The dispute which broke into the open earlier this month between the Ada County Highway District, the City of Boise and the Capital City Development Corporation should worry anyone eager to solve the region’s two great challenges, housing for all and reasonable transportation.
ACHD contends that it’s authorizing legislation takes precedence over the subsequently authorized urban renewal districts such as those CCDC wants to create on Boise’s First Bench. ACHD Chair Rebecca Arnold wrote in May that CCDC is illegally diverting funds intended exclusively for itself and that the proposed districts are “strategically locating around ACHD’s primarily transportation corridors.”
In those last four words lies the problem: “ACHD’s primary transportation corridors.” It sounds like the corridors in question—Overland, Vista, Orchard, Latah and Curtis, and money coming from them–belong in some fashion to the road builders. Thus the possessive “ACHD’s” corridors. There is no reason–and would be no money– to beautify these corridors, provide for those walking and biking or to concentrate residential and commercial development close to downtown. At least that’s what it sounds like.
Where else should districts be located than along strategically located corridors where vast millions have already been invested?
This dispute caught my attention because of a recent experience in Northern Virginia, where I once lived before returning to Idaho decades ago. After a reception for my graduating granddaughter, I drove to dinner with old friends at a restaurant in the heart of Arlington, about eight miles. I had expected to see wholesale change, Northern Virginia having grown massively since then (with the new Amazon headquarters coming soon to the West).
I was amazed. Neighborhood after neighborhood appeared much as I remembered them—verdant and prosperous as ever, little changed. Instead, it was the major transportation corridors that had been transformed completely, particular major intersections. Inexpensive Vietnamese restaurants my family had visited had been replaced by fancy ones of all kinds and coffee shops, of course, and apartments climbed into the sky in tight concentrations. Where once there was a church now there was a high-rise but with the same church snug on the first floor.
Douglas Peterson is a Boisean who recently retired after managing The Housing Company, where he helped create 1,800 affordable housing units around Idaho in ten years. Before that job, however, he held a similar housing responsibility in Arlington, Virginia. So, I asked him, what had happened back there?
Most neighborhoods did remain the same, he said. They were fully occupied and properly zoned in ways that wouldn’t likely change. Growth had been concentrated along the main transportation corridors such as Washington, Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards, and around stops on the DC Metro system, plus other bus-centered transportation hubs.
In addition to the metro, Highway 50 and Interstate 66 slice through Arlington, making comparison to Boise inexact at best. Nonetheless, in Boise’s future, the Vista and Overland intersection could be a major commercial, residential and transportation hub, same as in Arlington, which, by the way, didn’t look all that different from Boise 40 years ago. The same thing could happen at other crossroads in the proposed urban development districts. Neighborhoods in between these centers could be little different from how they appear today, as in Arlington, if they so choose.
All that’s missing in the comparison with Northern Virginia is lots of buses or other people-movers. Dense development and rapid transit are two sides of the same coin.
I have no idea whether ACHD’s leadership or Boise’s mayor is right about urban renewal law. Ada County voted to consolidate its many highway districts in 1971 and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work today. Except that the agency it authorized to build and maintain roads 48 years ago apparently sees its mission as paramount and singular when the times call for more and more cooperatively designed ways to live closer together.
ACHD has no funding for mass transportation, of course, but unless development is concentrated close to downtown pretty soon, by some means, cars on “it’s” roads will move ever more slowly. ACHD is spending massively to widen State Street but how soon will it fill up without a vigorous bus system? Housing will sprawl into the desert and soon everything between Meridian and Nampa will fill up with traffic.
ACHD calls to mind the old phrase, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
The larger shadow over this dispute is cast by the big domed structure downtown. That’s where the governor and legislature spend three months a year mostly ignoring the future of the city they dwell in and the valley bursting at the seams.
In her May letter, ACHD chair Arnold implies that CCDC was hustling up these urban renewal districts before the legislature reins it in. Legislation modifying the authority has been introduced in five straight sessions, she wrote.
She’s right. Legislators from elsewhere in the valley see a target on Boise’s back which I don’t fully understand. Isn’t the valley likely to rise or fall together? Even if one’s sole interest is creating jobs, Northern Virginia has been a job-creating monster, yet has done so by concentrating housing and moving people by means other than cars.
Three-fourths of Boise residents tell the BSU public opinion survey we’re growing too fast. That’s a sound instinct but it would be more appropriate to say we are not growing well. It will only get worse with our leading authorities at each other’s throats and those in the capital ignoring the building modern cities one smart step at a time.
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