Famed urbanist: Boise must plan now for the perils that come with success

Sharon Fisher//March 8, 2018

Famed urbanist: Boise must plan now for the perils that come with success

Sharon Fisher//March 8, 2018

The newly completed 200,000-square-foot Clearwater Analytics building in downtown Boise. A tech corridor of sorts is forming on Eighth Street, which runs through the center of the downtown. Photo by Pete Grady.
The 200,000-square-foot Clearwater Analytics building, which was completed in 2016 in downtown Boise. A tech corridor of sorts is forming on Eighth Street, which runs through the center of the downtown. File photo.

While Boise has been a great example of the rise of the creative class, the city needs to act now to avoid excluding all but the most financially successful workers, says Richard Florida, the author who coined the term in his seminal book.

Florida spoke at the Idaho Housing and Finance Association’s Conference on Housing and Economic Development in Boise on March 6. He last spoke in Boise about 15 years ago, soon after his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class was released.

Florida said then that creating an environment that attracts knowledge workers could re-invigorate cities. The book brought fame to Florida, who teaches at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

“None of us could have predicted the ferocity and velocity of urban revival and movement of people to these cities,” Florida said at the conference. The result of the rise of the creative class was that lower income people were pushed out, a “big sort” moved the wealthy to the city centers, Florida said. While the creative class is doing well, blue-collar workers are being thrown out of work. Blue-collar service workers are trying to survive on low incomes and multiple jobs.

The result is a new urban crisis, the subject of Florida’s latest book. “It’s a crisis of success,” he said, because those cities that succeeded in nurturing the creative class are no longer accessible to everyone. Boise is luckier than many cities because it only ranks in the 150-250 range by most of his measures of urban crisis – the worst being wage inequality, in which Boise ranks 73rd.

Cities need to work with “anchor institutions” – universities, hospitals, and large and small employers – to make downtowns more accessible to all. Affordable housing, transportation alternatives, and pay increases for blue-collar service jobs would all help, Florida said.

photo of mark dunham
Mark Dunham

Mark Dunham, chairman of the board of trustees of the College of Western Idaho board, and also a former chairman of the Idaho Association of Realtors, said he could see in Boise what Florida described.

“We now expect a great quality of life, filled with cultural opportunities, socially welcoming, an array of entertainments, technology options, and transportation options,” Dunham said. “This new opportunity has some risks, however: Housing affordability, NIMBYism, the growing income inequality, and affordable education to attract companies and students to help the valley prosper.”

Affordable housing – the theme of the conference – is a priority, attendees said.

“I completely agreed with him that now is the time to invest in more affordable housing, before it becomes a bigger problem,” said Jess Giuffré, senior property developer at Northwest Real Estate. There are several state and local tools available to help affordable housing developers fund projects for people earning 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), he said. “If there were more tools that serve the 60 to 100 percent AMI, that would be beneficial for folks who don’t qualify for tax credit housing but have trouble making mortgage payments in market-rate housing.”

Without those tools, many of those people pay 50 percent or more of their income in rent, he said.

Scot Oliver, executive director of Idaho Smart Growth
Scot Oliver

There is no “cookbook” for preventing urban crisis, Florida said.

“I came away thinking the challenge ahead of us is community development, not economic development,” said Scot Oliver, executive director of Idaho Smart Growth, a Boise nonprofit.

“It has to be a continuing conversation with all stakeholders to make sure we will manage our opportunities well,” Dunham agreed. “If we do this well, in 15 years, Boise will be a huge success story. The federal government and the state won’t do it. So it has to be a concerted effort with planning and stakeholders involved all the way.”

Visitors illustrate Boise’s transformation

“Richard Florida walked into a bar in Boise” sounds like the beginning of an urbanist joke, except it isn’t. Instead, it was a random encounter that epitomized the urban crisis, he described in an Idaho Business Review interview.

Dining at Bittercreek after his arrival, Florida talked to a nurse seated next to him at the bar. The nurse and his wife were scouting potential areas to live, because their Southern California hometown was too expensive and required too much driving. So they were looking at Seattle, Denver, and Boise. Not knowing who Florida was, they asked him what he thought of Boise, saying they were leaning toward it because its housing was more affordable than that of the other cities.

“Boise has become a destination for people who want a mountain lifestyle,” Florida said, because it has good food, good wine, good beer, many outdoor activities, and generally good weather. “It’s cold, but sunny.”

Boise needs to look at the example of Denver, which also used to be one of the Mountain West cities that West Coast people escaped to. “Now, it’s incredibly expensive,” he said. “Boise is on that path.”

The regional leadership of Boise – because it’s the urban epicenter of Idaho – needs to be aware of what has happened with other cities such as the Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle, he said. “They have to do things to help prevent that,” he said. “The large companies that have really initiated urban revival have to put affordability and inclusivity at the top of the list.”