Defining Meridian

City looks to redefine itself with downtown master plan


Two decades ago, Meridian was a sleepy farm town. Downtown was dominated by a granary and a feed store, the iconic watertower marked the outskirts of town and miles of fields separated it from Boise.

Now, it's the center of a valleywide population boom, the fields have been covered by massive tract-housing developments and the city has been left with an identity crisis.

While the term "bedroom community" riles many city leaders, it's hard to deny it as thousands of commuters to Boise pack the roads each day. It's a status even Shaun Wardle, head of the fledgling Meridian Development Corporation, will admit.

A lifelong Meridian resident and former city council member, Wardle is now one of the chief players in Meridian's effort to re-create itself by adopting a personality for the 21st century and building a self-sustaining city.

"This was a small dairy town," Wardle said, pointing to the city's massive growth, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates increased 66.4 percent between 2000 and 2006.

"Downtown hasn't caught up," he said.

Besides a massive new Meridian City Hall that opened last year, much of downtown is filled with small stores, offices in old homes, longstanding neighborhoods and a post office.

"We want to create investment in downtown," Wardle said, describing a mixed-use area that would combine shops, restaurants, offices and homes and give residents a reason to stay in Meridian. For him, it's about "what Meridian could be."

A large part of that effort is the formation of Meridian's first long-term downtown master plan. The city contracted with Salt Lake City-based architecture firm CRSA to create a plan that will guide development for years to come.

In September, CRSA hosted a four-day planning charrette, asking residents what they want in downtown. Responses centered on the idea of mixed use, while preserving the town's character and including more public spaces.

Transportation is a huge part of nearly every plan the city is considering. But beyond cars, planners are looking closely at public transit. The fact that rail lines transect downtown is viewed as a boon for the city, and plans integrate a future light rail line.

"We believe Meridian will be the largest winner in a transit route," Wardle said.

The initial master plan will be presented to the public sometime in January, while a final plan is tentatively scheduled to go before the City Council in February, said Laura Hanson, associate principal at CRSA.

Meridian is a blank canvas for planners since the majority of the city is devoid of large, historic structures that could guide development. It's both an advantage and a challenge, offering no backbone to spur redevelopment.

"In a lot of communities, you're reacting," Hanson said. "Here, we're really planning from the ground up."

Already, the city has implemented a number of large changes to the downtown landscape, including replacing the iconic Challenge creamery with a city hall and municipal building, and rerouting traffic by creating separated one-way streets through the core of town.

The linchpin of changing downtown Meridian is luring new businesses. When the city began looking at redevelopment, the focus was on large companies with more than 500 employees. But now, Wardle said such lofty ambitions just aren't realistic.

Instead, the city is putting its hopes on the "creative types" willing to take a chance on redevelopment in exchange for the opportunity to have an influence on the community.

City leaders are also excited by the interest the Boise Hawks baseball team has shown in possibly relocating its stadium. While no decision has been made, Meridian is on the short list, and planners have already created a downtown design that includes a possible stadium.

The initial designs, as well as blogs and assorted public forums the city is trying to use in the planning process, are all part of, the Web site Wardle hopes will include more residents in the process.

While much of the plan is still just talk, one business already sees opportunity in Meridian. Vengaworks--which opened its first location in Meridian last year--will open the city's first downtown business incubator in January 2010. Ground Floor is an adaptive workspace, where clients can rent office space depending on their needs.

Randall Ussery, product marketing for Vengaworks, said the company likes Meridian in part because of its central location. With Ground Floor, he saw the opportunity to provide space for initial start-up companies, small businesses looking to grow, freelance professionals, and sales groups looking to move into the community.

It's an approach Ussery believes is more sustainable for the long term. "If you get 30-odd businesses working in this area, they bring business downtown, and it's a snowball effect that will take place once you get just a few businesses down there," he said.

And while planning moves forward, one lingering issue remains: defining the personality of Meridian. It's been a question that has been hard to answer. While Wardle describes it as a young community full of families, even he has a hard time providing a definition.

Several ideas are being considered, including, "We celebrate on our stomachs," in reference to restaurants and nearby farms, but no decision has been made. "You can't force it," Hanson said. "It has to come from the community."

She believes that change is a very real possibility for Meridian, but it will take one or two catalyst projects to make it happen. "The perception that it's a bedroom community will have to be eroded over time," she said.