Surface parking lots are the recipe for downtown Boise’s future

Teya Vitu//November 26, 2018

Surface parking lots are the recipe for downtown Boise’s future

Teya Vitu//November 26, 2018

Idaho Power is surrounded by surface parking lots. Photo by Teya Vitu.

This is the first in a four-part series on downtown parking lots.

Downtown Boise is one big surface parking lot.

A map of surface parking lots shows downtown awash in car-bedecked asphalt and dirt.

If you mass all the surface parking lots together, it would equal 28 city blocks – the equivalent of the entire heart of downtown: 5th to 12th streets and Main to State streets.

The surface parking lots add up to 84.4 acres within the more or less 1867 township boundaries of Boise, what is considered today’s downtown: Fort to Myrtle streets and Broadway/Avenue B to 16th street, according to calculations by Carl Miller, principal planner at Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS), the region’s metropolitan planning agency.

That exceeds the 73 acres of Boise Towne Square, Boise Towne Plaza and their parking lots, all operated by General Growth Properties.

The one major exception is the 10-block Central District urban renewal zone that the Capital City Development Corp., the city’s redevelopment agency, has built up for the last 30 years with signature projects.

One thing is certain, a vast number of those surface lots will evaporate in the coming years and decades. Even Jeff Wolfe, overseer of the most surface parking lots in downtown Boise, recognizes the eventual demise of surface parking lots.

Surface parking lots cover 84.4 acres of downtown Boise. Image courtesy of Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho.

“They are going away,” said Wolfe, president of The Car Park, downtown’s largest surface and garage parking operator. “In most cases in a downtown urban core, surface parking is not the highest and best use. Surface parking is an interim use in most cases.”

The question is what will the future downtown Boise look like? Would Mayor Moses Alexander 100 years ago ever have imagined today’s downtown Boise? The first 12-story building didn’t even arrive until 1930 with the Boise Hotel – today’s Hoff Building at Eighth and Bannock streets.

The Idaho Business Review posed this theme to a number of downtown adherents: what could, should, needs to be done with all these surface parking lots and what should not be done?

The responses were as widespread as the respondents themselves.

Today’s downtown Boise

Idaho Business Review reporter Teya Vitu rode a Boise GreenBike up and down downtown streets to notate surface parking lots on a hand-drawn grid.

Surface parking lots are but an 84.4-acre-recipe for downtown Boise’s future, roughly 18 percent of Boise’s boundaries in 1867, today’s basic downtown. There are plenty of aged one-story structures that even historians won’t defend. And, in this age of disposable architecture, anything built today or in the past 50 years could be wiped clean in the next 20 to 30 years.

The entire downtown Boise footprint could be rethought in the next 50 to 100 years. For now, this exercise will focus on surface parking lots.

We already know what has been happening with surface parking lots in recent years and decades. Everything around the Grove Plaza started as a wasteland created by urban renewal clearing away a century of history for a downtown shopping mall that never came.

An impromptu four-block dirt parking lot surface until the late 1980s and 1990s eventually resulted in the Boise Centre, Grove Hotel, CenturyLink Arena, Wells Fargo building and Clearwater building.

Three of the four downtown Boise hotels opened in the past two years were erected on parking lots and so was the Hampton Inn a decade earlier. The proposed fifth hotel, Home2 Suites by Hilton at Front and Sixth streets, will also claim a surface lot.

The 28 blocks of combined surface parking lots in downtown Boise would stretch from Fifth to 12th streets and State to Main streets. Drawing by Teya Vitu.

Downtown Boise is at a profound crossroads that could impact the remainder of the 21st century. Idaho started 2018 as the fastest growing state and COMPASS predicts metro Boise’s population will reach 1 million in 2040 and will undoubtedly continue to grow after that.

Surface parking lots are a large key to the future downtown as are older, not necessarily historic, single-story structures at the edges of downtown. A multitude of unknowns confront leaders and visionaries as they chart the next generation of downtown Boise.

One thing certain is the future is now, said Paddy Tillett, a Portland architect at ZGF Architects who 30 years ago shaped the Grove Plaza and Eighth Street pedestrian-friendly heart of downtown.

“I think the time is now,” Tillett said about considering the future of more than 75 surface parking lots. “One needs to take the initiative now.”

That won’t be easy. As much as city leaders have been consumed with downtown redevelopment for 50 years, the focus has been on buildings – first demolishing them in the 1960s and 70s and then building new ones since the late 1980s.

“We don’t have a coherent strategy to get rid of surface parking lots,” said Daren Fluke, comprehensive planning manager at the city of Boise.

Parking, of course, is a hot-button issue. People sense it’s hard to find a convenient parking spot and it costs a lot – if you don’t compare parking rates to any other big city within 1,000 miles.

The Inn at 500 Capitol now sits where this surface parking lot was at Myrtle Street and Capitol Boulevard. File Photo.

“The fundamental question is how much parking do we need and nobody knows that,” said Diane Kushlan, former district council coordinator at the Urban Land Institute Idaho and a comprehensive planning and zoning consultant. “There is a whole future of unknowns. From my experience, there’s not a lot of strong visions about downtown.”

Dan Everhart’s passion is historic preservation as an independent architectural historian and former Preservation Idaho board member. As much as surface parking lots aren’t cataloged, neither are downtown Boise’s century-old or more buildings.

“We need a thorough documentation of the downtown core,” Everhart said. “I tell you there are old buildings that don’t need or deserve to stay in play. We don’t know much about what is out there. We don’t have a complete inventory of historic places.”