Street Style

Who rules Boise's streets when it comes to aesthetics?


When Brett Hurless had to replace the dilapidated sidewalk in front of his downtown Boise business, he thought of form as well as function.

Rather than just replacing the concrete, Hurless, co-owner of Hurless Brothers Foreign Cars on Main Street, wanted to continue the standard city streetscape—trees with sidewalk grates and decorative light poles. But after nearly a year of dealing with three governmental agencies, a myriad of private contractors and array of funding partnerships, Hurless decided to just go with the concrete.

"By the time I was done talking to [Ada County Highway District] and [Capital City Development Corporation] and trying to figure out how to get an architect involved in getting drawings, and purchasing trees and lightpoles and grates, the cheapest bid was $29,000," he said.

The expense was more than he could justify, so he scaled back to the standard concrete, but added some benches, large planters and awnings on his building. The ultimate result is one he likes, but the process was a bit much.

"That's just the nature of government," he said. "I didn't know how time-consuming and how complicated a process that was."

It's a process that has left more than one downtown building owner scratching his or her head. With up to three different agencies to deal with, and sometimes conflicting information, confusion is a common result.

That's the case at the BW offices on Broad Street, where the landscaping efforts of owner Sally Freeman have been shut down amidst a barrage of official letters, phone calls and site visits. City officials worried that a proposed drip irrigation system beneath a pad of decorative concrete wouldn't be enough to sustain several trees.

The half-poured concrete and construction mess lingering on the busy corner raise a nagging question for business owners: Just who has the final say when it comes to downtown sidewalks?

Maybe it's the ACHD.

"We care about landscaping only in that it has to be something that has to be maintained, and not become a hazard to walkers or bikers or become a site hazard," said Craig Quintana, spokesman for ACHD.

Maybe not.

The agency is responsible for the roads themselves, the curbs, gutters and sidewalks, as well as making sure everything complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The agency also splits the cost of replacing sidewalks with landowners if a sidewalk is condemned, as was the case at Hurless Brothers.

But when it comes to aesthetics, the ACHD board can only make recommendations that are forwarded on to another city agency: the Planning and Zoning Department takes those plans into consideration when deciding whether to recommend approval of a project.

Of course, the city isn't the only one weighing in on the final plan.

The complication in downtown Boise gets denser when a property falls within one of three urban renewal districts overseen by the CCDC. While that group works independently, it still serves as an arm of the City of Boise, and the city has adopted the design standards created by CCDC.

Those design standards vary by which renewal district a property falls in, but in general, the central core of the city will feature full brick sidewalks with grates around the base of trees near the curb. The farther out from the core you go, the less elaborate the requirements, and more grass and assorted greenery are possible.

Certain allowances are made for individual circumstances, including large, existing trees or a narrow right-of-way.

Phil Kushlan, executive director of CCDC, said the board does not have the final say in what projects will be allowed, but it does offer recommendations to the city.

That last word lies with the city Planning and Development Services office.

Jerry Todd, public information manager for the PDS office, said the best way for building owners to avoid a conflict is to check in with the city throughout any project. He admitted that no guidelines are given to new owners in downtown after a building is sold, but he said most contractors should know the system.

"The city has jurisdiction over these issues, but following the standards for downtown set up by CCDC," he said.

But even when approved, the project has to be coordinated with ACHD to make sure safety standards are met.

"I can understand the confusion," Todd said.

"For a state that doesn't like government, we have a lot of it," Kushlan said with a laugh.

CCDC is currently dealing with its own bureaucratic headache as it tries to come to an understanding of just how wide the paved portion of a sidewalk has to be in areas with sidewalk cafes.

That figuring gets more fun when planners are forced to consider that the grates around trees can't be counted as travel surface.

"It's all very complicated," Kushlan said.

In general, Kushlan said the various agencies work well together, but having so many players involved in the decision-making process can be a challenge for property owners.

This was Hurless' problem, as he attempted to organize the different parties involved in his project.

"The biggest frustration for me was the rigamarole," Hurless said.

To complete his original plan, Hurless would have needed an architect, an electrician, an irrigation specialist and a concrete contractor, as well as consultations with the city forester, planning department, CCDC and ACHD.

Then came the process of purchasing the approved trees, tree grates and light poles, and then making sure the whole project met ADA standards.

"Everyone's busy," he said. "You've got to get everyone together on one project at one time. Getting their full attention is hard, they have 14,000 projects going on."

It might be complicated, but those with determination can make it through the process.

Freeman is still working on a final solution for her landscaping woes—one that will meet her goals while appeasing the city.

But it's not over yet.

Just remember, once the sidewalks are finished, business owners in downtown have yet another group to deal with—The Downtown Boise Association, which is responsible for general maintenance.