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Architects’ 1985 study set the stage for Boise’s downtown

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Eighth Street in downtown Boise. Photo by Brad Iverson-Long.

Eighth Street in downtown Boise. Photo by Brad Iverson-Long.

When Portland, Ore. urban planner and civic designer Paddy Tillett arrived in Boise in 1986, he found a downtown that had faced the worst of urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. The city had cleared a space bordered by Capitol Boulevard, Front Street, and Main Street for a mall that was never built, leaving a huge gravel parking lot at its center with a scattering of office buildings.

“The only building was the very suburban-looking U.S. Bank building,” said Tillet. “It was really a no-man’s land.”

Tillett was part of a team hired to help recreate a vibrant downtown in that empty space and around it.  City leaders had commissioned a study the year before that became the template for the work done then, and for the busy downtown core that exists now. The 1985 study came from the American Institute of Architect’s Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team, or R/UDAT.  Its recommendations opened:

“Boise is a city in search of its identity, sense of place and purpose. It is a city with parking lots where a vibrant business, entertainment and residential core – its ‘heart’ – should be.” The team of architects pledged to build a better Boise, “renewing a sense of civic pride” in Idaho’s capital city. They focused on an eight-block area at the city’s core, but their study also IBR013015_Layout 1outlined how work on that core could integrate the advantages of the entire downtown area.

Thirty years later, the results of that team’s work can be seen in the busy car, foot and bicycle traffic downtown and in the local retail, offices and restaurants that fill the core.

The infusion of energy into the downtown core helped the area east of the core flourish as well, leading to the more recent construction of the Ada County Courthouse  low-income housing and the University of Idaho Water Center. Just west of the core, the Banner Bank tower was built in 2006, the historic Owyhee Hotel was remodeled for offices and apartments in 2014, and the Simplot family’s JUMP project and a new Simplot corporate headquarters were under development this year.

Thirty years ago, the Boise City Council hired Portland architectural firm, Zimmer-Gunsul-Frasca (ZGF Architects), where Tillett still works, to bring the recommendations in the R/UDAT study to fruition. Another R/UDAT study had resulted in the Pearl District, Portland’s successful conversion of warehouses, light industry and rail yards into upscale shopping, dining and living.

“That was the trigger,” said Tillett, an architect who also worked on the Boise State University Master Plan. “The R/UDAT was very good, very clear. One thing it talked about was connecting downtown (Boise) to the river.”

R/UDAT called for mixed-use, urban density and a pedestrian-oriented approach, with lively streets oriented toward human uses and a focus on Eighth Street as the heart of the shopping area. The team prescribed a downtown business organization, and the city created the Downtown Boise Association in 1987.

ZGF followed the recommendations of the R/UDAT study closely, Tillet said. The firm directed some of its efforts toward the block to the north of the empty space, known as Block 44. It had been spared the urban renewal wrecking ball, and today the block enclosed by Eighth, Bannock, Ninth, and Idaho Streets is a showcase for local retail.

About Teya Vitu

Teya Vitu is an Idaho Business Review reporter, covering commercial real estate, construction, transportation and whatever else may intrigue him in the moment. Join me on Twitter at @IBR_TeyaVitu.