-alone big-box stores, many once iconic indoor shopping malls are dying.

Built in 1965, Karcher Mall was the first enclosed mall in Idaho. As suburban sprawl led to the decentralization of cities across the country, shopping malls became the new cultural plazas—complete with fake plants, bubbling fountains and store after store pandering to consumers. Karcher Mall was no exception. Wood-paneled sedans from across Idaho and Oregon packed the mall's parking lot. Families went hoping not only to browse the latest fashions, but also to check out the mall's unique special events—which included everything from underwater Monopoly games to live boa constrictors.

But now, little remains from Karcher Mall's early days. Though Macy's (the Bon Marche until 2005) is still an anchor store, it has announced plans to depart for a free-standing location in the Nampa Gateway Center by 2010. Other stores like Ross Dress for Less and Big 5 Sporting Goods, though technically a part of the mall, have intentionally not constructed mall entrances to distance themselves from the declining space. While the mall is currently undergoing a multi-million-dollar remodel by new owners Milan Properties, it's unclear whether it will ever reclaim its seat as Canyon County's shopping and entertainment center.

That prize, in many ways, has already gone to the giant, big-box retail paradise up the Boulevard and to the commercial strip that State Highway 55 is destined to become in the near future.

But the vestiges of downtown of Nampa and Caldwell want in on the booty, too, and while both cities have big plans, it remains to be seen if their people are ready for a modern urban district with a cutesy moniker.

Nampa native Laurel MacKinnon thinks they are. Or at least she thought Nampa was ready when, starting in 2005, she bought four downtown buildings and an empty lot and named her holdings the Belle District.

"What happened is downtown Nampa died when Karcher Mall went in," MacKinnon said.

She named her vision for downtown Nampa after Isobel "Belle" Dewey, wife of one of Nampa's city fathers who, in 1896, bought the bulk of the town.

When she came home to Nampa after living in Washington, D.C., New York and London, MacKinnon made the same calculation that Kohl's and Cost Plus made: "There's plenty of money in Nampa and there's plenty of people in Nampa," she said.

But on a recent Saturday night at Market Limone, MacKinnon's anchor in the Belle District, most of the tables were empty, there was plenty of parking on the street, and few people were walking about.

Rampant growth in the past five years has increased the demand for local shopping and entertainment in Idaho's second most populous city, saving people the 30-minute drive to Boise. But MacKinnon now thinks there's another element that's tough to gauge from demographics and market analysis alone. She calls it the community's "propensity for change."

BW asked a local demographer how this could be measured; in other words, how do you glean a desire for cool from Census data, traffic counts and commercial building permits?

The demographer was stumped, but offered to call some people in Portland to find out.

Caldwell, too, has recognized the desire in 2C for change and thinks it has hit on a different kind of anchor. The city recently finished construction of a downtown river. Indian Creek has always run through downtown Caldwell, but for years it was contained in a concrete tube, hidden from view. Now people can walk along Indian Creek's freshly bermed banks, dip a flyline in the stream as it winds gently through downtown and listen to the rumble of the slight, engineered rapids.

Caldwell City Councilman Rob Hopper, who also sits on the board of Idaho Smart Growth, said the daylighting of Indian Creek has produced a swell of civic pride in his town.

"There were lots of skeptics at first," Hopper said. "Now that it's there and they can see it, people are very excited about it."

The skepticism stems in part from a severe aversion to taxes and government in general that affects much of Idaho, but has some of its ideological roots in Caldwell. So the mayors of Nampa and Caldwell have been cautious in proceeding with their downtown revitalizations, harnessing the power of Idaho's urban renewal laws and the willingness of local developers so that skeptical Canyon County taxpayers are not footing the bill.

"It's been something that they've been working on for at least half a decade," said Maggie Colwell, spokesperson for the City of Caldwell.

Aside from the crisp, new creek and a public wireless Internet system, downtown Caldwell still has little to offer in downtown amenities. Boise Weekly tried to get into a bar but could not find the door, chatted with a woman as she closed up her beauty shop and peered in the windows of a locked Latin music store, before heading back up Cleveland Boulevard in search of a beer.

Nampa, however, has plenty of unique downtown shops, if a dearth of shoppers.

For something familiar, BW's visit started at Flying M Coffeegarage, to which we retreated at least three times during our day in 2C.

Lisa Myers—whose downtown Boise coffee shop is a gathering point for artists, writers, students, the gay and lesbian set and those in search of an authentic urban cup of joe—is from Nampa. She opened Flying M Coffeegarage in downtown Nampa two years ago, fulfilling a long-held dream, and it has become a mecca in its own right, if for a slightly different set: college kids hungry for something beyond the parochial boundaries of Nampa's conservative mentality, curious downtown workers and Canyon County's heretofore hidden alternative crowd.

The Coffeegarage sells the same kitsch art with a liberal bent as its Boise cousin—John McCain dolls were half-off following the election and Obama Rice Krispies treats came with blue sprinkles.

But not everyone in Nampa likes the changes. Marty Finch, who owns the dark, mirrored 1918 Lounge, a "working man's bar," a block away from the Market Limone, bemoaned the empty lot next door where MacKinnon hopes to put a skating rink.

"That's her [expletive] hole right here," Finch said of the fenced in dirt patch.

A recent Idaho Press-Tribune article detailed a number of subcontractors that have sued MacKinnon for failure to pay her bills, and some of the other older businesses are suspicious of her big-city motives and angry about the vacant lot. The lot has been dubbed the Nampa Hole after Boise's large downtown hole where a high rise was once planned.

"Nampa is an industrial town, it's a suburb of Boise," said Rodney Peterson, who owns the pawn shop that has been in downtown Nampa since 1960. "It's where the workers and middle class live."

Peterson said people from Boise should check out Nampa, but should make it part of a larger sightseeing plan.

"It's going to take you 20 minutes to figure out downtown Nampa, so have another plan," he said.

But according to Nampa Mayor Tom Dale, Nampa is not just a suburb of Boise. Nor is the rest of Canyon County.

"We are not merely suburbs of the capital city," Dale said.

Maggie Colwell moved from Boise to Caldwell three years ago and lives on a 7-acre spread a bike ride away from downtown where both she and her husband work.

"We wanted to be able to live and work and entertain and live our life within five minutes," she said.

Hopper said that Caldwell is approaching the 45,000 population mark and is filling with people who do not want to drive somewhere else to shop or eat out.

"There's a much greater diversity of folks living here," he said. "I know for a fact that there's an awful lot of Caldwellites that today have to travel away from Caldwell."

Many of the new people are moving to new subdivisions, often on old farmland and increasingly outside of city limits.

The Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, or COMPASS, forecasts Caldwell's 2010 population to be more than 48,000, growing to almost 68,000 by 2030. Nampa should have 92,000 people in 2010 and more than 124,000 by 2030.

The agency estimates 268,000 people will live in Canyon County by 2030.

The Nampa-Caldwell boulevard runs on a northwest-southeast plane between the two hubs of Canyon County. Nampa is the largest city, Caldwell the county seat and locus of county government.

About halfway down the Boulevard, the Karcher Road exit off of Interstate-84 has fueled an intense development spree, with a profusion of big-box retailers who have access to the same COMPASS population estimates and probably much more detailed information about Canyon County's newest residents.

From one angle, this type of development could be viewed as a repeat of what happened to Nampa and Caldwell in the 1960s.

"A lot of these communities, up until the last big growth boom, almost sought economic development at any cost," said Diane Kushlan, a planning consultant who has worked for every city in Canyon County.

The cost, in most cases, was the loss of a vibrant downtown.

MacKinnon, who attended Northwest Nazarene University, the Christian college in Nampa, and has a master's degree in housing and social change from the London School of Economics, laments the loss of community gathering spaces in her hometown.

Fractured by bad land-use policies combined with insular religious groupings and an largely ostracized but sizable Hispanic population, Nampa, and Canyon County on the whole, embody the worst sides of sprawl.

But the national obsession with urban revitalization, including the example in nearby Boise, has 2C thinking hard. Nampa formed a redevelopment agency just a few years ago and plans a large downtown library and public safety building. Caldwell's urban renewal agency is close to breaking ground on a sprawling city building with retail and community space that the city is calling the Catalyst.

Lisa Myers at Flying M is pretty sure that Nampa's time has come, and she hopes the city and downtown businesses' efforts will change 2C habits.

"They're just so used to going to strip malls or heading to Boise, they need to come downtown and walk around a bit."

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