At 5:55 p.m. on Oct. 4, a line of Boise city Planning and Zoning commissioners shuffled to their seats as they do every week, some with Chinese take-out boxes balanced precariously on their laptops. Committee Chair Doug Russell breezed through the first 12 items on the agenda with relative ease. But after most of the crowded room had cleared, a dozen or so folks remained to tackle the remaining items: three requests on behalf of natural foods grocery giant Whole Foods.
The first was to rezone a 5.6-acre plot at one of the busiest intersections in Boise--the vacant triangle bordered by Broadway Avenue and Front and Myrtle streets--from R-ODD (residential office with downtown design review) to C-4DD (planned commercial with downtown design review). The second request was for a conditional use permit, and the third was a variance request regarding surface parking.
In 2007, Schlosser Development of Austin, Texas, had received approval from Planning and Zoning to construct a similar, though much more ambitious, project in the same spot. These previous plans included a 17-story residential and hotel component, along with ground level retail and structured parking. But after the economic collapse, Schlosser went back to the drafting table.
The new plans, as presented on Oct. 4 by Schlosser's Rick Duggan and Brad Schlosser, split the project into two phases. The first phase would include a two-story, 35,000-square-foot grocery store with street level parking and a drive thru, and a second 15,000-square-foot building to house another retailer. The second phase would potentially include more mixed-use structures, like a hotel with a restaurant, retail and residential space, and structured parking.
Prior to the Oct. 4 meeting, Planning and Zoning's own staff recommended approving the rezone and the Conditional Use Permit but denying the variance request. On the other hand, Capital City Development Corporation expressed overall unease about the project's low-density, big-box design, lack of pedestrian friendliness and the visible surface parking lot in front of the building--all of which go against the River-Myrtle master plan for the area.
"I think, as we've told the developer all along, we were in favor of considerably more density on the site than they were proposing, and in fact, we supported the previous iteration that they went through, and we were prepared to do that again," said CCDC Executive Director Phil Kushlan. "But with the fact that there was really no mechanism to assure that second phase--more density--being provided, we weren't in a position of being able to support the proposal as it was."
Schlosser, who has been working on the project for five years, detailed his company's desire to move forward with phase one, unchanged. He explained that Whole Foods requires traditional surface parking directly in front of the store's primary entrance and compared the Boise project to the flagship Whole Foods location in downtown Austin, which successfully incorporates those same design and parking elements. This project, he emphasized, is an opportunity for Boise to "salvage fallow downtown property."
"The fact of the matter is, we'd like to build what we showed you in 2007, but the market did not bear out to build that project," said Schlosser. "In fact, on the way over here we discussed that had we gone forward, it would've been a fatal flaw for our office. We simply can't afford to make mistakes. Fortunately, we did not proceed to build that project. We are back here in front of your commission--and in front of the City Council, subsequently--hat in hand to ask you to give us what you gave us [in 2007] except with the understanding that with this round, the world has changed. We require now that projects are phased."
After Planning and Zoning closed public debate on the issue, commission member Anne Barker made a motion, seconded by vice-chair Brandy Wilson, to deny the request for a rezone of the property. At this point, Duggan and Schlosser visibly slumped in their chairs.
"What I see here is a design that is entirely driven by tenant requirements and is not based upon what the city envisions for its downtown redevelopment," explained Barker. "For example, this proposal does not include missing services and amenities that we would want to see in the neighborhood, it is not a high-quality urban design, it certainly is suburban in its design. It is a strict commercial development; it is a big-box design."
Commission member Jennifer Stevens added that she doesn't want our community to be seen as obstructionist to the project--which would bring approximately 225 permanent jobs to the area--explaining that the city's vision for the area is not congruous with what Schlosser presented.
"I think that what CCDC has made very clear in their comments is that we have a different vision for the city in this spot, and this is an opportunity for Whole Foods to capture the pedestrians from Boise State, the pedestrians from the Washington Plaza and the [Ada County] Courthouse, and what we see in front of us is not a pedestrian-friendly environment," said Stevens.
The committee voted 5-2 to deny the rezone, with Russell and commission member Jay Story supporting the rezone. Though most members expressed personal desires to have Whole Foods in Boise, they ultimately couldn't approve the project as presented. Wilson made a motion to deny approval of the CUP "with a very heavy heart," which passed unanimously.
Planning and Zoning's recommendations will now go before the City Council, which will vote on the project soon. After that point, Schlosser Development can appeal the city's decision or wait one year before submitting the project to Planning and Zoning again. But should they drastically revise the project before that time, they won't have to wait a year.
"My guess is that they seem to be on a fairly aggressive time schedule because they were trying to get the floor-planning and zoning done quickly as opposed to spending some more time with city staff and others to work out some of the issues," said Kushlan. "That suggests that they may be on a tight time frame that an appeal would be a problem for."
Calls to Schlosser Development inquiring about the future of the project went unreturned.