What's Blue, Orange and Has 1 Million (Square) Feet? 

Boise State's plan to expand its urban footprint

As Boise State grows, new multistory facilities crop up in blocks that have long held homes. Bill Drake, owner of Drake Plumbing and Heating Company, has watched the neighborhood grow up around the family business for more than 40 years.

"I grew up in this neighborhood, over on Oakland Street," said Drake. "At that time, that whole hillside over there was an area that we called 'Tarzan Land.' One house was all there was. It was wide open."

Drake gestured to the large hill adjacent to Boise Avenue, which serves as a natural wall to the neighborhood. His great-grandfather started the family business and the 58-year-old has took it over from his parents.

"There was a canal up there, there were rope swings in the trees, berry bushes here and there," Drake recalled.

But the neighborhood surrounding the Drake Company's tree-shaded lot has changed dramatically. Only one block north, the Boise State campus has steadily grown, horizontally and vertically.

James Maguire, associate vice president for campus planning and facilities, said the university has plans for another 1 million square feet of land parcels that once comprised Drake's neighborhood, coming together in future decades.

"Since 2004, we've completed about 1.44 million in square footage, costing hundreds of millions of dollars," said Maguire. "Of that, 500,000 square feet is in parking garage space."

The ever-encroaching square footage is a response, according to Maguire, to the growth of Bronco Nation. The university's student population in 2010 had grown by 48 percent during two decades, leveling out to approximately 20,000 students in 2012.

"The last two years, we've gotten quite a few things completed," said Maguire. "The housing, the Environmental Research Building, the finishing of [the Lincoln] parking structure."

The growth is in line with a 2005 master plan--a blueprint for exponential growth--which, when the economy fully recovers, is expected to gain steam. Since 2008, an increasing number of projects have already begun to cross University Drive to expand the university's southbound footprint.

In April, the City of Boise's Planning and Zoning Commission agreed to a rezone of just more than 2 acres of residential property into a so-called "university district" to facilitate some of that growth. The 11 parcels of land south of Bronco Stadium are already slated for more science and research facilities.

"With the amount of space we calculated that we need for the buildings in this expansion zone, we would probably require another 1 million square feet," said Maguire. "But that's a long way down the road."

P&Z staff said approving re-zoning of additional land for future university construction could contribute to a better overall traffic flow for the neighborhood.

"There are still some residential uses in the vicinity of the rezone," wrote P&Z. "But they should be reasonably protected as [Boise State] needs to own and rezone entire blocks prior to constructing any large multistory academic buildings that would impact the livability of the neighborhood."

Drake recalled his youth, riding his bicycle down Boise Avenue, then rarely traveled. Now formal bike lanes stretch all the way to his store's parking lot. He said he's become accustomed to his changing neighborhood, which now also includes a lot more foot traffic.

"You really have to watch out when you back out of my parking lot that you're not gonna back over a student," said Drake. "They're tuned out with their headphones, and they're not paying a bit of attention."

Drake's company helped with the construction of the Boise State library, science building and aquatic facility. What is now Boise's State's Public Affairs and Arts West building on University Drive used to be Campus Grade School.

"I grew up here and that's where I went to elementary school, but now it's a part of BSU," remembered Drake. "Then I went to East Junior High, the old building, which is gone now."

Not far from the site of Drake's old school, more construction was added into the 2005 master plan: two new pedestrian bridges to span the Boise River, new parking garages, more student housing and additional research facilities would all extend the campus over to Beacon Street. Maguire said that someday the Boise State footprint could reach as far south and west as Boise Avenue.

"I don't think there's any sense that we're going away," said Maguire.

More plans would include a 900-seat performing arts center which could house Boise State's fine, visual and performing arts programs.

"There's also an understanding that a middle-sized, high-quality performing venue would be a good thing to have," said Maguire. "That's really the extent of what we know that facility would eventually become."

But it's all about the funding. Not until the dollars were in place for the Stueckle Sky Center at Bronco Stadium and the Micron Business and Economics Building did planning and construction begin to pick up pace.

"The new business building was imagined as far back as the mid '90s. When the details began coming together, it was about a five-year project," said Maguire. He paused before adding, "And $37 million."

After breaking ground in October 2010, the Micron Business and Economics Building is slated to open in August.

"You start out with the rough outlines as shown in the master plan, and as the understanding of the priorities of the needs for new facilities become more clear, you begin the discussions at a much more detailed level, to find out what exactly the details would be," said Maguire.

Boise City Council Member Elaine Clegg said she appreciates the growth of the campus, but still has concerns.

"There's a couple of things that I'm really happy about, and a couple of others that I'm worried about," she said. "Densifying the area between University and Beacon is good, but it's happening off the tax rolls."

Clegg pointed out that because the university is a state institution, it is exempt from paying property taxes to the City of Boise, following each new land purchase. She also expressed concern that businesses might shy away from serving the campus.

"I think that's another thing that happens when taking that land off the tax rolls; there's little incentive for business near the university," she said.

During a May 15 Boise City Council work session, Maguire and Sonia Hennum from Kittelson and Associates--Portland, Ore.-based engineering and planning consultants--unveiled a new transportation concept for University Drive, the main south and east arterial running through the campus. The new plan suggested limiting vehicle traffic in favor of promoting alternative transportation.

"I think Boise State's master plan includes making the campus a pretty traditional campus feel, which is sequestered from the community," said Clegg. "As they move into what used to be the city, I've become concerned that that boundary is a hard boundary to being integrated with the city."

The plan would send more traffic south to Beacon Street, which would serve as a four-lane barrier between more high-density university buildings and the rest of the old neighborhood.

Drake's family once owned a home on Oakland Street, near Boise Avenue. Five years after they sold the home, Boise State bought the land, tore down the buildings and built a childcare facility.

But as the neighborhood gains greater density, infrastructure and transportation become more important with limited space.

"I think that as an urban university on a limited amount of footprint, it makes good sense from a sustainability perspective to develop on a high density," said Maguire. "If you spread everything out, you're building yourself into a corner."

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