Boise’s Next Push For Denser Housing Could Be The Bench
When restaurateurs Sarah and Dave “DK” Kelly set out in 2017 to find a space for their new business, Petite 4, this wasn’t the location they expected.
“You’ve got a car wash,” Sarah said as she looked out the window of her restaurant and across the street. “An empty lot.”
“A cemetery,” added Dave. “Train tracks.”
But somehow it ended up being perfect, this 1,550-square-foot building at the intersection of Latah and Alpine streets on the Boise Bench — “the least expensive commercial property available in the Treasure Valley at the time,” according to DK.
“But we had a vision,” he said. “We go to so many different cities. Boise is very downtown-centric, with all the restaurants and entertainment and everything else. But some of these other cities, they have these cool little neighborhoods ... I felt that was lacking here a little bit.”
The Bench, the elevated flatland bordered by Interstate 84 on the south and the I-84 Connector, Crescent Rim Drive and Federal Way on the west, north and east, is slowly transforming into such a place.
At the former car-wash kitty-cornered from Petite 4, Boise developer Jay Story is building a food complex that will include an ice cream shop and coffee store. On Orchard and Franklin streets, the city is planning affordable apartments and townhouses. And throughout the Bench, small townhouses are replacing single-family houses on one-acre lots.
For most of its life, Boise has grown outward, in recent decades annexing farmland to the west, southwest and southeast. Lately, the city has focused on building from within. It is adding more housing close to job centers, which planners consider a more environmentally-sustainable way to grow.
The neighborhoods that are being redeveloped first have what planners call “good bones" — streets laid out in a walkable grid pattern, with brick-stone buildings that are often gutted and renovated to become backdrops for Instagram brunches.
But the supply of land in these neighborhoods — central and west downtown, the West End, the Central Addition — can only last so long. The next area to densify in Boise might be its very first suburb: the Bench.
In terms of “good bones,” the Bench has some. A grid with streets that connect? Enough. Nearby shops and restaurants? Plenty. Close to jobs? Very.
“All of the right elements are in place,” said Daren Fluke, Boise’s deputy director for comprehensive planning. “It’s located in a great spot. It’s got great proximity to downtown and to the airport. And most of the services residents need are within walking and biking distance.”
But retrofitting a suburban neighborhood poses challenges. Many of the Bench’s residents moved there for the big backyards and wide lots. Then there’s transportation: How do you make a neighborhood built for the car more walkable and bikeable?
The Bench is in the midst of an identity crisis. As Boise’s growth exerts pressure on neighborhoods like the Central Bench, Morris Hill, the Depot Bench and Vista, it’s unclear how long they can resist urbanization.
Boise's First Car-Centric Expansion
The Bench didn’t exist until the car. In the post-war era, the Bench’s apple and peach orchards were subdivided into lots and replaced with the large, elbow-room-endowed estates of Boise’s newly established upper middle class. Strip malls and drive-ins sprang up on thoroughfares like Orchard Street and Overland Road. Dairy farms were paved over with asphalt.
Over time, the neighborhood’s commercial corridors have aged, and the street design has started to fail.
Hana Mutlak opened Food Land Market, at 710 N. Orchard St. in November 2019. A few weeks after opening, a lunch crowd forced some customers to park in her neighbor’s lot. After filling up on falafel sandwiches and shawarma, they found their cars had been towed.
“Those customers, they are not coming back,” Mutlak said in an interview. “If you’re going to attract more people to this area, you cannot, because there is no parking.”
In fact, there’s plenty of parking — asphalt lots front nearly every business along Orchard. But it’s unorganized, with cars sometimes backing out into traffic to leave. Sidewalks, as a result, are suffering death by a thousand curb cuts.
Jen Adams’ main concern with her neighborhood is walkability.
In 2019, the magician-turned-comedian-turned-entrepreneur opened the Lounge at the End of the Universe — an apt name for a bar hidden on a side street north of Overland Road, past a Wells Fargo, two parking lots and a church, in a 1970s concrete office building.
“You have to get in your car for everything,” Adams said.
When she does walk, she’s almost always disappointed.
“It’s not a nice walk … the sidewalks are all cracked,” she said. “There are not good crosswalks for humans on foot.”
Still, she loves the Bench. It’s why she decided to make it a home for her business, which sits within the lobby of the Gem Center for the Arts . In pre-COVID-19 times, she hosted musical acts, comedy shows and monthly pun slams. She has since moved shows online.
“I didn’t want to be downtown — it’s oversaturated,” Adams said. “And this is a neighborhood that needs something like this … a hub for the arts.”
Adding To The Housing Supply
Today, the Bench is full of contradictions. It is still the most affordable place to buy in Boise, and yet home prices there are rising faster than in any other part of town.
Commercial real estate prices are higher than they’ve ever been, for buildings that most developers say should be torn down. It is Boise’s poorest neighborhood but has also become one of its most desirable.
In the Central Bench, the Zillow Home Value Index — the site’s median valuation for homes in an area — increased from $100,000 in 2011 to $275,000 today. In the Depot Bench neighborhood, it increased from $131,000 to $323,000.
It’s well-established by housing experts that a lack of supply leads to increased housing costs. Even though many of the new apartments in Boise rent around $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom, the theory is that people who can afford them will rent them, rather than displace existing renters from their homes, Fluke said.
Building more affordable housing is necessary too, he added. This spring, Boise selected the Centerville, Utah-based firm J Fisher Companies to build a mixed-use project with retail, office and housing on a 4.7-acre property it owns on Franklin and Orchard Streets that would include several units for low-income renters.
For Sarah Kelly, having more housing nearby would build up a neighborhood feel — not to mention provide a customer base for Petite 4.
“I would like to see more high-density living right here — people who want to come out or want to come over for a beer,” she said. “Without city money and city planning, nothing’s gonna change as far as the landscape of the Bench and making it have that feel.”
Adams is another proponent of expanding housing options beyond the Bench’s quintessential mid-century houses.
“Not everybody wants to have a giant house anymore,” she said. “This would be a really good neighborhood for some sustainable, green studios and one-bedroom apartments for people that do need access to downtown.”
Building Mixed-Use, High-Density
But few developers are willing to build dense housing on the Bench.
“Mixed use has to happen if you’re going to create new livable, walkable neighborhoods,” said Bill Truax, president of the Galena Opportunity Fund, which builds multifamily properties around the West. His firm is working with Saint Alphonsus Health System to add more housing near its main Curtis Road campus.
Developing anywhere on the Bench is expensive: Vacant land sold in recent years has gone for between $156,000 and $900,000 per acre, according to data from the Archstone Group, a real estate appraiser with offices in Boise. The more land costs rise, the harder it is for a project to pencil.
“We’re seeing prices here in Boise that are more expensive than the Puget Sound in Tacoma, and Bremerton, Washington,” Truax said in an interview. “It’s nuts — it’s absolutely nuts.”
Another problem is the lack of developable land here. With few vacant lots, adding density would require either tearing down and building new, or retrofitting an older building.
Teardowns are often a better option. The Bench doesn’t have downtown’s high-ceilinged architectural gems and brick-walled buildings. It has strip malls.
“The buildings are not historically cool,” Truax said. “It’s a lot of old, tired buildings that would be tough to repurpose.”
But demolishing and going vertical is a difficult prospect too, he said — enough to steer most developers away.
Many of the valley’s largest developers are focused west and south of Boise, turning farmland into rooftops for an easier profit. Redeveloping existing areas is challenging and — while ultimately more sustainable — more expensive, Truax added.
That’s where urban renewal can come into play.
Urban Renewal On The Bench
Boise’s urban renewal agency, the Capital City Development Corp., can help pave the way for development, quite literally, in neighborhoods it deems as underdeveloped.
The agency sequesters any new property tax dollars in an urban renewal district created by the City Council and uses it to pay for public investments, like bike lanes and new sidewalks.
CCDC also works to acquire, raze and prepare property for redevelopment by public or private developers. The goal: Make investments to allow for the kind of dense urban projects that developers might otherwise shy away from.
“I find it interesting watching that area for the past five to eight years, [when] housing prices have gone up considerably but there have been no discernible improvements to the commercial areas,” said Dana Zuckerman, chairwoman of the CCDC board, at one of the agency’s meetings last year. “It looks like there’s a great need for us to step in and help out.”
The agency’s spokeswoman, Jordyn Neerdaels, said an urban renewal district could help ”rejuvenate and reinvest in some different pockets of Boise to get some of the similar economic benefits that downtown has had.”
Not everyone on the Bench believes that the city should be intervening in the way the neighborhood grows.
Henry Wiebe grew up on the Bench and bought a house in the Vista neighborhood around 2013, just before the area got hot.
“It’s not in a state of decay to the extent that it necessitates the involvement of CCDC,” he said in an interview. Wiebe who previously worked for CCDC.
The Bench, he said, will evolve over time without city help.
“There isn’t anybody on the corridor or adjacent to it that whistled and said, ‘CCDC or Boise City, would you please redevelop here?’” he said. “The idea that the community should just rely on our civic planners to just generate what it is they think that they need to deliver for us, I think that’s completely short sighted.”
Wiebe likes the Bench as is. He likes the comfort of his one-acre lot. He likes the privacy of the wooded street he lives on. He likes the wide Vista Avenue and that he can always find plenty of parking.
If a current property owner wants to build vertically, that’s fine, Wiebe said. But why should the city be pushing it upon them?
Put density along commercial corridors, said Dave Kangas, a Vista neighborhood resident — but not within the Bench’s older residential zones.
“I don’t want to see my neighborhood start tearing down single-family homes and start putting up triplexes,” he said.
Adams, the end-of-the-universe bar owner, isn’t concerned about the density the Bench could add — she’s more worried about the Bench becoming unaffordable to existing residents.
“This is possibly one of the hottest zip codes for real estate,” Adams said. “It makes it really difficult for people to keep living here. So they’ll just keep getting pushed more and more to the outskirts.”
Preserving affordability isn’t just important to the residents of the Bench — it’s important to the small businesses that call it home. Many of them are immigrant-owned, a source of pride for Bench dwellers who treasure their area’s diversity.
Monica and Louis Bremmer opened Tango’s Empanadas in a former doughnut shop on Orchard just before the Great Recession.
“Back in ‘06, we called this the international street,” Monica Bremmer said in an interview. “We were introducing empanadas to a place that had never heard of them. It was scary to invest a lot of money and maybe just fail. So we wanted something little, that we could afford.”
Holding onto that “own-ness,” that independence, can help the Bench retain its feel even as it changes in the future, Adams said.
The city can improve a neighborhood without ousting its longtime residents, Adams said: “Those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
Daren Fluke, the city planner, says change is inevitable.
“Cities are sort of this living, breathing organism that change through time,” he said. “We really only have two choices: If we don’t infill, we have to grow our boundaries out.”
This story was produced by the Idaho Statesman in collaboration with Boise State Public Radio.