Growing Pains: Congestion, Social Media Maelstroms and World Cafes 

"The idea is to turn that volume down and for us to listen to what people are saying and, more importantly, for people to hear what their neighbors are saying,"

click to enlarge ADAM ROSENLUND
  • Adam Rosenlund

Mention the word "growth" in Boise lately and you'd best prepare yourself for a wide variety of reactions—some miffed, some meh and a growing number mercurial. One person's "growth" means diversity, jobs and a swelling revenue stream, while someone else's means sprawl, congestion and rising housing prices.

Take Lori Dicaire and Jeanne Croteau, for example. Neither is native to Boise, but they look at the city through different lenses. Dicaire is the founder of Vanishing Boise, a grass-roots group of Boiseans who aren't thrilled with what she calls "the growth industrial complex" driving a good amount of current development. Jeanne Croteau is a contributing writer for Forbes magazine, and in a June 13 article she sang the praises of her new hometown, which has given her family "everything we hoped for and more."

The debate isn't expected to be less volatile any time soon, but officials at Boise City Hall say the timing couldn't be better for a civilized discussion on what works, what doesn't and how to accentuate "smart" in the ever-expanding conversation about "smart growth."

"The conversation has already been happening in some corners of the city, but the article in Forbes really brought this issue to the forefront in a way that we didn't anticipate," said city spokesman Mike Journee.

"That article" hit newsstands across the nation in late February and revealed Boise had landed the No. 1 spot on Forbes' 2018 list of America's fastest-growing cities.

In the article, Moody's economist Adam Kamins told Forbes that while Boise "is not necessarily a place you would associate with really robust growth ... it's got the pieces in place."

That's music to the ears of a number of people at Boise City Hall, but any excitement is immediately tempered by caution.

"People who have been here awhile, they're worried about what's coming down the road. That makes a lot of sense," said Journee. "The people who haven't been here very long? Well, they're eager for growth because it brings diversity, it brings vitality, it brings better-paying jobs."

Forbes contributor Jeanne Croteau is among that number.

"Some of this is really good," Croteau wrote in her June 13 piece, "Booming Boise: My Relocation to the Fastest Growing City in America."

"Restaurants, along with the population, are becoming more diverse," she wrote. "Similarly, shopping options have expanded as more companies see the potential of this market."

That said, Croteau also wrote about the downside of Boise's newfound "fame for growth."

"It's no secret that many Idahoans are unhappy about these rapid changes," she wrote. "Whether you read articles in the paper, scan social media or eavesdrop on conversations in the checkout aisle, you will hear a lot of people commenting on the boom and how they wish it would slow down."

That's where Dicaire comes in. The Vanishing Boise Facebook page is regularly filled with robust comments sections, many of them skeptical, surrounding a number of Boise developments.

"Facebook is a really powerful organizing tool," Dicaire told Boise Weekly. "Initially, I started this to channel some of my anger and sadness over the disappearance of open space, and historical businesses and institutions."

Dicaire and Vanishing Boise have since attracted growing media attention with profile pieces published in the Idaho Statesman, and spots on KTVB-TV and KIVI-TV.

"Initially, I reluctantly founded this organization because I was thinking, 'Why isn't anyone doing anything about this?' So, I said, 'I guess I'm the one,'" said Dicaire. "And the timing of all this? Yes, we're certainly attracting a lot of attention."

That's all the more reason why Dicaire is intrigued by—and more than a bit eager to participate in—a series of community workshops that the city has organized to address growth.

"It's time that the city engaged with its citizens to find out how they're feeling about all this growth and how it's impacting them, positively or negatively," said Dicaire. "I think they're calling them 'World Cafes.'"

What's a World Cafe?

World Cafes, also called "knowledge cafes," are an old-school idea inspired by a rather recent event. When Juanita Brown and David Isaacs invited a group of business and academic leaders to an outdoor meeting at their home in Mill Valley, California, a sudden thunderstorm sent everyone inside. Because the couple didn't have the room to accommodate everyone in one location, guests instead sat at smaller tables scattered around the house, using disposable tablecloths to take notes. The idea has been repeated countless times, with nonprofits, businesses and even governmental entities taking advantage of more intimate settings that ensure attendees are comfortable voicing their opinions. Think of it more like a dinner party than the typical city meeting, which mirrors an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. In Boise, the three World Cafe workshops, on Wednesday, June 20; Tuesday, June 26; and Thursday, June 28, will be facilitated by Dr. Jen Schneider, a public policy professor at Boise State University.

"To be clear, we're not trying to explain away anything," said Journee. "People should have perspectives about what is good growth and what is bad growth. First and foremost, we want to avoid sprawl. It's a community killer. We want to create a walkable, bikeable, mass transit-friendly city. The more we can do that, the more we don't have to worry about how many lanes need to be added to State Street."

Equally important, Journee said, is a City Hall focus on what is known as a "dense development pattern."

"To a large degree, that pattern should include more multi-family home developments, creating a wider variety of housing choices," said Journee. "And here's another important element you don't hear too much about. A dense development pattern helps keep our tax base low. If we're not seeing more greenfield developments [on undeveloped land], where the city has to run sewer lines out to a new subdivision, or we have to create a new firehouses, new parks or provide more police protection, then it helps keep our tax base stable."

Daren Fluke, the man who manages the city's long-range planning division, spends many of his days drilling into Boise's transportation dilemma. A key issue is the fact that the city doesn't manage its own streets. As part of a long-debated state law, ACHD lords over Boise's roadways.

"How can I put this best?" Fluke asked rhetorically. "I would say that we're negotiating details with ACHD on a transportation plan to better manage State Street. It's what is known as a High Capacity Transit Corridor. We would like to see two outside lanes dedicated solely to bus rapid transit and high-occupancy vehicles. And it's an important distinction that the idea behind more mass transit on the State Street corridor is to provide a choice."

In fact, Valley Regional Transit is holding its own events, a series of open houses which began June 19, to get more public input on a series of proposed changes, including putting more buses, complete with more frequent stops, on State Street and other high-capacity transit corridors.

"It's all a part of the conversation: public transportation, density, walkability, mobility," said Journee. "People can get very passionate about the city. That's a good thing. And emotion is a good thing. At the same time, one person's perspective may not necessarily meet with someone else's. And first, we need to hear from the citizens."

That's an important distinction when it comes to having those conversations, rather than airing them out through the media, which might have a more vested interest in conflict.

"I think a lot of people are wondering about the current volume of noise at some previous meetings regarding development," said Journee. "To be completely honest, the city and a number of other organizations have begun talking directly with our constituents, as opposed to 10 years ago, when we relied more on the news media to communicate those messages."

To a large degree, the World Cafe method is designed to reduce that noise.

"The idea is to turn that volume down and for us to listen to what people are saying and, more importantly, for people to hear what their neighbors are saying," said Journee. "That's often missing in the hotbox environment of social media where some people aggregate around other people who simply think the same way [they] do. We're interested in a bigger, more inclusive conversation."

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