Razed & Confused: Boise's turbulent history of urban renewal 

From tear down and rebuild to embrace and improve

On Fifth and Grove streets at the C.W. Moore Park rest the ruins of progress. A sandstone wall contains the name stones of various former landmarks, including those of the Central School and Frank Coffin's Pioneer Building. An archway constructed in 1904—formerly belonging to the Bush Building—stands to one side, an entrance without a building to be entered. An old waterwheel, long separated from its original purpose, slowly turns.

Other odds and ends—steel columns, cornerstones, engraved stones and edifices from structures that once made up Boise's downtown—are scattered throughout the site, having found a peaceful resting place. As the city's parks plan states, it's "a quaint spot to sit and read or enjoy a cup of coffee."

Most of the pieces of history that make up the park are the result of Boise's urban renewal efforts in the 1970s.

The park is at once a celebration of Boise's architectural history, an act of preservation and a reminder of how fragile bricks and mortar can prove to be when they are out of vogue.

In 1974, L.J. Davis wrote his first story for Harper's Magazine.

"If things go on as they are, Boise stands an excellent chance of becoming the first American city to have deliberately eradicated itself," Davis wrote in his piece entitled "Tearing Down Boise."

Davis grew up in Boise in the '40s and '50s, leaving to pursue a career as a writer in Brooklyn. He recently said he could be described as a novelist, an investigative reporter and a guy who once knocked out George W. Bush (it's a long story).

He was disgusted by what he saw upon his return to his hometown.

"I'm afraid I hit the ceiling," he said. "I loved that old town. They tore down Chinatown. The idiots tore down Chinatown."

The "idiots" were the Boise Redevelopment Agency, the central urban renewal organization of the period. In the 1960s, massive federal funding began to pour into cities across the nation with the singular purpose of buying up old buildings and demolishing them to make way for the new.

"[We] made a statement when we were teenagers that Boise lags about 10 years behind the rest of the country ... I think that was true. I think we had a juvenile intuition," Davis said.

In the case of urban renewal they were dead-on. Although, BRA was formed in 1965, it wasn't until the early 1970s that the wrecking ball really got rolling in Boise.

By that point massive clearance projects had fallen out of style in the rest of the country. This was partially because older, historic buildings were coming back into fashion, but more significantly because, as Davis wrote in his article, "it has never worked."

"Leveling a business district takes time, sometimes years," he wrote. "And it does not take a great deal of thought to perceive that turning it into a temporary prairie of parking lots only increases the centrifugal forces that caused the area to decline in the first place. If the only thing you can do when you come downtown is park your car where the place used to be, most people are pretty much inclined to say the 'hell with it.'"

Nonetheless, BRA moved full steam ahead with the purchase and demolition of Chinatown in 1972—destroying not just buildings, but what remained of a community, too.

Chinatown's last resident was Billy Fong, an 84-year-old man and former cook at the Golden Wok restaurant. Even months after BRA had purchased the building where he lived, Fong refused to leave.

Finally, according to a piece by former city historian Ann Felton, "as the wrecking ball ... approached his building, Billy threw out the white flag of surrender and left his longtime home."

By the time Davis was reporting his story, Chinatown was long gone.

"Downtown Boise gives the impression that it has recently been visited by an exceedingly tidy bombing raid conducted by planes that cleaned up after themselves," he wrote.

"Some very beautiful, historic buildings were demolished in the name of urban renewal. It was like a grin was missing some of its front teeth as you drove through downtown Boise," said former Mayor Dirk Kempthorne.

The destruction was not without purpose, albeit one lacking grounding in reality.

"Almost from the beginning, BRA and its appointed commissioners have been inflexibly wedded to a single concept: a megastructure. As currently envisaged, this would be a single vast building, housing under one roof an air-conditioned shopping mall, over 800,000 square feet of commercial space (including three department stores), 300,000 square feet of office space, a hotel of over 250 rooms, and 2,444 parking spaces," Davis wrote.

He later continued, "The construction of this monolith entails the total clearance of eight blocks in the heart of the city and portions of three more—a good half of downtown. The only building to be retained is the Bank of Idaho, a 1964 edifice of numbing mediocrity that resembles nothing so much as a stack of giant toaster ovens."

Unsurprisingly, some Boiseans (although by most accounts still a minority) opposed the replacement of Boise's architectural heritage with the mega-mall.

When Davis came back to town, BRA had their sights set on Phase II. The place was an area north of Main Street that included the Eastman Building and the Egyptian Theatre (known at the time as the Ada). The plan was the same as it had been with Chinatown: buy and demolish. This is where the battle over preservation was waged.

BRA was not particularly sympathetic to those calling for restoration. Many of the buildings were built on wood foundations and in poor condition, which would be, they argued, prohibitively expensive to repair.

"Let's face it," then-BRA-chairman Carroll Sellars told Davis in '74, "most of these old buildings are junk piles. We're not tearing down a damn thing that's worth anything. If the historic preservationists had been around in olden times, the whole world would look like the Parthenon."

A stroll through downtown today will reveal that the Egyptian Theatre still stands and the mega-mall was never built, although it was a dream BRA clung to for over a decade.

As for the Eastman Building, today it is better known as the Boise Hole.

"I wish I could say it was a Tuesday and everything changed. But it didn't happen that way. It doesn't happen that way," said Don Watts of the Idaho State Historical Society about how historic buildings came to be valued in Boise.

The fight to preserve Boise's historic architecture is a tale of an effort progressing at two steps forward and one step back—and there was at least one occasion where it tripped and fell down the stairs.

On Nov. 21, 1974, only weeks after the November issue of Harper's featuring Davis' article hit the stands, the Egyptian was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The sense of victory lasted no longer than Sept. 1, 1975, the day that BRA acquired the theater. It appeared the end was near and the Egyptian was fated to become a parking lot—until the wives got involved.

As the story goes, from time to time the women of the Junior League of Boise would take in a noon organ concert at the Egyptian. Several of the women were married to members of the BRA board, and they told their husbands in no uncertain terms that the Egyptian must be preserved.

In June 1977, the theater was sold to Boise businessman Earl Hardy who almost immediately began preservation efforts. To this day, the Egyptian is owned and operated by the Hardy Family Foundation.

The Eastman Building had already been acquired by the Boise Redevelopment Agency in 1972, two years prior to Davis' arrival, and though it was still standing at the time of his return, BRA was already helping it toward eventual demolition through inattention.

Slowly, as the Eastman fell further into disrepair, the building's tenant emptied out. By 1978, the entire building was vacant, and BRA was ready to deliver the deathblow: It ordered the building demolished.

The Idaho State Historical Society and local preservationists successfully applied to get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places (making it illegal for federal funds to be used for the project). BRA filed suit to have the Eastman removed from the register. The Preservation Coalition, as the preservationists called themselves, threatened to sue if BRA moved forward with demolition.

For a time, the building was stuck in limbo. By the early 1980s, the building was boarded up and soon became a home for squatters.

Meanwhile, attitudes in Boise toward historic structures were slowly changing. In the late 1970s polls showed residents overwhelmingly in favor of demolishing the Eastman and other buildings and building the mega-mall. However, as time passed, the effects of old-school urban renewal seemed less attractive.

Buildings built in the 1960s and '70s aged quickly and in a little over a decade since their construction began to fall apart. On the other hand, buildings made of brick and stone remained sturdy, proving their value.

"There was an assumption that it was cheaper to tear down and build new," Watts said. "There was a gradual realization that there is economic value in historic buildings. It went from 'we're going to demolish this' to 'well, here we have some possible historic buildings. Are they historic? How do we incorporate them into our project?'"

In 1985, Kempthorne was elected mayor of Boise—partially on a platform of placing the mall farther out toward the edge of town.

By this point, the downtown mall was basically over. Not because BRA had abandoned the idea—they were still as dedicated as ever to the concept—but because market forces were decidedly against the idea.

"The major retailers had just said, 'No. It will not work and we will not come,'" Kempthorne said. "Apparently, the attitude [of BRA and City Hall] was 'if we don't give you any other options, you'll have to.'"

Kempthorne disagreed with the prevailing wisdom, arguing, "We're going to lift those restrictions and instead we will let the marketplace work. We want to open up downtown to development and we also want to build a retail mall, but it will not be downtown.

"That was really the key debate for the campaign for mayor," Kempthorne said.

Now that they were free to build the mall where they wished, the retailers soon agreed to come to Boise and create Boise Towne Square, a more than 1,000,000-square-foot structure—just as BRA had envisioned it—just not in the location they had imagined.

That left the question of what to do about downtown.

"A lot of folks who were part of the old urban renewal block wanted me to keep tearing down buildings in the name of progress ... I said 'Absolutely not. We've torn enough of our history down,'" Kempthorne said.

Kempthorne's first project for urban renewal was almost the exact opposite of the old buy-and-demolish approach. Instead of tearing down a historic building, they renovated the Alexander Building, named for early Idaho Governor and Boise Mayor Moses Alexander.

During this same period, Kempthorne gathered the various public agencies (including the City Council, the Ada County Highway District and BRA) that had a role in the future of the lot once planned for the mall.

"I asked all of those elected officials to come to a meeting and to please bring their attorneys with them. We all sat down at the same table, and all the media was there." And Kempthorne said to the group, "'Now, because we're going to discuss real property we can go into executive session and I'm going to ask each of the attorneys to confirm that while we have these discussions of real property that we can go into executive session.' [Each of them confirmed it.] And the media politely stepped out.

"'Now,' I said, 'it is my intent that we do not leave until we have finally resolved how we are going to build this convention center. Let me tell you, the people who can make this happen are in this room, and the next time we open that door it is either to announce to the community and the media that we have the success of a convention center or that we are all failures.'

"After we opened the door, after we had some very candid and frank conversations," Kempthorne said. "We had agreement and we had a convention center."

The initial steps had been taken to build the Boise Centre.

"I think the greatest thing we built in rebuilding our city was cooperation," Kempthorne added.

On Jan. 22, 1987, a vision came to save the Eastman Building. Local developer Larry Leasure announced plans to incorporate the building into a pedestrian-oriented retail and arts complex. The Eastman, a building long at the center of the battle to preserve historic downtown Boise, was to be restored and preserved. Two days later, the building caught fire and in short order burned to the ground. Police believed arson to be the cause; someone had finally managed to level the building that had eluded BRA for so long.

Since the Kempthorne administration and a 1985 study by the American Institute of Architects urging smaller projects, urban renewal in Boise has treated the city's history with respect and has restored almost as much of the city as it decimated in the 1970s.

Everything is different, even the name of the agency changed in 1989 after funding shifted from a federal to a state mechanism a few years prior. It is now the Capital City Development Corporation.

In recent years, CCDC's efforts have focused in part on supporting the reuse of historic buildings and re-creating traditional downtown streetscapes—particularly in BODO and the Linen District. Both of the projects have relied primarily upon private funding.

In BODO, CCDC has concentrated on building traditional streetscapes focused on pedestrians and bicyclists along with aiding in the construction of a "lifestyle retail center." The area's mix of reused historic structures and new construction have jived to create an active extension to Boise's Downtown.

The Linen District, named for the old American Linen Building, is aimed at blending "the fabric of existing historical buildings with an extension of the culturally vibrant North End neighborhood," according to a vision statement. While the district includes several existing structures, one of the earliest steps in the project was demolishing a 12,700-square-foot cinder block building attached to the American Linen Building to construct 36 parking spaces.

Prior to developers proposing the Linen District in 2005, the area was designated for suburban-style sprawl. Although the district has yet to reach its potential, it represents a step toward a future more like Boise's past.

Even today's arguably most controversial economic development proposal—the streetcar—revolves around restoring rather than removing something from the city's history.

There are two key differences between today's efforts and those of the past. The first is federal funding: There isn't as much of it anymore. It may seem like an odd advantage, but it forces the second key change in urban renewal practices: considering market forces.

"[In the 1960s and '70s], you had a lot of federal money to do things that you can't do now. They bought a vast amount of the building stock and tore it down to say, 'The site is ready for you,'" said CCDC Executive Director Phil Kushlan. "It's probably not even a model that's appropriate anymore, and there's a question of whether it was appropriate then, either.

"What we've learned over time is to be more sensitive to the marketplace," Kushlan added. "Not only this institution, but around the country, that's been the evolution of it."

In the 1960s and '70s, urban renewal agencies across the country decimated entire blocks, sweeping away the potential and interesting neighborhoods (like Boise's Chinatown) along with urban decay, leaving swaths of concrete and public housing in their wake.

Back home in Brooklyn, L.J. Davis was fighting the same forces he observed in Boise.

In Brooklyn and eventually in Boise, the solution was to embrace the efforts of individual citizens, allow creative solutions to flourish and not get too far ahead of yourself—a free market not just for developers but also for local artists and shop owners.

Or, as Davis put it, "Within reasonable limits, let people do what they want to do with their lives.

"We were making it up as we went along. We were trying to figure out what worked rather than thinking ahead," he said of his community's efforts in Brooklyn. "I trust the citizens to do the right thing more often than not, rather than the politicians."

"The old system, I think, was kind of more heavy-handed, for want of a better term," Kushlan said. "The other thing is in the old days we used eminent domain a lot, and we haven't used it since 1980. [Today] it's much more a partnership approach than any sort of heavy hand that might be available."

Ironically, as urban renewal has become increasingly market driven and moved away from federal subsidies, Idaho's conservative legislature has become increasingly suspicious.

For some time now, each legislative session has seen attempts to reign in urban renewal agencies' powers and abilities. Simultaneously, with CCDC leading the way, proponents of urban renewal have attempted to expand its powers and abilities. So far the result has been essentially a deadlock with neither side making much headway.

The original downtown urban renewal area began in 1965 is set to expire in 2017 and, according to Kushlan, there are no plans at this time to extend it. At this point, CCDC is working to refine its "exit strategy," determining the final projects to be completed before the district is closed.

The project list includes continuing streetscape improvements, maintaining garage parking and helping to enact the policies of the Downtown Boise Mobility Study—making it easier for cars, pedestrians and cyclists, as well as potentially building a streetcar and helping to construct a new multimodal center for Valley Regional Transit.

A few new projects could be considered, but the Boise Hole isn't likely to be one of them. The site already has utilities, but there is little CCDC can further do to encourage development, although Kushlan said they would be willing to consider proposals from the property owner. At this time there are no solid plans for redevelopment.

But the story of urban renewal isn't over yet. Two other districts, the River Myrtle-Old Boise District and the Westside Downtown District, will continue until 2024 and 2025, respectively. Also, CCDC will likely continue to manage (or transfer it to another public entity) the structured parking it has constructed and the profits could be fed back into economic development for years to come.

Urban renewal's future in Boise may be most defined in the years to come by a new district. Earlier this month Boise City Council received a briefing from CCDC on the potential of creating a new urban renewal area around 30th Street, potentially adding as many as 573 acres, which would more than double the total land in urban renewal districts in Boise.

The area could potentially include the Idaho Transportation Department headquarters, Esther Simplot and Bernardine Quinn parks, as well as several now vacant car dealerships on Fairview Avenue. Unusual for Boise urban renewal, the potential area is about 25 percent residential, including a mobile home park, 128 multi-family dwellings and 591 single-family homes.

Idaho State Law requires that areas be "deteriorated or deteriorating" to qualify for urban renewal. According to a report by the CCDC, the 30th Street area would qualify in part due to low assessed property values, a significant proportion of dilapidated buildings and poorly configured streets.

The City Council will decide in the "near future" whether to move forward with forming the new urban renewal area, according to Adam Park, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.

All of this suggests the debate over urban renewal is far from over.

Nonetheless, it seems at least the first few chapters have come to an end, with mixed results for Boise's downtown and a hopeful future ahead. For Davis the story ends with happy memories.

"I really got a wonderful sensation from people showing up at City Council meetings waving copies of my article once it was published. I'm glad I played a little role in helping my hometown stop from tearing itself down, but it was a little role." Davis said, "It wasn't done by my article. It was stopped in its tracks by an aroused citizenry. Boise looks good today because the citizens of Boise made a sound decision about what they wanted."

The attitude of Boiseans toward their downtown is perhaps the single greatest transformation to come out of the past four decades of urban renewal. Public opinion has shifted from the days when residents were calling for demolition to more than 90 percent supporting continued investment in the downtown today, according to the most recent city survey.

Perhaps the best evidence, though, is walking the same city streets that Davis found nearly vacant of life and seeing residents enjoying their city.

"The downtown of Boise has been turned around 180 degrees to a place that people actually want to be," Kushlan said.

As for the physical results: it's hard to argue with the success of the Grove Plaza and the Boise Centre, but it's equally hard when walking past the Boise Hole or reading the history of Boise's Chinatown not to feel like something is missing.

Today there are three red viewers—installed with urban renewal funds—at various points around the block where the mega-mall was meant to be. Looking through them you can see glimpses of a time before Grove Plaza, before a vacant lot and before urban renewal There you will see the faint images of the architectural ghosts of Chinatown that still haunt Boise at C.W. Moore Park.

Pin It


Showing 1-1 of 1


Comments are closed.

More by John T. Reuter

© 2019 Boise Weekly

Website powered by Foundation