City Club forum examines rebirth of Downtown Boise

As part of its Civility Series, the City Club of Boise pulled together a panel to talk about the cooperation needed to shift Downtown Boise from a disastrous plan to install a mall in the core area - to the long process that has given new life to today's central district. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, the unfortunately-acronymed Boise Redevelopment Agency had a singular mission to turn the Downtown Boise are into an indoor mall. Out went dozens of older buildings - and in came "temporary" parking lots.  The core was decimated, with block after block of empty land.


After several election cycles - the voter mandate was clear - let's get over the idea of a mall and get on to rehabbing downtown.

A 1981 plan for Boise City Center shows a mall taking over the area along 8th Street in Downtown Boise.

A 1981 plan for Boise City Center shows a mall taking over the area along 8th Street in Downtown Boise.

One of those elected officials, Dirk Kempthorne, took his seat as Boise's Mayor.

“When you look at how downtown is decorated for Christmas, and the mall - many of you don’t realize, you used to get in buses and went to Salt Lake City to do your shopping because there wasn’t any retail here," Kempthorne said.

Something had to change.

He said he was pressured to sweep out all the folks who had been part of the earlier mall plan and start fresh. Instead, he decided to go a different route.

“Before we can build brick and mortar, the most important thing we can do is build cooperation,” he told the crowd in a nod to the forum's civility theme. "“We’re going to do what’s right for Boise. We’re going to do it in a nonpartisan fashion.” 

In a lesson that can still be applied today, Kempthorne said he tried to remember that even though he may have differed in his opinion on some matters - he felt the underlying motivation was pure.

“I never question people’s love for Boise. It’s just that they have different views," he said.

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Developer Skip Oppenheimer, who helped make the first modern-era development project happen - One Capital Center - said teamwork was key.

“There was a feeling we’ve gotta come together," he said. "We were very fortunate to have the leadership to make that happen.”

The Downtown Boise of 2016 is rooted in decisions that took more than a generation to grow.  The change from a mall to a more traditional downtown-like setting with plazas and developed streetscapes were the seeds that helped encourage the dozens of developments that have popped up in ensuing decades - from One Capital Center to the new Clearwater Building.

“When we look at Downtown Boise today - this is a downtown that truly is remarkable," Oppenheimer said. "I think most of us believe that part of the heart and soul of this city is the downtown we have.”

Construction on the original Boise Centre as seen through the windows of the new Boise Centre East building earlier this month

Construction on the original Boise Centre as seen through the windows of the new Boise Centre East building earlier this month

Kempthorne noted that the development of the Boise Centre On The Grove, along with the Grove Plaza itself, was key to getting things jumpstarted.

“One of the keys was the convention center," he said. "How long had that evaded us?"

He noted a challenge that still exists today: with an alphabet soup of local agencies in the mix, consensus is vital to making progress. 

"You had so many jurisdictions. The City of Boise, Capital City Development Corporation, Ada County Highway District, the auditorium district - you had five groups."

Kempthorne came up with a plan -- get everyone in a room, make them bring their lawyers - and hammer out compromise.

He noted the media showed up - but he quickly kicked them out and asked each of the agencies to go into executive session.

"We can't open those doors until we can show progress."

In Kempthorne's telling, that meeting helped put pressure on each of the group's to work it out and get a plan for Boise Centre done. He said putting everyone on one team was key.

"Sometimes your locker room has to be the same locker room."

Somewhat ironically, the building of Boise Towne Square Mall and flight of retailers like JC Penney and Sears out of the downtown area actually helped in the long run, according to Oppenheimer.

“Unintentionally we ended up in a good place because of the delay we brought upon ourself."

Even ostensible improvements like the Capital Terrace and Eastman parking garages weren't embraced at first.

“We watched the revenue for parking garages (after they opened). Idahoans are like ‘we wanna tie the horse up front’ instead of paying for parking," Kemptorne said to laughs. " It was a real cultural change."

That change might have been slow - but Kempthorne says his prayers -- literally -- have been answered.

“After I was elected, I’d go downtown - I’d walk around, and I’d sit on an overturned telephone poll and say a prayer that we could make this happen. I think Boise is blessed."

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