Dr. Kevin Cahill is a charts-and-graphs kind of guy. The senior economist and managing director of ECONorthwest, Cahill has been awarded a teaching excellence award from Boston College and authored scores of academic and professional papers. He recently sat before Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and the Boise City Council, who had just cracked opened Cahill's latest publication: "Proposal for the 'Boise Competes' Project." To be sure, the paper includes numerous graphs, maps and detailed tasks. But Cahill was in a quandary over what to put on the cover of the document.
"I did what every economist does: I Googled 'economic development'," he said.
As any layperson would find if they performed the same Google search, hundreds of images—mostly dollar signs and pie charts—popped up on Cahill's computer screen.
"But I had to step back and think for a moment. My wife and I moved to Boise because it's a great place for our family," he said, pausing for a moment while public officials took a good look at the cover photo. "These are my two boys, Aidan and Daniel. Yes, I'm an economist, but this is what it's all about for me."
The snapshot is similar to any of hundreds of images in a typical Boise family photo album: children walking across the Boise Foothills with a clear blue sky hanging over the Treasure Valley. Thousands of homes and a handful of downtown towers dot the landscape, but the forefront of the photo is defined by children in search of a safe but adventurous path.
"That's perfect," said Bieter.
Cahill quickly put his economist hat back on and presented his plan to help Boise better measure its economic competitiveness. In particular, the analysis will measure Boise against benchmark cities—regional cities such as Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City, Seattle and Spokane, Wash.—and "economic peer" cities such as Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo. Indicators would include employment, income distribution, educational attainment, entrepreneurship, transportation and demographics.
"We're not trying to make Boise into any other city," added Nic Miller, Boise's new economic development director. "But we are trying to make Boise the best Boise it can be."
The Boise Competes analysis was one item on a Christmas wishlist put before the Council—some more far-reaching than others. Some of the wishes fall into the "I want a pony for Christmas" category, while others are expected to be greenlit sooner than later.
A New Life for Central Addition
For the record, Boise Weekly has a vested interest in the city's plans for a so-called "LIV" district in the city's Central Addition neighborhood. Framed by Front and Myrtle streets, and book-ended by Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, the area includes Broad Street, where BW is headquartered. Once upon a time, Boise and other cities dubbed such proposals "ecodistricts" in an effort to accelerate neighborhood-scale sustainability. But Boise officials want to drop the "ecodistrict" moniker in favor of its own new brand: LIV, or "Lasting, Innovative, Vibrant." The city has even adopted a new green-colored LIV brand, which will, no doubt, begin popping up on a lot of city-sponsored initiatives.
Boise's sustainability efforts go back to the turn of the century, starting with public support for the 2001 Open Space Foothills Levy, which preserved large swaths of land in the Foothills. In 2006, Boise became the first city in Idaho to adopt the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement; in 2009 the city rolled out its now-routine Curb It recycling program; and in 2013, Boise began bundling several sustainability initiatives and tying them to general funds (BW, News, "A Sustainable Boise," May 29, 2013).
"It's part of our city's marrow," Bieter said at the time.
Perhaps the most tangible example of that marrow could soon extend to the Central Addition.
The elements of a Central Addition LIV District include public infrastructure (i.e., energy and stormwater upgrades), mobility (with particular emphasis on the neighborhood's walkability), placemaking (more on that in a bit) and housing.
The latter is the Central Addition's most visible challenge.
The corridor between Broadway Avenue and BoDo, bounded by Front and Myrtle streets, has seen significant degradation—particularly in its housing stock, platted in 1890 and once one of the city's most prestigious areas. In September 2013, The Blue Review's Andrew Crisp (a former BW staffer) wrote the eulogy, "Central Attrition: Boise Neighborhood Left for Dead," lamenting the fact that there were only 10 historic homes left in the area. Since then, two more disappeared, demolished after fire swept through one relic and damaged another.
The key to saving any of the homes has not necessarily been finding someone who wants to save the residence; it's where to put it. Moving a historic home is one thing; purchasing an appropriate parcel of land and renovating the structure is monumental. Boise Planning and Development Director Derick O'Neill unveiled one innovative proposal that could offer a lifeline that until now hasn't been seen: The city could save at least one of the homes and partner to save even more, if not all of the rest.
The proposal could earmark as much as $400,000 to completely relocate and rehabilitate one of the historic homes—relocation would cost $40,000-$50,000, a new foundation would cost $10,000-$25,000, other costs could run to $20,000-$35,000 and rehabilitation would cost $200,000-$266,000. Simply put, the city would be the proud owner of a rescued and entirely rehabilitated historic landmark. The same proposal could divvy up the $400,000 to partner with other interests to relocate a number of structures, with rehabilitation costs being carried by other partners.
The city's Master Plan for the Central Addition Neighborhood anticipates development of "dense urban housing that will bring the Central Addition to completion as a true vibrant and diverse sub district." Translation: big changes in housing. One proposal looks to energize the neighborhood in four unique phases, each bringing in mixed-use development (brownstones, condos and apartments) and retail and office space.
"We're talking about creating a neighborhood core," said O'Neill. "If we do this right, it clearly attracts other projects."
O'Neill then pointed to the intersection of Fifth and Broad streets, where his map was marked with a huge green circle in the middle of the pavement.
"This is part of our placemaking proposal," he said, referring to a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood core. "We're going to look at Broad Street as much more than just a vehicle corridor. We see Broad as a highly active pedestrian and cyclist pathway. Think of it a little like the Basque Block; not exactly like it, but something that is much more than a street where we'll integrate the neighborhood, housing and businesses."
Another big part of the plan would be to make the Central Addition a lot more mobile than it is. Anyone who travels to the area knows that high-speed Front and Myrtle streets make the neighborhood unfriendly to bicyclists and pedestrians. One of the proposals would add a new pedestrian pathway to and from Julia Davis Park on Fifth Street. Additionally, the Ada County Highway District's plans to convert Fifth Street from one-way to two-way traffic, and a proposal to add more traffic signals to Myrtle, should yield more safety for pedestrians.
O'Neill doesn't want to wait too long as possible developers eyeball the proposed changes. His department, along with Public Works, has already launched upgrades to the neighborhood's public infrastructure.
"Two of the projects have already been initiated," said Public Works Director Neal Oldemeyer. "The Central Addition was chosen for the LIV District because we already have projects either occurring or planned."
In particular, Oldemeyer pointed to an expansion of the city's geothermal system—the largest direct-use system of its kind in the nation. Currently, Public Works administers energy efficient heat to more than 65 businesses in the city's downtown core. Additionally, Oldemeyer referred to the city's stormwater initiatives, in which Boise is partnering with ACHD and private developers to create more brick-based walkways and parking areas. The brick surfaces create greener stormwater runoffs than concrete or asphalt, where stormwater streams pick up many pollutants and sediments.
"Ultimately, with these public changes to the neighborhood, private changes could be turn-key," said O'Neill. "Most importantly, where a single project would take as much as five years to make their way through city of Boise and Capital City Development Corporation planning and approval, we're talking about 12 to 24 months."
O'Neill said he was already putting the finishing touches on a proposal to put before CCDC commissioners in mid-December.
"This is a very quick, fast-paced project," he said.
Through the course of about four hours, the Boise City Council and Mayor Bieter had a half-dozen officials, representing new fire stations and a possible new main branch of the public library, unveil their own plans or vision of what Boise might look like in 20 years—around about the time that Aidan and Daniel Cahill are taxpayers.