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

The modern downtown gained a foothold 30 years ago because the retailers who remained at the time were convinced not to flee to the suburbs, Tillett said.

“They knew they were on the way out,” Tillett said. “We got them together. Why don’t you coordinate your opening hours? Stay open late one evening a week?”

Small retailers would eventually become downtown’s entire retail presence. Department store JC Penney ended its century-long tenure in 1988, and The Mode shut down in 1991. Bon Marche became a Macy’s in 2004, but eventually was the last downtown Boise department store to leave when it closed its doors in 2010.

Tillett also credited long-time Bogus Basin general manager Bob Loughrey for starting the Alive After Five concert series in 1987, an important catalyst for a new way of looking at the downtown area.

“People thought no one would go,” he said. “The first one got 800 people, the second one 1,200 people.”

Tillett and his partners also talked to restaurant owners about staying open later on Wednesdays. They tried it, and diners came.

“It was sort of a morale booster to keep them where they were. It was a renewal effort that wasn’t physical,” he said.

One of the central tenets of the R/UDAT study was redesigning Eighth Street to make it the primary pedestrian connection between the Idaho Statehouse and the Boise River. The Capital City Development Corp.,  Boise’s downtown redevelopment agency charged with investing public funds to revitalize defined business and residential districts, now owns Eighth Street from Bannock to Front streets. The tell-tale clue is the blue rather than green street signs, which indicates that a street does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Ada County Highway District.

ZGF redesigned Eighth Street with wider sidewalks between Bannock Street and River Road. The Bannock-to-Grove Plaza segment became the thoroughfare for the Capital City Farmer’s Market in 1994, downtown’s largest weekly gathering of people for most of the year. R/UDAT had also recommended replacing surface parking lots with parking garages. CCDC has since built six public garages with 2,561 spaces through 2006.

Eighth Street’s Capitol Terrace parking garage was designed to adhere to the R/UDAT recommendations, with restaurants on the  upper level and retail at the street level.

“You can’t have an inactive building frontage on 8th Street,” Tillett said. “There really had to be lots of activity at street level.”

Tillett has returned regularly to Boise over the past 30 years.

“It’s come so far. I was there a few weeks ago,” Tillett said in mid-October. “I was watching people promenading. People were riding bikes. (Back in the 1980s), I got withering looks. ‘You’re not from here. Nobody’s going to sit outside.’ These tables were absolutely crammed with people (in 2014). I thought of the scads of bicycles I saw.”


Parking garages are a pillar of the modern downtown
Phil Kushlan, executive director of the Capital City Development Corp. from 1999 to 2011, labels parking garages as one of the four pillars of the modern downtown. Garages by no means have the same public appeal as the Grove Plaza, the restaurant/retail frontage on Eighth Street or downtown living. But none of those would have been feasible without the CCDC garages, he said. The first to go up was the Capitol Terrace Garage, which was built in 1988. It didn’t go over well.“People said ‘nobody’s going to use that garage’ and they didn’t for the first six months,” Kushlan said.But then the garage caught on, as did the Eastman, Boulevard, City Centre and Myrtle garages when they were built from 1990 to 2006. CCDC has lured parkers with a free first hour.


The establishment of the Basque Block
Later on, once Kushlan came on board as CCDC boss, the first thing he turned his attention to was the Basque Block, which had not achieved its present decorative streetscape yet in 1999.“There was this concept of building a festival street,” Kushlan said. “It was half completed. It needed a champion.”CCDC, the city, the Ada County Highway District and the Basque community collaborated in 2002 to renovate Grove Street with street pavement displays, light posts, and sidewalks etched with Basque song lyrics and surnames of local families.“Nobody has had a bad word to say about it,” Kushlan said. “It gave downtown another gathering space and a cultural identity. This put the Basque culture out there in a public way and that is a big deal.”


Parking regulations shape the environment
Cities across the country have come to cripple their downtowns with parking requirements that don’t differ much from suburbia to downtown, that is, businesses must provide a certain number of parking spaces per business square footage. Typically, general commercial in Boise has to provide one parking space per 250 square feet of gross floor area.CCDC and the city combated this with parking reduction overlay zones: Buildings within 300 feet of a public parking garage have to provide no parking spaces – a “100 percent reduction in code required parking.”  This includes everything between Fifth and 11th streets and from Jefferson street to roughly Julia Davis Park-Battery-Myrtle plus the Front Street corridor from the Ada County Courthouse to the Idaho Water Center.This freed all businesses within the zone from having to scramble to find dedicated parking spaces to open a downtown business, a huge incentive to convince businesses to take a chance on a downtown in the early stages of rebuilding, Kushlan said.


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.