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Garden City Rising

The urban island tries to shed its seedy reputation


When Gim Gnook moved from Canton, China, to Garden City in 1956, she came out of necessity. Her husband had died, and with him, the flow of money generated by the small family restaurant he had come to Idaho to open.

She had four children to support, and the immigrant family made its new home in the cramped quarters above the Chinese Lantern on Chinden Boulevard. Gim Gnook raised her family, planted her garden, ran her business, and eventually died in the building not far from the Boise River, most likely unaware of the role she would play in connecting the past and the future of Garden City.

Gim Gnook, who immigrated from China in 1956, made her home in Garden City. - COURTESY OF IRENE DEELY
  • Courtesy of Irene Deely
  • Gim Gnook, who immigrated from China in 1956, made her home in Garden City.

Her story is just one of thousands in what has become a city within a city. As a small-business owner and resident, she helped build the framework for current-day Garden City, and as a Chinese immigrant, she continued the tradition that gave the city its name.

The Chinese Lantern is no more, but the building is still home to a small-business owner shaping the future of Garden City.

Irene Deely told the story of Gim Gnook on a recent afternoon as she sat in the English pub-inspired portion of Woman of Steel Gallery. Deely and her husband, Bob, opened the welding-art gallery four years ago in the former restaurant, taking a chance with a fine art gallery in an area better known for adult bookstores and pawn shops. But like her predecessor, Deely has created a thriving business and turned Garden City into a place where she is making a long-term dream a reality.

Deely is the force behind the city's new Live, Work, Create District, a zoning designation that will allow artists to live among their studios and galleries. It may seem an unlikely home for fine art, but the new district is an example of how Garden City is trying to shed its decades-old image as a nest of debauchery, crime and cheap housing.

"It has a horrible reputation," said Garden City Mayor John Evans. "Back to its roots, Garden City was a village formed essentially as a playground.

"We've dealt with that stereotype ever since 1949. It's been frustrating," he said.

Garden City earned its name from the many early Chinese immigrants who planted gardens in the rich floodplains of the Boise River. The area later became a haven for the kinds of activities the leaders of Boise didn't want connected with their city, but still wanted close enough to enjoy. Gambling remained legal in Garden City until 1949, and for long after that, adult bookshops, pawn shops and hotels advertising hourly rates lined the road.

Todd Shallat, director of the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State, said for a time the area was a national hot spot for celebrities who wanted a quickie divorce and the kind of fun that was frowned upon in polite society.

But in recent decades, Garden City has begun a slow transformation, from seedy playground to viable community. The city's infamous adult shops now number just one, and the city is the only one in Ada County where crime rates are actually on the decline.

It still has its issues, including the highest concentration of registered sex offenders in the county, with 46 living among the roughly 12,500 residents. And there's that lingering reputation that makes some business owners shy away from the area, despite its heavy traffic flow—165,000 cars per day—and proximity to downtown Boise.

"Business people said it was gutsy to do it—it seemed risky because of Garden City's reputation," said Deely as she sat in the comfortable yet chic interior of her gallery.

"I loved the fact that it was the first fine-art gallery [in the city]. It was unusual," she said. "We just had to have a lot of tenacity. I plugged my ears to all of the negative and just stuck in there."

Deely's approach is one Evans and other city leaders are trying to persuade others to take. Last year, the city council adopted a new comprehensive plan, and while plan updates are required every 10 years, this time, the city started from scratch.

"We wanted to capture the current mind-set of the community," Evans said. "Garden City needed to be legitimized as a real city, with benefits for its citizens, or it needed to go away."

Sitting in his office in the new Garden City Hall, Evans describes how 125 residents turned out to share their visions for the future of the city. Of that original group, 17 formed a steering committee that helped draft the comprehensive plan later adopted by the council.

The 49-page plan outlines every aspect of the ideal Garden City, from improving the city's appearance by making Chinden Boulevard and Glenwood Street "grand boulevards" lined with trees, to maintaining and improving the area's existing assets, including more than 5 miles of riverfront property and the Greenbelt.

"Garden City is creating a new vision for the future," reads the plan.

The document highlights the new City Hall as a shining example of that future. The new building, home to both city offices and the community library, sits along the banks of the river off Glenwood Street, and city staffers and residents alike can be found enjoying breaks on the benches and picnic tables tucked unobtrusively into the landscape.

Evans, himself a part-time city employee, touts a falling crime rate and increased volunteer work, including a volunteer economic development officer and a volunteer arts committee. While the Boise School District has resisted building a public school in Garden City, a charter school, the Garden City Community School, opened last year. The school had a rough start, having to move locations several times and losing students, but the Idaho Board of Education recently approved a plan to pay off the school's $55,000 debt.

"In the last few years, it's reached a critical mass, and this is starting to spill out into the community," he said.

The city has even rolled out a new motto, "Capture the Excitement." Evans hopes the catchy little phrase will lure both new residents and new businesses to the 4.2-square-miles that make up Garden City.

"Vision is a necessary component to keep from perishing," he said.

Several major businesses have already taken a chance on Garden City. The ever-expanding Moxie Java built its new headquarters in Garden City, rather than moving elsewhere in the valley. "It was more business-friendly than any other Treasure Valley community," said Tim Wright, vice president and general manager of Moxie Java International.

Now, a group of developers are building a major residential and commercial project along the banks of the Boise River.

Work began last summer on The Waterfront District, an ambitious plan that will feature a combination of townhouses, high-rise condominiums, single-family homes and commercial businesses on 17 acres in the eastern portion of the city, where 36th Street meets the river.

Jim Neill smiles with pride as he looks out over the massive construction zone that will soon open to residents and customers. With several sets of townhomes completed, and many others going up at breakneck speed, Neill and his fellow investors, including J.D. Simplot and Jene Harding, aren't wasting time.

When completed, the site will be filled with 80 townhomes, 130 condominium units and 26 single-family homes, along with a clubhouse, pool and retail stores. Townhomes will be priced in the mid-$200,000 range to the upper-$500,000 range. Many have already been sold. Single-family lots, measuring a modest 45 feet by 100 feet, cost between $115,000 and $230,000. The were sold out by mid-March.

The development sits just across the river from the new Esther Simplot Park and planned whitewater park, and along the Greenbelt.

"Three years ago, I began looking for a nice, logical, modest investment," Neill said. Instead, he found a vacant piece of land that was closed off by a cattle fence. "It's a big stretch of underutilized land on the river."

A relatively new transplant to Boise, Neill wasn't worried by Garden City's old reputation.

"When you're not used to thinking about Garden City as it used to be, it's easier to see what it will become," he said.

Neill may have grand visions for the area, but visitors are quickly reminded of the other side of Garden City when they pass numerous trailer homes and ramshackle businesses along the road leading to the development. Neill hasn't missed the striking dichotomy.

"Garden City has been in a time warp," he said. "It got closed in. It's an anomaly.

"It's in the center of population, but there's still land-use patterns like it's on the highway going out of town," Neill said.

Using buzzwords like "new urbanism," and "smart growth," Neill said developments like The Waterfront District will be the future of the city. "This is a development node in this corner of town, trying to provide critical mass so things can change around it," he said.

These extremes can be found across Garden City. Mobile home parks where the trailers look like they're being held together by the rust coating the corners sit just a few miles from homes worth more than $1 million, locked behind the secure gates of a private community.

According to the Ada County Assessor's Office, the median home price in Garden City is $177,100, while the average home price is $232,000.

"We have some of the most valuable residential property in the state," Evans said. "It's the full spectrum."

The city has stepped up its efforts to enforce building and nuisance codes with quicker and more aggressive enforcement to clean up what some view as a blight on the town.

But as low-rent trailer parks are replaced by new and more costly developments, some worry that many low-income residents are being pushed out.

Garden City is known for a plethora of mobile home parks, even though the city is home to million-dollar homes too. - FRANCIS DELAPENA
  • Francis Delapena
  • Garden City is known for a plethora of mobile home parks, even though the city is home to million-dollar homes too.

Evans said he's sensitive to those criticisms, adding he doesn't want to force anyone to leave, but enforcing existing codes to mitigate problem properties has to be a priority.

"We're trying to clean it up, but carefully," he said.

"There are lots of very hard-working, honorable residents who don't make very much money, and they deserve a place to live," Evans said. "Those that have crime and litter and refuse need to do their part. We have the resources to deal with [them]."

The city's comprehensive plan forbids any mobile homes built prior to 1976 to be replaced by mobile homes built prior to the same year. Additionally, the city plans to increase its design review process and use the land code to limit any additional strip malls.

Keeping the needs of the working class in the picture is an important part of any future vision, said Beatrice Black, deputy director of Neighborhood Housing Services. While she applauds the city for its efforts to clean up its image and improve living conditions, she cautions leaders not to forget the need for different levels of housing. "Be careful as to how all the different elements play into that change," she said.

Condemning property has become a regular occurrence in Garden City, as officials judge dwellings to be unfit for human occupation. Garden City Chief of Police James Bensley mentioned a recent case when a mobile home was condemned after officers found children bathing in an outdoor tub directly beneath exposed power lines. The city helped the family renting the trailer to find another place to live.

Nuisance and code violations are a significant part of the job for the 27 officers on the Garden City Police force. The city gave officers a powerful tool in the fight to get property owners to clean up their homes or rental properties in the form of a Chronic Nuisance Abatement Ordinance. The ordinance is triggered if one or more of more than a dozen types of criminal activities are reported at the same location several times within a 90-day period. The city can fine property owners up to $100 per day until the situation is resolved.

"Usually, it's a landlord who doesn't know what's going on at the property," Bensley said.

He said the fine is imposed regularly, and the longest it has taken a property owner to rectify the situation is 12 days.

Bensley took over as police chief in 2001, but has spent 25 years with the department. In that time, he has seen the nature and frequency of crime in Garden City change drastically, despite the city's reputation.

"Certainly we hear the perception, but it's nothing like it was 10, 15 years ago," he said.

According to the Idaho State Police, criminal offenses reported in 2006 in Garden City totaled 1,279, a significant decrease from 2,077 in 2002. In the last year, the crime rate in the city has dropped 9.4 percent, compared to a 2.2 percent increase in Boise and a 4.9 percent increase in Meridian. In all, violent crimes have seen the greatest decline, Bensley said.

He credits the improved crime rates to changing the department's approach to policing. In 2002, it began a community policing program, in which five sergeants were assigned to oversee five regions of the city. Officers patrol specific areas and then meet once a month to get a better picture of the entire city, giving everyone involved a sense of ownership.

Even with these positive numbers, Bensley said the city ranks in the top five cities in the state for the highest crime rate. He attributes this in part to the combination of Garden City's small population, and the fact that the city deals regularly with crimes committed by residents of surrounding towns, increasing the per-capita crime rate.

The department also has to deal with the highest concentration of registered sex offenders in the county. Bensley said this, along with a high number of violent offenders, is due to the fact that rents are still relatively low in the area. Some landlords don't require criminal background checks. And while he understands that everyone deserves a place to live, Bensley said he is pleased by a relatively new city ordinance requiring registered sex offenders to stay 1,000 feet from any place where children congregate. This is an amped-up version of the state law, which keeps sexual offenders 500 feet from any school.

"We had to balance affordable housing with safety for children and the community at large," he said.

Evans admits the city still has its challenges, but said Garden City's future plan will help turn things around further. A key part of that plan revolves around the 235 acres of county-owned land in the heart of the city known as Expo Idaho, home to the Western Idaho Fair, Les Bois Race Track, an RV park, the Ada County Extension service, the North Ada County Fire and Rescue and the Ada County Paramedics office.

Ada County has considered moving the fairgrounds for some time, although no decisions have been made about any possible redevelopment of the area. County officials will be interviewing a short list of project consultants later this month, said Rich Wright, Ada County spokesman.

One option is to sell the land. Evans said Garden City is anxious to take ownership. The comprehensive plan calls for the property to become the new town center, where a mix of residential, commercial and entertainment venues would draw people to the area.

"I'd like to see a skyline," Evans said.

On the other end of town, Deely is focusing on what the city is calling "old town."

Long before she opened her gallery, Deely dreamt of creating an artists' community in Garden City. "It was a long-term dream," she said. "It was taking something that has been virtually discarded and overlooked, and redeeming it into something useful and beautiful."

She began that process with her own gallery. After taking nine months to renovate the building, Deely opened a gallery that is part business, part gathering space. From what was once the main dining room, visitors can sit at a handmade metal counter and sip a glass of wine while watching through a smoked-glass window as Deely creates her metal artwork. Upstairs, she created a small cigar club, where open beams and straw-plastered walls pay homage to the public houses of England, where Deely and her husband lived in the mid-1980s.

But what really excites her these days is in a 9,000-square-foot metal building behind her gallery. She purchased the building, along with a 30,000-square-foot lot next to it, when High Desert Harley-Davidson relocated. The building will become the first addition to the Live, Work, Create District when the Visual Arts Collective moves there in September, along with Audio Labs.

It was a dream that almost didn't happen. While Deely was trying to buy the property, the owner announced he was going to sell it to a used-car dealer. "When I saw it slipping through my fingers, inside, I threw a fit," she said. "We don't want Garden City to stay what it is."

Deely made an impassioned call to the owner, telling him of her dream to create an artists' community. It worked. The property owner changed his mind and sold the property to Deely. VAC was on the hunt for a new home at the same time, and she said all the pieces fell together.

Irene Deely, owner of Woman of Steel gallery. - FRANCIS DELAPENA

VAC hopes to buy the building eventually, and Deely would use the money to build the artists' lofts on the vacant lot. The lofts have yet to be designed, but she said they will feature an open floor plan, giving artists a place to both work and live. Each loft would sell for roughly $200,000. The concept is a big change for Garden City, but one Deely feels fits with the independent nature of the town.

"I love the mix," she said. "We don't have the pre-fab architecture. There's a genuineness to what Garden City is—we come here, and we work, and people are living right here.

"It's been under the radar for so long, but mainly because of the mindset," Deely said.

Deely said she saw the excitement among residents about what Garden City could be while serving on the steering committee that helped draft the city comprehensive plan. Even within the relatively small confines of the city, there are two distinctly different types of development happening—the modern buildings on the west end of town, and the refurbished buildings in old town. It's a pattern that suits Deely just fine.

"No one was interested in this part because it's too established in the way it was," she said. "Old town was preserved by developers not wanting to do [developments] here.

"The steering committee saw the value of preserving light manufacturing," Deely said. "Small businesses are really valuable in making Garden City what it is."

While communities across the Treasure Valley explode with population and sprawl, Deely and others in Garden City have decided to take a more active role in deciding the future of their community.

"I knew if Boise ever got discovered, it's going to explode," she said. "It's a little sad, but you can't stop change. So [I decided to] be involved in guiding growth in a positive way."

Almost as a way to show her commitment, Deely is building a large arch that will mark the entry into her artists' enclave, and hanging from that will be 12 lanterns paying tribute to the old Chinese Lantern restaurant. Along-side her gallery will be a sculpture garden dedicated to Gim Gnook.

There, Deely plans to plant plum trees, which she learned were Gim Gnook's favorite. Trailing up the side of the gallery, several rose bushes provide dashes of pink against the shining steel of Deely's creations. The bushes are the last remnants of Gim Gnook's garden, and a fitting symbol for what community leaders hope Garden City will be—long-lasting, tenacious, and with some proper care, a thing of beauty.