Size Matters on the Boise Bench

Developer's plans could change the look of Boise


From a weed-infested vacant lot off Crescent Rim between Kipling and Peasley streets you can catch an unobstructed view of the Boise Foothills on a clear day. Downtown buildings lay straight ahead and the trees of Ann Morrison Park stretch right below the sloping edge of the viewpoint.

It's a popular vista for many Boiseans. Runners, walkers and strollers pass the lot along the path of fun runs. Commuters sometimes travel Crescent Rim to unwind, courtesy of the scenic mountain views you can catch at the edge of the Bench.

The view might change if the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission gives the OK for a condominium complex proposed for that vacant lot. Neighbors say approval of the condos wouldn't just obscure their view but could change the look of neighborhoods across Boise. And the developer agrees.

"Developers are watching this because they're seeing how much push-room they have, and neighbors are watching this to see how much the city will protect their neighborhoods," says Megan Montague, one of the dozens of neighbors challenging what they call a mammoth and out-of-place development. Scale models of the complex against existing housing in the neighborhood show a modern complex nearly the height of the Boise Depot Clock dwarfing nearby historic, single-story homes.

The City and developers are calling the proposal "infill"--new development built on lots in already existing residential areas. Neighbors say to watch out because it could come in monstrous proportions to any vacant lot in Boise.

"Infill development is becoming more of a political issue," says the condo's developer, Bill Clark. And his proposal holds more political significance that the usual multi-unit development, he says.

"It's a major test case for the City on infill development."

Clark's complex would house 98 high-end units on 4.6 acres and reach heights from two to five stories or 62 feet--a size that would require exemption from the 45-foot maximum allowed for the modest single-story, single-family ranch-style homes in the area. City Planning staff said they would not support the height and other exemptions at a Dec. 13 Planning and Zoning hearing. Clark said that position would make his proposal "undoable" but that doesn't mean the lot would stay vacant.

"It's not about the flowers and the color of paint," Jack Cortabitarte says of the $40 million proposal that highlights outdoor space, water features and a pathway from Crescent Rim to Ann Morrison Park. "We said we want you to develop it, we'll be out there with shovels to help you. But it's a matter of density."

But that's just what Boise needs--dense housing developments, say city planners and Clark, who also helped develop the Veltex building, Hidden Springs and Eagle River communities.

"I don't know any other antidote for sprawl," he says of his proposal that also calls for the demolition of three surrounding houses and small apartment buildings. "The converse side of infill is sprawl and the things that go with sprawl--the traffic ... the air pollution."

But neighbors aren't ready to call the proposal any kind of antidote. And Clark, who sits on the Idaho Smart Growth board--an organization dedicated to promoting sprawl solutions, isn't quick to call his development Smart Growth.

"Smart Growth is different in different places," he says.

Idaho Smart Growth advocates mixed-use developments that maintain traditional character, promote pedestrian-friendly environments and reduce traffic. Neighbors say Clark's complex could push traffic beyond acceptable limits and compromise pedestrian safety.

It's already difficult for cars to navigate turns onto Rose Hill from Peasley, a major commuter route for residents in the area, Cortabitarte says. And he notes it would not take long for condo residents to discover shortcuts on several streets that pass school kids' walking paths and a quiet mobile home park with mountain views and front signage reading, "A 55 and older community."

A traffic study commissioned by Clark estimates the complex would bump vehicle trips in the area up from 116 to 515 per day--a load that the Ada County Highway District says falls within standards. The Depot Bench Neighborhood Association hired their own engineer who challenged the findings and neighbors still call for a more comprehensive traffic study. Still, neighbors foresee too many cars on roads where pedestrians sometimes push strollers and wheel wheelchairs along street edges.

But traffic and safety are just two of the issues that had neighbors lining up at the Dec. 13 Planning and Zoning hearing to testify against the proposal that had already lead to confidential mitigation between neighbors and Clark. Neighbor after neighbor spoke of maintaining the neighborhood's character, quality of life, environmental impacts and of putting people before profits. Some said they would welcome a new condo as long as the complex was just one story high near the streets and no higher than three stories--a height that would maintain neighbors' views, including those from the retirement community. Clark said a scaled down design would be impossible for economic reasons. He needs to recoup high project and land costs. One neighbor, a real estate agent, spoke in favor of the development.

Close to 60 people wanted a chance to speak at the hearing that stretched on until almost midnight and ended with no decision on Clark's proposal. Clark says that what the city decides could impact the architectural face of Boise's future: If the city decides against Clark's height and setback exemption requests, it could send the message to other developers that the city is not willing to bend city code rules for innovative proposals. That would leave developers confined to a box that could result in some very boxy buildings.

"It would not be a pretty sight," Clark says.

The Planning and Zoning Commission revisits the Crescent Rim proposal on Jan. 10 at 5:15 p.m. on the 3rd floor of City Hall.