How changing times stymied redevelopment in Boise

Boise, remarked a popular national magazine once, "stands an excellent chance of becoming the first American city to have deliberately eradicated itself." That was because four blocks in the heart of the Idaho capital had been razed to make way for a shopping mall. Four more blocks also were scheduled to go. That was six years ago. Today, the mall still hasn't been built. And although the climax to the saga of downtown redevelopment here may finally come next month, the plot has more twists and turns than a good gothic novel.

Indeed, the plot is a variant of a common American political theme: how best to strike a workable balance between economic development and other values, such as clean air, city character, and livability.

Boise is a modest city. The capitol itself is small, with a dome of bare, gray stone. The skyline is dominated by a handful of modern high-rise office buildings.

But as long ago as the early 1960s, Boise was facing a problem familiar to cities throughout the West. Its downtown, built when the population numbered only 25,000, had simply been outgrown. Increasingly, economic activity was shifting to the suburbs, and the city center was deteriorating.

Yet Boise had a number of unique characteristics.According to a recent survey , Idaho has the highest percentage of millionaires per-capita of any state in the union, and many of them live in the Boise area. As a result, the city is the headquarters for more major corporations than any other of its size in the US.

It was a group of these local financiers who became concerned about the future of downtown Boise. One was Robert hansberger, who graduated at the top of his class at Harvard Business School and built Boise Cascade into a major corporation.

The businessmen sold the city on the idea of tapping federal urban redevelopment money to subsidize the construction of a 780,000-square-foot, california-style enclosed downtown mall. In 1965, the Boise Redevelopment Agency (BRA) was formed and much of the downtown was bought up.

From the beginning, public opinion polls conducted by the local newspapers indicated that most Boiseans preferred a more traditional form of redevelopment rather than a massive mall. Yet supporters of the project pressed ahead. "At the time, it would have been impossible to get merchants to return to the downtown without a closed mall," Mr. Hansberger explains.

He volunteered the services of Boise Cascade as developer for $1. In 1971, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved $31 million for the project as urban renewal. But by 1972 the timber company fell on hard times and withdrew.

Next, the city turned to a more experienced developer: Dayton Hudson, which had built a number of shopping malls in conjunction with J. C. Penney. But the department store officials had serious reservations about the the site. In particular, they were concerned about the adequacy of the streets for handling traffic.

At the same time, the first stirrings of public opposition were surfacing. Times had begun to change. People were moving back into the city's old residential areas and fixing up the houses. Some of them began worrying about traffic congestion, air pollution, and preserving the old buildings. Yet the project had built up substantial momentum. The four downtown blocks were cleared.

Then in 1977 the mall supporters suffered several major setbacks. Penney's and Dayton Hudson withdrew from the project amid high emotion. A Seattle-based firm, Winmar, was quickly recruited to fill Dayton Hudson's shoes. In that year also, an environmental impact study was released and drew heavy fire.

Conflict escalated during the next year. The Idaho Historical Society won National Historic Register status for 58 buildings adjoining the eight-block area. The state Department of Health and Welfare turned down the construction permit for the mall on the basis that the auto traffic would cause excessive air pollution, so BRA members decided they didn't need the permit after all. At this time, Hansberger and two other local partners bought 45 percent of the action from winmar and put their local muscle behind the project. But when Winmar released its design for the massive, inward-looking mall the result was instant controversy.

A coalition of businessmen proposed an alternative, mixed-use project that would preserve the old buildings that Winmar wanted to demolish. This alternative was championed by the opponents of the mall, who organized themselves into the Preservation Coalition.

In response to the public outcry, the developers put 200 people on citizen advisory panels in an attempt to make the mall design more acceptable. The preservationists brought suit against the city, charging the National Environmental Protection Act and the Historic Preservation Act had been violated. But the suit was thrown out of court.

"The citizen committees were a stroke of genius. The opposition was totally coopted," says Jack MacMahon, head of the coalition.

Following the committee deliberations, Winmar came out with a modified plan that save two of the old buildings and the facades of several others. Mr. MacMahon complains that these buildings are not going to be preserved, but gutted and "plasticized over."

Still, the plan seems to have drawn most of the strength from the opposition. "The public is so tired of having a burnedout downtown that they will accept almost anything," MacMahon says. A transit mall, botanical gardens, and convention center all have been planned but are in limbo until the fate of the shopping mall is decided.

Yet the latest delay may have been fatal. Due to the difficult financial times, Winmar has not yet succeeded in getting commitments from the mass merchandisers considered necessary. If they are not signed by June 1, sighs Mayor Dick Eardley, "I'm afraid the whole thing is down the tubes."

Although Hansberger still maintains that the project is essential to save the downtown, others feel this is no longer the case.

Mike Silva, a maverick member of the BRA, is one. "I'm afraid the emperors don't have any clothes on," he says, explaining that he believes it is the self-interest of the individuals involved that has kept the project alive. "It was a good idea in 1964, but it doesn't make any sense today," Mr. Silva argues.

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