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Boise is having a moment: Redoing its zoning, not project-by-project, but weaving a brand new fabric

a photo collage showing a table on the top left with different seasons and years, a yard sign in a green lawn that says "YIMBY" and the Boise skyline stretching across the bottom.
City of Boise, Katie Kloppenburg
Boise is at a mid-point of rewriting its zoning code.

Boise, like most American cities, has been trying to design a community, project-by-project, for quite some time. But that was then.

With a healthy amount of input from the public, city planners are hoping that a comprehensive rewrite of its zoning code will help sustain neighborhoods, elevate public services and develop more affordable housing.

“It’s really important right now in the moment that the city is in, to do this as good as anyone that’s ever done it,” said Tim Keane, the city’s director of planning and development.

Keane visits with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about where the process currently is, some of the early feedback from the public, and the endless possibilities of preserving the things we love most.

“We're not moving from project to project. This is about the fabric of the city. What is the city we're seeking to build?”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I’m George Prentice. When the public has an opportunity to help shape the community that they want to live in and more importantly, the community for their children and grandchildren will live in, it actually can be exciting… a bit wonky sometimes, but indeed exciting. Tim Kaine is here. He's the city's new Director for Planning and Development. And our first conversation in May generated so much attention and conversation that we were anxious to continue that dialogue. So, let's do just that. Mr. Keane. Good morning.

TIM KEANE: Good morning, George. I really appreciate your having me on to talk about these important things that the people of Boise care so much about.

PRENTICE: By the way, people in Boise have a tendency to call you “new” at least for a year on the job.

KEANE: Well, absolutely. I'm four and a half months in, so you can call me “new.” Absolutely.

PRENTICE: So, let's talk about where we are… where you and your colleagues are…. with the Boise Zoning Code Rewrite. You are waist deep in public input. And we see the surveys and the community conversations and the open houses. I'm really interested in your sense of the pulse of this.  Yes, it’s a bit wonky, but I've also heard about some moments of excitement from some people in town.

KEANE: We've gotten great turnout at our public meetings recently over the past couple of weeks, really full houses of people interested in discussing these things. You know, this is something that cities don't do often, rewriting their rules entirely around development. And it's really important right now in the moment that the city is in, to do this as good as anyone that's ever done it. So, I think the excitement you mentioned has to do with the potential of this and where we stand right now with regard to the rules that we're proposing.

PRENTICE: So as a layperson, I've been trying to wrap my brain around…not just the process… but the intentions here. So, tell me if I if I get this right or not. I see code or at least the possibility of code that can be comfortable… or code that encourages smart development in an open market… code that, when a developer offers livability, then there's greater options for those developers.

KEANE: Mm hmm. As you know, before I got here, , the city had been out with a version of the code that there was a lot of concern about. And as we step back, paused and made changes to come back to the community over the past couple of weeks, the thing that you're putting your finger on is something that was really important to us… that we seek to achieve those things that people that live in the city care so much about, that we design the ordinances, design the code to accomplish those things, which means not that you give over all the development rights in the city just for development sake, but that we actually tie people's rights and abilities to build to the things that we seek to accomplish, like housing affordability and being careful about how we build such that we're building in a in a way that conserves energy and water, these kinds of things that are so at the forefront of what people here care about. So we now have a version of the ordinance that's seeking to do those things.

PRENTICE: I'm sure I'm not the first person to tell you that the missing piece of the puzzle in the Treasure Valley, for at least a couple of generations, has been a robust public transportation system. I have to assume that that's key to this.

KEANE: It is central to the things that we felt were important regarding how this ordinance is designed. So much of what we've come back with are regulations and permissions in terms of density and building types and so forth in direct relationship to its access to transit and people's ability to not drive so much because this is so central to our success here. The first version of the code, I would argue, was really just taking a one size fits all kind of approach to the whole city. So, we've really tried to shape it directly in relationship to where are we investing in public transportation? Where can we reasonably assume more people will be able to drive less because they'll have access to better public transportation and the ability to walk and ride their bike? That is so important. This particular code that the city is adopting needs to directly connect how we will grow as a city to how people will get around. So, what you'll see in this, George, and everyone that checks it out will see that direct connection between non-driving transportation and how we how we allow people to build in the city.

PRENTICE: I've been diving into what is now called YIMBYism. In other words, :”Yes In My Backyard.”. And what I'm reading, from community to community, is that it's not just a trend. It's very real. Can you confirm that that YIMBYism is very possible here?

KEANE: Well, it's heartening that there are so many people in this country and in cities across America that have gotten engaged in what is called YIMBYism. And for me, I say that because it's really people that that that that are welcoming of more people in their city and seeking to have it so that lots of different people can live in a city. And what's heartening to me about that most is that the reality is a city gets better with more people. What makes a city different than a rural place, or a suburban place is that the qualities that make a city distinctive and successful involve more people. So, what's been a real challenge for many cities is that as cities start growing, people seek to thwart that, having more people living there. And so, the YIMBY side of things is saying, “Hey, no, that's what makes this place what it is.” We must seek to add people, because that means the more people that live in the city of Boise, the more reasonably we'll be able to get around, for instance, without a car as much. We'll all have cars, and we'll drive some. But many more people will be able to drive less. That makes the situation better. And the more people that are walking and biking and using transit, the more opportunities will have for business. The more we'll have vibrant streets, the more we'll have opportunity for beautiful architecture and all those kinds of things. So the more we can protect nature because we're taking what typically would be demand that would go further and further into the desert. And we're seeking to put people where, again, the place gets better with them there. And so, I think this whole movement really, I guess across the world, certainly in American cities around how we, as a community, come together around growth and welcoming more people is so central to us being successful. I will say about this, George, you typically you would contrast YIMB with NIMBY, and I don't think that's very helpful. I mean, the thing about it is we all share this. We are very much seeking to come to solutions that will work for this city. And we all have to work on it together. And so, I don't see it as a this side has one idea and this size has an idea that's the polar opposite. I feel like there's a lot of consensus around the things we have to do here. We've got to get moving on those. So, one example that I'll give you as it relates to this new version of the ordinance compared to the original version and it relates to the thing a little bit is the first version basically had one proposal as to how to get denser as a city. And that one proposal was that all of our single-family zoning districts would go from permitting to individual dwellings would now be allowed for. And that was it. That was the one proposal in the original ordinance. And we've seen from other cities a real lack of progress when it comes to that one particular thing, which is adding permitted density in single family zones. And so, for that to be your one approach in the original ordinance, didn't it all seem right to us? So, what we've come back with in the second version is a whole collection of ways to address this. We still address it within the single-family zones, but we're tying it to affordability where you get getting additional units. But we're also concentrating on allowing more density along our main corridors where we have our best public transportation. We're creating a new district on State Street for the locations that will have the most significant transit stops that allow a lot more density and require some affordability once you get to a certain height. We're creating something we're calling strategic infill, which is in our single-family neighborhoods. We basically create the parameters around which you can build right away up to four units. And then if you do affordable housing, you can get up to as many as 12 units. So, there's we're adding a provision for some single family like zoning. It's called R2. It's a little bit denser, single family adjacent to those transit corridors. So, there's like five or six ways within this new version that are directly designed to deal with the particular city. We have to address this issue, this issue of density and affordability. So, we feel like this one in a practical way that's much more appropriate for Boise gives us the chance for way more success. So, this is an example of where I think sides that might be seeking more density and sides that are seeking to stop it can come together around specific ideas that just make sense for this city. And I think that's where we've gotten a lot of excitement around this new version because people are going, oh, look, this is they're actually proposing things that make sense to me as to how you deal with things like density and mobility in the city.

PRENTICE: We don't get too many collective opportunities to do things smarter. Yeah, we get them individually, but rarely do we get “collective” opportunities.

KEANE: Yeah, that's why it's such an opportunity for the city right now….is because this isn't, as you say, it's not like this is project-by-project. We're not moving from project to project. This is about the fabric of the city. What is the city we're seeking to build? You and I talked about this in our first conversation. There's places that you go where they're very dense and you go, “Wow, this is wonderful.” I can't imagine a better place because it's the product of the way people built. And in new cases, it has to do with the intention around it and the strategic ness of it. But then you go to other places that are very dense and there are complete mass because it was a project. So, we're not dealing with project right now. We're dealing with fabric and that is the fabric of the city. And how do we accommodate growth such that the product of any individual product is in furtherance of a city that works better for everybody? I'm glad to be here because I think as people are coming to these public forums and as I said, we're getting great turnout. It's a fascinating thing to see people really dig into. Wow, this is this is the city we're making together rather than fighting over this or that related to a project or one specific thing. That's the thing about the first version of the ordinance which had this one solution. It just had to do with four units and every single-family lot. Now we've got half dozen of them that really relate to the exact city. We have.

PRENTICE: Things like this should be hard. It's not as if it's fun every day. I think things this important actually should be hard. And people do need to carry the water.

KEANE: No doubt. It's that's why this famously some cities have gotten into this process of rewriting a zoning ordinance over the past ten years and given up because it's so hard, because there are such different perspectives, opinions and people involved in the process. Building community like this is not easy. We have a hard job ahead of us, but we also have a very unique city to take care of.

PRENTICE: Well, something's in the air other than triple-digit temperatures for certain. Tim Kaine is the director of planning and development for the City of Boise. And perhaps we inspired a few more people to engage in this, this morning. But for now, Mr. Keaine, thanks so much for giving us some more of your time.

KEANE: Thank you, George. Can't wait to talk again.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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