More than half of the Treasure Valley’s residents say the region is growing too quickly. In his most recent State of the City speech, Mayor Dave Bieter described Boise’s growth rate as “explosive” and said it is “our job to shape that growth” into “something we can be proud of.”
Now a group called Vanishing Boise has attempted to quantify what has been lost here in recent years, as new residents pour in, construction cranes soar over the skyline, and roads are torn up to add more lanes for more cars carrying more people.
Vanishing Boise is among a new crop of organizations wielding social media to protest demolition and development that members view as antithetical to the quality of life in the nation’s fastest-growing state. Others include the Dry Creek Valley Coalition and the North West Neighborhood Association, which are fighting proposed subdivisions that imperil agricultural land. They join Preservation Idaho, the 46-year-old grande dame of local preservation groups.
Lori Dicaire founded Vanishing Boise “as a direct response to the heartache we were experiencing as we watched the things that we most love about Boise disappear … to chronicle the sad and gradual disappearance of the landmarks that represent the identity of the city.”
That’s how she describes her organization on the group’s Facebook page, introducing a list of seven things she’s dubbed “2017’s Biggest Losses” (though some passed on in 2016). It’s a kind of civic obituary page that mourns demolished buildings, shuttered businesses and farmland that’s given way to subdivisions.
Dicaire, who helped beat back a proposed CVS pharmacy on State Street at 17th Street, grieves what she views as this 154-year-old city’s lost “icons” and vows to do all she can to save the places that give it character. Vanishing Boise claims a core strategy group of 20; it has 650 likes on Facebook and turned out 150 sympathizers for a city planning commission hearing on the CVS plan.
Driving around the Treasure Valley, she said, “I would see all these farm fields get plowed over for developments, a lot of tract housing developments. … And I felt a mixture of anger and sadness about it. And over time that anger started taking over, and I thought, well, I should do something with this. I need to do something with this and not just be upset by it.”
Dicaire blames all of the losses on the list on growth and change in the region, although, in fairness, other factors also come into play, including fading business models and changing tastes. Still, gone is gone.
The uptick in grass-roots activism is “encouraging,” said Paula Benson, executive director of Preservation Idaho, which says it has several hundred members.
“We’re seeing people getting fed up. With Boise growing so quickly, people are realizing that, if they don’t speak up now, things could be lost forever,” Benson said. “What we really like to see is neighborhood groups, citizens banding together, a grass-roots effort where people decide what’s important to them and work together. … For the Facebook groups, they’re not even membership organizations. They’re ad hoc groups of citizens who come together around a common interest.”
Benson’s organization, an IRS-sanctioned 501(c)3 nonprofit, is “an umbrella group” that focuses on the historic preservation of buildings and sites statewide. She said Preservation Idaho “stands alongside” the new activist groups and often works with them. “Sometimes we lead,” she said. “Sometimes we follow. We can’t do it alone.”
One of the new squeaky wheels is the Dry Creek Valley Coalition, which is gathering signatures to put a measure on the Ada County ballot allowing citizen input into a major subdivision proposed by Boise’s Hunter Homes. It hopes to protect the open parcel east of Idaho state Highway 55 and the Shadow Valley Golf Course, west of Hidden Springs and mostly north of Dry Creek Road.
Jack Bynum is among the signature gatherers. “Our infrastructure is absolutely not in place to handle all the traffic that’s going to take place” if the proposed 1,800 homes are built, said Bynum, who also notes that the land is “a historic farm. Every year, elk come down into the property, deer, coyote, fox, geese land out there. It’s a wonderful open space that should be maintained as open space.”
The North West Neighborhood Association is on a similar quest, hoping to ward off a housing development along a rural stretch of Hill Road “where the foothills meets farmland.” Its Facebook page implores people to “join us in resisting the rezoning and development of this eddy of quiet at the edge of Boise. Once it is lost it is gone forever.”
Organizer Richard Llewellyn acknowledges the difficulty in quantifying the movement to protect Hill Road’s rural nature. The group’s Facebook page has been liked 681 times, he said in an email, but “maybe more importantly, we had close to 200 people come to the developer’s meeting on Dec. 18 – usually these only get a handful of immediate neighbors.”
In fact, “Incredible Shrinking Farmland” is the first item on the Vanishing Boise list of places lost in recent years. Structures make up most of the rest. Among them:
20th Century Bowling Lanes
20th Century Bowling Lanes, where pins crashed on polished hardwood for 57 years, shut its State Street doors last summer, a victim of rising rents and declining interest. Its official last day was June 30, although the cocktail lounge continued to operate while the owners sold off no-longer-needed equipment.
The bowling alley will be replaced by Treasure Valley Skate, another diversion with 1950s flair, whose grand opening is scheduled for April 1, according to its website.
“Today we have officially been given word that our lease offer has been rejected and a new tenant will be moving into our building,” read a message on the bowling alley’s Facebook page in late May. “The news is very sudden and still seems surreal, but unfortunately it is true.”
University Christian Church
The University Christian Church was demolished in 2016 so that Boise State University could build its new Honors College, which opened in October.
University Christian was built between 1959 and 1965, a midcentury modern landmark and darling of local historians and preservationists. The church boasted clean, angular lines and lots of blond wood. Its stained-glass windows were abstract and geometric.
Dan Everhart, formerly of Preservation Idaho, told the Statesman before the church was demolished that “buildings of this style, type and time period, barely 50 years old, elicit far less sympathy and interest on the part of the public. For many people, buildings of this era are part of their life span. It can be difficult to associate something constructed within one’s own life span with historic significance.”
Still, the demolition left behind at least some broken hearts – former parishioners and their families, lovers of local landmarks, opponents of growth – who posted their frustrations online: “Always sad seeing something that has been around forever going away,” “Progress gotta love it” and “I was married there.”
A State Street farmhouse
For more than two years, Eryn Mayer and her husband rented a bright red farmhouse on State Street near Veterans Memorial Parkway. The house began life as the heart of a family homestead, morphed into a retail hub and ended up as an impediment to street-widening.
Mayer started her salon, Bristle & Crown, in the house and gave birth to her son, Theodore, while living above the business.
“We moved out Oct. 1 because the Ada County Highway District bought the whole house,” Mayer said. “We had remodeled the house quite a bit. It was even more of a loss because of that. … It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to move my home. I didn’t want to move my business.”
Mayer said she was originally told that ACHD planned to gobble up part of the yard and parking lot for the State Street widening project now underway. She was stunned to learn in June that the whole house, including its wide porch and towering shade tree, would have to go. She blames “growth and greed.”
“I was compensated enough to relocate my business,” she said, “but you don’t get compensated for emotion, time, life plan and vision.”
The WaterCooler, Ben’s Crow Inn
The WaterCooler building, an Idaho Street business incubator that started life as Boise Heating & Air Conditioning, was torn down in June 2016 to make way for 37 apartments.
Ben’s Crow Inn on Warm Springs Avenue was a neighborhood watering hole that will be replaced by a subdivision after nearly half a century of cold beers and clams by the bucket.
The final item on the list is wildlife killed by vehicles.
Avoiding the BANANA city
Although the Treasure Valley rings with discussions over growth and its implications, many view the evolving landscape with optimism. Bill Connors, president and chief executive of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, is chief among them.
Connors acknowledges there’s a wide array of sentiment regarding development here. His members, he said, are particularly worried about the loss of farmland in the valley. It’s a problem that “every medium-sized city has.”
“It’s the nature of growth,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. There are interesting ways to do some protection. That’s an area that a lot of our members have said, ‘Yeah, we want to preserve something.’ … But you can’t tell people, ‘Hey, you can’t sell your land.’ ”
The chamber is about “intelligent growth” that helps raise Idaho’s standard of living, Connors said in an interview. “What’s important to us is diversity in our economy. … There’s no doubt that we’re going to grow. The need is to do it intelligently.”
That’s the sweet spot, he said, between “the BANANA people – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything” and “ the people who just want to build anything.”
Connors views the proposed downtown ballpark project as just that kind of smart planning. Dicaire has deep reservations.
She has heard the proposal characterized as “a commercial development with a ballpark on the side” and believes that “in the middle of an affordable and rental housing crisis, public money should first and foremost be spent on affordable housing.”
Dicaire worries that the city’s planning and development process is so complex that regular citizens have a hard time weighing in. She believes that the process benefits professionals, including developers and architects. And she said she longs for more transparency in city government.
She worries that more farmland will be gobbled up by development. She rues the small businesses along State Street that have already been shuttered in recent weeks (Smoky Davis, Dec. 31; Zen Bento, Jan. 26) and others that could fall to the widening project, additional construction and the increasing cost of doing business here.
“I describe it as a Shangri-La when we moved here,” said Dicaire, who was raised in Flint, Michigan, and lived in Moscow, Idaho; Seattle; Vancouver, Washington; and Tucson, Arizona, before settling in the Treasure Valley in 2000. “That’s how I felt about Boise. It was just like everything I was looking for.
“I know that people who just moved here think we’re just at this amazing pinnacle. But they don’t know how it used to be, before the aggressive drivers and the gentrification and the skyrocketing rents and housing costs.”
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