The mystery of who will soon take over one of Boise's most prominent pieces of downtown real estate is slowly being revealed. But any good mystery takes time to unfold.
In fact, anyone curious about the latest clue would have had to brave 2013's first snowstorm on Jan. 7 and sit through a three-hour session of the City of Boise Planning and Zoning Commission before something called CUP12-00067 was considered. The request for a conditional use permit for a drive-thru window is a small but important piece of the puzzle bordered by Capitol Boulevard and Sixth, Broad and Front streets.
"The drive-thru is just one component of a larger development," said Cody Riddle, planning manager with Boise City Planning and Development Services.
Boise Weekly readers lit up the blogosphere in December, 2012 when we first reported that architects had crafted plans for a development of four retailers, one of which had a familiar footprint to anyone who has walked into a Trader Joe's (BW, News, "Can You Keep a Secret?" Dec. 5, 2012).
Even city officials confirmed that confidentiality agreements had been signed and no one was at liberty to say anything about the pending retailers--at least on the record.
"We're recommending approval," Riddle told P&Z commissioners on Jan. 7, referring to the developer's CUP, before adding a caution. "Staff was a bit concerned that the project might be an underutilization of this site."
That's when Andy Erstad of Erstad Architects took the microphone to walk commissioners through his designs calling for an attached drive-thru to one of the proposed development's smaller buildings--approximately 2,500 square feet.
P&Z Vice Chair Jay Story tried to pry information out of Erstad as to who or what would ultimately occupy the structure.
"I'm looking at your designs," said Story to Erstad. "Tell me what that is," he said, pointing to a small box that only a designer or architect might decipher. "Is that for a food establishment or a financial institution?"
But Erstad wasn't biting.
"Great question," Erstad said with a smile. "We don't have an identified tenant. Our goal is to achieve this drive-thru so that our client can market this space to tenants."
But the footprint of the drive-thu and the attached structure clearly looked like a coffee shop or small fast-food restaurant.
"The commission approved another drive-thru recently and I'm a little bit concerned," said Story.
He was referring to the recent approval for a drive-thru window at the recently opened Chick-fil-A restaurant at 220 S. Broadway. The drive-thru, which shares a parking lot with Carl's Jr. and Deli George restaurants, has already caused the owners of Chick-fil-A's competitors to cry foul.
"How many cars can be stacked up in this new proposed drive-thru?" asked Story.
Erstad said current City of Boise code doesn't include any guidelines to manage the number of cars backed up in a drive-thru.
"[Code] doesn't give you a benchmark," he said. "We don't have an ordinance."
P&Z Chair Jennifer Stevens said the proposed one-story buildings were what she termed "a pretty severe underutilization of the site."
"I'm curious," she said. "Are there any thoughts about later use of this space or is this as good as it gets?"
Erstad explained that when the owners of the space, currently a gravel parking lot, sold it to developers, they had no desire to see elevated parking on the site.
"I know for a fact that the seller placed a series of restrictions that limits the opportunity to go vertical," he said. "The seller is also a developer who owns a large, lightly used 905-space garage and they don't necessarily want competition for that. The bottom line is that the development is the development."
Erstad paused for a moment before speaking, in his words, "more candidly."
"Nobody has stepped up to look at this site," he reasoned. "I was part of the team that helped write the Capitol Boulevard guidelines. I can tell you that we felt by creating this plaza and screening in the drive-thru lane, you're enhancing the space."
Mike Baldner couldn't agree more. An attorney practicing real estate and business law for Meuleman Mollerup LLP, Baldner said he looks out on the gravel lot every day.
"For the last five years, I've had the privilege of looking out from my second-floor office," said Baldner. "And I have to look at this for the next 20 years. I candidly have not seen a project that has gone to the level that [the designers] have. It's very impressive."
Baldner said his neighbors agreed.
"I think this is very consistent that Design Review has required from other projects, like Whole Foods," said Baldner. "These are projects that we're going to be proud of. From the neighborhood's perspective, I think [the designers] have our wholehearted support."
P&Z Commissioner Ty Morrison said he supported the project as a dramatic change from a gravel lot.
"Knowing the machinations behind the retail world and the restrictions that the owners placed on this property, I think this is a great solution to an underutilized piece of property," said Morrison. "Do I think it's the highest invested use of this site that we'll ever see? No, I do not. But I know that in the world of retail, if it doesn't make sense, they'll tear it down and build something else in its place."
Ultimately, P&Z approved Erstad's designs, sending him on his way to shake hands and pat the backs of a group of unidentified onlookers. But none of them were talking--at least on the record--about who is poised to build at one of the city's highest profile intersections.