Downtown makes Boise go 'round

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Charles Royer
  • Charles Royer

If you happened to be walking through the North End last night, you might have seen former three-term Seattle Mayor Charles Royer sittin’ on (CCDC boss) Phil Kushlan’s porch, talkin’ about Boise and world issues.

According to Royer, who was in the City of Trees to deliver this morning’s keynote at the 23rd annual State of Downtown meeting, the front stoop consensus was that “healthy cities have healthy downtowns,” and that downtown investment will speed economic recovery.

“It starts from the center,” said Royer, who served as Seattle mayor from 1978 to 1990 before going on to lead Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Today he owns The Royer Group consulting firm. “It’s where you go to throw your hat in the air after World War II.”

While that last statement self-admittedly dates him, Royer added that the sentiment—downtown as a city’s civic heart—rings true even in dark times like these.

“The news is the buck still pretty much stops on Main Street,” he said.

But “Main Street” has developed more than a few potholes over the past couple of years, and the big question is how cities will adapt to the “new normal,” which demands they do business differently.

A central component of that “new normal”: Recognizing the “nexus of transportation, housing and the environment.”

In short, Royer said, what’s needed in the current recessionary epoch is increased urban density, beefy public transit systems and cultural shifts that emphasize environmental protection and a healthy work-life balance.

“The most conspicuous attribute of our wealth is to be able to walk to work,” he said.

Boise is doing a lot of things right. It has ample green spaces and pedestrian friendly downtown districts, civic pride and a nearby university that actively reaches out to the community.

According to Karen Sander, executive director of the Downtown Boise Association, 52 new businesses opened downtown in 2009, while 24 closed. The 60-block “downtown business improvement district” still enjoys the lowest commercial vacancy rates in the Treasure Valley, and parking receipts are on the upswing.

A slate of development projects are in the works as well, ranging from Concordia University’s new law school on Fifth and Front streets, to Jack’s Urban Meeting Place (JUMP) on Ninth and Broad, to the Capitol Plaza office complex on Capitol and Front.

“We’re poised to rebound,” Sander said.

Where Boise lacks, Royer said, is in local control—something Mayor Dave Bieter has long championed as a necessary tool for much-needed, and long-delayed, infrastructure investments. (See: The Streetcar.)

Without local autonomy, Boise is at “the tender mercies” of a Legislature that doesn’t always buy into “the liberal tendencies of its largest city,” Royer said. Barring any sudden—and unlikely—grant of local taxing authority, he emphasized regional partnerships and mechanisms that “have teeth,” and “can’t be ignored up the street at the capitol.”

“Without a strong coalition that’s diverse enough not to be ignored by the Legislature, you’re not going to get very far,” Royer concluded.

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