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Healthy downtown key to Boise’s overall vibrancy

Downtown Boise. Photo by Steve Martin

Downtown Boise. Photo by Steve Martin

Boise’s downtown is doing a lot right, but its leaders must continue to take note of what others are doing to climb out of the recession pit.

“Healthy cities have healthy downtowns,” said Charles Royer, former mayor of Seattle, and director of the Seattle Institute. “I don’t know of a city who can say they are healthy and vibrant with a crumby downtown.”

Royer, who was speaking April 22 during the Downtown Boise Association‘s annual State of Downtown event, pointed out national trends in metropolitan downtowns. More than 200 people joined in applause to agree that there are great things going on in Boise.

“It’s more than about revenue, it’s about city pride,” Royer said.

He noted that the biggest trend he sees is the reinvention and reorganization of downtowns.

“I have learned that these areas have to be rescued and reinvented,” Royer said. “We had a big hole [in Seattle’s] downtown and we’d argued about it for years and years, and we finally filled it. It was great. It kept our three department stores in business. And the mayor who followed me had to reinvent downtown, as did the mayor who followed him.”

Royer, a former television reporter, served as mayor of Seattle from 1978 to 1990. After serving as mayor of Seattle, Royer became the director of the Harvard Institute of Politics. Since his departure from Seattle, he has held various positions in state and federal government for numerous years and has been a volunteer in community activities.

“Another trend I’ve learned about cities is they have their own culture and their own values,” he said.

Despite having similarly franchised businesses in downtown, each city has its set values and identities that transcend them. Seattle has its waterfront that is becoming a cultural mark. Boise, he insisted, has the river, foothills, close-in wilderness, and wonderfully appealing neighborhoods, and a strong civic culture as positives incentives for continued success.

“Value systems that run deeper than the sameness – that seems to argue against their uniqueness,” he said. “If you don’t work on it, you can lose the uniqueness.”

By continually working on identifying the downtown structure, Boise can maintain its position as the place to go.

Aside from its good qualities, Royer directed the audience’s attention to consider three new trends: Downtown living, transportation and local-control.

He said nationally downtowns that have a strong live-work atmosphere are showing quicker signs of recovery. Development of housing, while it is taking place, begins with the city’s ability to determine control of its planning and zoning.

Most cities that have control of their footprints have mechanisms to develop within its boundaries. Cooperation with associated governing entities is encouraged, but downtowns must be locally-controlled. Density of a community and being able to move about the downtown is vital.

Transportation – mass transit, autos and pedestrian – should be central in the planning.

“Is sprawl real or not? Is unmanaged growth real or not? Are unhealthy outcomes for people who don’t walk or are stuck in a car real or not?” he asked. “These are things that have to be considered.”

As part of the event, Karen Sander, DBA executive director, reported that 52 new businesses opened their doors in downtown in the last year. “Hopefully, that shows we’re on the path to recovery,” she said.

In the 60-block area of the district, the downtown ended up with about a 5 percent first quarter vacancy rate in commercial/retail real estate.

Regional transportation and downtown living continue to be seen as requisite for the downtown’s vibrancy, she said.

“We serve on a number of boards and committees to make certain the downtown residents and businesses are heard,” Sander said.

Judy Peavey-Derr, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said a board of directors was elected in July 2009 as part of becoming organized.

The DNA in Boise exists to create a quality living situation in downtown, which can help improve the downtown experience.

The recent anti-graffiti art action, paid for and approved by DBA, has taken tagging, posters and stickers from the downtown, and improved the living conditions of downtown, she said.

About Robb Hicken