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Under the Radar: The Idaho Legislature Looks to Dismantle Design Review

"It would have a major impact on property values. You'll be more hesitant on buying a piece of property because you'll never know what could go up next door."


Anyone curious as to what passes for a design review at the Idaho Legislature might want to take a look at the block-long slab of concrete passing as a half-finished parking garage a stone's throw from the Statehouse. The 2013 Legislature muscled through its plans for an un-historic parking ramp in one of the city's most treasured districts, supplanting two historic dwellings along the way.

Not content with last year's thumb-of-the-nose to the city of Boise, members of the 2014 Idaho Legislature now have a design of their own: further tightening the leash on design review, making commercial building design review mostly voluntary.

During a Feb. 24 debate on the floor of the Idaho House, Boise Democratic Rep. Mat Erpelding repeatedly questioned the sponsor of this year's bill--Hayden Republican Rep. Ed Morse--if Morse could provide any specific example of a property that had previously been restricted by design review. And that's when Morse resurrected the 2013 debate over the Legislature's pet project, that still-under-construction parking garage, which caused Boise's Design Review and Planning and Zoning commissions to rule that the structure was "incompatible with the surrounding area."

"We had an example just last year with the state parking garage," Morse reminded his Idaho House colleagues.

What Morse forgot to remind lawmakers was that the Legislature overrode Boise and moved forward with its garage anyway.

"This seems to be directed toward the city in which I live, and the city I'm proud of," said Erpelding. "It's underhanded."

But House Bill 480, which has received scant media coverage, is currently gliding through the Legislature--having already been approved by the Idaho House 50-17 and now on its way to the Senate for its consideration.

"This bill took off like it was on fire," said K.K. Lipsey, business development director for CSHQA architects and engineers."But this bill is still under the radar because there are so many other controversial issues this year."

It's not as if the bill hasn't met opposition.

"This is bad business," Boise architect Andy Erstad told the House Local Government Committee Feb. 18. "The state shouldn't be in the role of dictating to cities what to do."

But Morse powered his bill through anyway, telling his House colleagues that he was advocating for individual property owners who had suffered "major impairments" by design review requirements.

But many of the men and women who make up the Idaho Legislature come from areas of the Gem State where design review is a rarity.

"Quite honestly, many of these legislators come from Idaho's rural communities and can't imagine what it's like to manage urban-ness," Lipsey told Boise Weekly. "Zoning is like a crazy quilt and you might have residential right next commercial and not even know it."

In fact, Lipsey said property owners have the most to lose here.

"If this bill becomes law, it would have a major impact on property values. You'll be more hesitant on buying a piece of property because you'll never know what could go up next door," she said.

Nampa Republican Rep. Robert Anderst, a commercial real estate broker and co-sponsor of HB 480, argues that there "needs to be greater trust" in those commercial developers who might build something next door.

"Will we like every building that is built? Maybe not," wrote Anderst in a Feb. 28 op-ed to the Idaho Press-Tribune."We know, however, that the buildings will be safe, functional and in a compatible location."

But Lipsey told BW that Anderst's own district is a prime example of why design review is imperative.

"Take a drive to Nampa and see what happened; they didn't have design review until about a decade ago," said Lipsey. "Not to pick on Nampa, but they didn't have anyone to manage what could be built until recently."

Lipsey conceded that design review isn't always the easiest obstacle course for an architect or developer to negotiate.

"You bet; design review can be challenging, but you wouldn't have wanted standard operating procedures on a lot of projects like JUMP or Whole Foods," she said.

Lipsey should know. Boise-based CSHQA has helped design and build Whole Foods markets throughout the food store's Rocky Mountain region.

"Take our Boise location for example," said Lipsey. "It's a gateway location. But what a lot of people don't know is that if [the accompanying] Walgreens store had simply plunked down one of its standard locations on that corner, motorists on Broadway would have been looking at a loading dock and the back end of a building. That's unacceptable. But our architects worked hand-in-hand with the city of Boise's design review to make the entire 360-degrees of Walgreens and Whole Foods aesthetically attractive. You just don't let anything be built anywhere."

But unless Idaho lawmakers listen to more debate from architects and city planners, HB 480 could be the law of the land.

"The Legislature is probably looking at these architects as some kind of bow-tied professionals who think they're smarter," said Lipsey. "But on this, they are smarter and they know what they're talking about."