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Quick, Say it Three Times Fast: State Street Streetscape

City eyes a new look for major road

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If you're one of the many who curse the traffic west to east along State Street each morning, or east to west each evening, you might be hard-pressed to describe your journey. Most define State Street by its tire stores or parking lots rather than the street itself, which is quite different from, say Capitol Boulevard, where travelers might describe the view from the Depot, or the Basque Block, where they might say something about the design of the street, or landscape. But State Street is, well, not much more than a way to get in or out of town.

"It's a little like an unkempt hallway when you walk into your home," said Mike Hall of the Capital City Development Corporation. "It's just a room you walk through to get to the rest of the house. You're immune to how it looks because you see it every day. It's not until someone comes for a visit that you might notice that pile of laundry."

It's Hall's job to notice. He's the development director for CCDC, responsible for long- and short-term planning and development for Boise's urban renewal agency.

"If there's a streetscape improvement project, that's within my realm," said Hall.

Simply put, a streetscape is the appearance or view of a thoroughfare. And to put it bluntly, the current appearance of State Street is nothing to write home about. Or walk home on.

"I walk to work most mornings, but I don't walk State Street," said Phillip Kushlan, CCDC executive director. "It's not a particularly pleasant place to walk."

According to CCDC documents, much of State running from Eighth to 16th "is unattractive and doesn't provide a comfortable environment for pedestrians. The width of the roadway varies substantially from block to block, causing confusion for drivers, and parts of it are in very poor condition."

So in July, Kushlan and Hall presented to their board the State Street Streetscape Plan.

"For most of our board, it was their first look at something tangible," said Kushlan. "I was quite surprised at their level of enthusiasm."

You have to go back to 2001 to trace Boise's beginning of the streetscape idea. That's when the Westside Urban Renewal Plan was adopted, setting specific standards for everything between the curb and the face of a building. The streetscape standards designated State Street as an "urban parkway."

The difficulty of implementing the urban parkway standard has been made all the more challenging by the nature of the businesses that line State Street. For instance, owners remodeled existing buildings, rather than build new ones, resulting in a lack of consistency.

And as some businesses have grown, so have the number of so-called "curb-cuts." A curb-cut is where the curb and sidewalk come to a temporary halt to make way for a driveway into a parking lot. And you'll run out of fingers and toes if you try counting how many curbs have been cut on State Street.

Taking all of this into consideration, CCDC turned to JensenBelts Associates, Boise architects and urban designers. Chances are, if you know Boise, you know their work: the Ada County Courthouse, Boise Art Museum, the Linen District, Royal Plaza, the Veltex Building.

"Eric Jensen pointed to the Basque Block," said Kushlan. "It's a special throughway that's distinctive from anyplace else."

It's no wonder. Jensen, principal of JensenBelts, was the chief project architect of the Basque block.

Jensen drafted two design concepts for State Street between Eighth and 16th streets: an urban streetscape and a parkway streetscape. The differences were subtle, but at July's meeting, the CCDC board liked the urban streetscape a bit more.

"The construction cost will be a little higher, but maintenance costs will be less," said Kushlan. The first draft estimates that the cost per block might be $239,000.

Each block could see a 9-foot-wide sidewalk and up to eight trees and four historic Granville street lamps on each side of State Street. And intersections could include new features too, not unlike the Basque block: scored, colored concrete yielding a brick-like facade with a centerpiece featuring a logo or artwork molded into the pavement.

The State Street streetscape has miles to go, with many yield signs in its way. Kushlan and Hall were given initial feedback by the CCDC board just a couple of weeks ago. Conversations are ongoing with Boise's Public Works Department and the Ada County Highway District, the governing body of all things highway and byway.

And soon, CCDC will launch what will be the critical element of jump-starting the project: meeting with businesses and property owners.

"We'll try to do as many one-on-one conversations as we can," said Kushlan. "It affects everybody differently."

Don't expect jackhammers anytime soon. Kushlan said the project would begin in 2012 at the earliest.

How big a deal is this to CCDC?

"There really hasn't been this kind of investment in beautifying a major corridor in recent memory," said Kushlan.

If the vision becomes reality, some 30,000 daily commuters could have a new way of describing State Street: a tree-lined gateway to the City of Trees.

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