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Twilight Approaches: The Sunset of Boise's Central District

"There's a strong likelihood that we'll be turning over ownership of the Grove Plaza and that stretch of Eighth Street to the city of Boise."

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Take a mental picture of Boise's central core. Compare it to the downtown landscape only a few years ago, and the change is dramatic. Compare it to a couple of generations ago, when downtown Boise was teetering on ruin, and the contrast is astounding.

The engine for what became known as the Central District—the first urban renewal district in the history of Idaho—has been the Capital City Development Corporation, once known as the Boise Redevelopment Agency. The Central District, however, is about to run out of steam—or, to be more accurate, money—when it is legally terminated in 2018.

CCDC
  • CCDC

"The term we use is 'sunset.' It sounds better than termination," said CCDC Executive Director John Brunelle.

And that mental picture? It's a pretty good bet the current footprint of downtown Boise will remain for decades to come. With the dissolution of the urban renewal district comes the evaporation of tens of millions of dollars that have helped fuel downtown's massive redevelopment, which has included high-profile projects like One Capital Center (1975); Boise City Hall (1977); Idaho First National Bank, now the U.S. Bank Building (1979); The Grove Plaza (1987); The Wells Fargo Center (1988); The Capitol Plaza Building, now The Chase Building (1995); The Grove Hotel and Bank of America Center, now CenturyLink Arena (1998); The Eighth and Main Building (2014); and the City Center Plaza Project and renovation of the Grove Plaza, scheduled for completion in June 2017.

However, groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings weren't nearly as abundant in Boise as demolitions were in the latter part of the 20th century.

'Tearing Down Boise'

L.J. Davis penned a scathing article, titled "Tearing Down Boise" in the November 1974 edition of Harper's magazine, chronicling what he foresaw as the pending demise of Boise. Having grown up in the City of Trees in the years following World War II, Davis returned to his hometown and quickly concluded it was doomed.

"It is dying for the same reason so many other small American cities are dying, have died, or will shortly begin to die: an overdose of a fatal witches' brew composed of automobiles, greed, bad planning, good intentions, idiotic architecture and civic pride run wild," wrote Davis. "Downtown Boise gives the impression that it has recently been visited by an exceedingly tidy bombing raid conducted by planes that clean up after themselves. Main Street is virtually deserted."

In the mid 1970s and into the early '80s, construction cranes didn't tower over downtown Boise, wrecking balls did.

"Let's face it. Most of these old buildings are junk piles," then-Boise Redevelopment Agency Chairman W. Carroll Sellars told Davis in 1974. "We're not tearing down a damn thing that's worth anything."

At the time, the BRA, Boise's first incarnation of an urban renewal agency, wasn't really in the business of building much of anything. Rather, it was an active partner in the demolition business.

"Buildings were razed," said Todd Bunderson, current CCDC development director, looking back at a decades-old map of downtown Boise. "The conventional wisdom at the time was that a downtown mall would rescue the core of the city."

By 1974, more than a few Boise leaders had agreed with some developers that the downtown mall probably would save the city. Buried deep in the archives of the Albertson Library at Boise State University is the "Central District Development Guide," published by the BRA, which was then-chaired by former two-term Boise Mayor and then-president of KBOI television and radio Henry Westerman ("H.W.") Whillock.

"The twelve-block area west of Capitol and bounded by Front and Bannock should be redeveloped and upgraded as a regional shopping center," read the guide.

Planners envisioned 800,000 square feet of retail space to be the centerpiece of a downtown mall and, by the early 1970s, the plans included the demolition of the Eastman Building and the Egyptian Theatre (known then as the Ada Theatre). The Eastman Building burned to the ground in 1987, thus creating the "Boise Hole," and efforts to tear down the Egyptian sparked a historic preservation duel.

According to local legend, wives of then-members of the BRA were fans of organ concerts at the Ada Theatre and they did some arm-twisting to see that the agency would sell the theater to local businessman Earl Hardy. Renovation of the landmark and newly-renamed "Egyptian" followed.

"Prevailing wisdom was changing and so was leadership," said Bunderson. "And that downtown mall? Well, as we know, it went way out west."

Well, not too "way out." The construction of what would become the Boise Towne Square Mall at Cole and Franklin roads began in December 1986, thus burying the idea of a downtown mall for good.

'A New Vision and a New Approach'

"In 1986, things began to take a turn, thanks in large part to then-Mayor Dirk Kempthorne and Pete O'Neill," said Brunelle.

Kempthorne would in the following years serve in the U.S. Congress, become governor of Idaho and, eventually, U.S. secretary of the interior under President George W. Bush. O'Neill, a legendary Boise planner, would become chairman of the BRA in the mid-'80s. (O'Neill also happens to be the father of Derrick O'Neill, the current Planning and Development director for the city of Boise).

"Kempthorne and O'Neill were visionaries and said 'Let's get to work," Brunelle said. "They reimagined Boise's downtown."

Soon thereafter, a study of downtown Boise conducted by the American Institute of Architects concluded the city's future should never have included a downtown mall. Rather, the downtown grid had to be understood as a fabric of mixed uses.

"In 1985, I had just moved back to Boise from the Portland area," said Brunelle, who later became general manager of the Idaho Stampede basketball team, director of the Boise city Office of Economic Development and take the reins of CCDC in June 2013. "But it was in 1985 that the BRA evolved into the CCDC, with a new vision and a new approach to urban development. I think things were getting pretty interesting again."

Boise architect Neil Hosford stepped forward in 1988 with one of the first game-changers.

"Neil walked into CCDC with a crazy design that we now know as the Capital Terrace. In its time, it was a wild, crazy design," said Brunelle. "And a number of things followed. For example, The Mode building was renovated that same year."

The late '80s was a busy time for CCDC and Boise. Within a decade of establishing the 10-square-block Central District in 1987, CCDC began using property and improvement tax revenues to help fuel the construction of the Grove Hotel and Bank of America Center and Wells Fargo Center Building; renovate the Boise City National Bank Building (now known as the Simplot Building); renovate the Mode, Key Financial Center, W.E. Pierce (also known as the Idaho Building) and Broadbent buildings; build the Capitol, Eastman and Ninth Street parking garages; and CCDC's highest-profile project, the purchase and construction of the Grove Plaza and Boise Centre on the Grove.

The post-recession 21st century has been particularly kind to the CCDC and downtown core, beginning with the transformation of the "Boise Hole" into the Eighth and Main tower in 2014 and the recent opening of City Center Plaza, complete with a renovated U.S. Bank Building, the new Clearwater Building and a downtown transit center.

"And we're redoing the Grove Plaza right now. It'll be ready by June for next summer's Alive After Five," said Brunelle. "I guess you're never really quite done."

Sunrise, Sunset

That said, the Central District will be "quite done" on Dec. 31, 2017, the legal sunset date for Boise's first urban renewal district. More importantly, that's the day local taxes earmarked for CCDC will stop being collected. There will be some distribution of those revenues in 2018 but the taxing district will be no more.

The so-called Central District Sunset Working Group has been meeting for months on the issue of shutting down the district. Among its highest priorities is making certain the last big projects are funded and well under way—if not completed—by the end date. The Grove Plaza renovation is near the top of the list.

"But another big project that should come right under the wire of the sunset will be the renovation of the front plaza of Boise City Hall," said Brunelle. "We're hoping to complete that before we exit."

When CCDC closes the books on the Central District, the agency will have some parting gifts.

CCDC currently owns the much-coveted Grove Plaza and a two-block stretch of Eighth between Main and Bannock streets. That's why CCDC is the current landlord for the Capital City Public Market, which fills the Eighth Street corridor each Saturday through much of the year.

"So, here's a bit of news that I don't think anyone knows about," said Brunelle. "Now, this still has to have full approval from the CCDC board and all of the appropriate parties, but there's a strong likelihood that we'll be turning over ownership of the Grove Plaza and that stretch of Eighth Street to the city of Boise. The idea is to get Eighth Street and the Grove Plaza in tip-top condition and allow the city take ownership."

That should please Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who has been referred to (half in jest) as el alcalde sin calles, which, translated from Basque, is "the mayor without streets." The reason for the moniker is that Boise streets are governed by the elected Ada County Highway District, much to Bieter's chagrin.

"But I'll be more than proud to be the guy to hand Mayor Bieter his first street, when the Central District sunsets," said Brunelle.

Bieter laughed when asked about the possibility of being "the mayor with one street," or at least a couple of blocks.

"Well, you have to start somewhere," he said. "You know, I was just enjoying Eighth Street last night, sitting outside having a meal, in November no less. It was fantastic. That stretch of Eighth Street has been so important, so successful."

As expected, Bieter gave high marks to the creation of the Central District for sparking the resurgence of downtown Boise but, unexpectedly, added it was important the district soon expire.

"Without that catalyst, I think it's fair to say that there's no way we would have the vibrancy we have," said Bieter. "But it's also important that the Central District go away. [Urban renewal districts] shouldn't be permanent entitles."

Bieter said he recalls a strikingly different downtown Boise, not long before creation of the Central District in the late '80s.

"There used to be a T-shirt that read: 'Boise at Night.' It was a big black rectangle. Nothing was there," he said. "I'm not sure people have an appreciation, especially if you weren't here in the '70s and '80s, for what the Central District has meant for Boise."

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