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Deep Dive: Boise to revamp zoning code. What it means and how the city could change

The City of Boise started work this summer on a significant rewrite of its zoning codes and ordinances.

The far-reaching effort could change the rules of the road for development in the city in the decades to come.

It hired a consultant to look at the rules and the comprehensive plan to better match the two components according to officials.

“We’ve known for a little while that our ordinance has not been doing a very good job of feeding our plan,” City of Boise Deputy Director of Planning Darren Fluke told BoiseDev. “We are seeing a lot of variance applications and a lot of appeals. Those are red flags that things aren’t right in the development world.”

City changes course on feedback plan

The process will take several years with several rounds of feedback, planning and presentations to city leaders.

The initial request for qualifications the city sent out this year included language that indicated the city would not seek feedback ahead of the revamp.

“A potentially novel aspect of this phasing approach is the City’s intent to rely on adopted plans and previous public engagement processes… reserving the more extensive public process for Phase 3, when the City releases a draft ordinance.”

But City of Boise spokesperson Mike Journee said in the “current environment,” the city changed course and issued a new RFP that includes public feedback throughout the process.

From form — to function

Downtown Boise and its so-called C-5 zoning already prioritizes how the building looks over what happens inside. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The root idea, Fluke said, is to shift the zoning model from one that is use-based — to one that’s form-based.

“It’s more about how it looks than what is inside,” he said.

Right now, developers and planners hang their applications on the particulars of what a building will be used for. Restaurants, multi-family buildings and industrial uses all include different provisions in the code. The city will move toward an idea that is opposite of the cliche: It’s not about what’s on the inside but what’s on the outside that counts.

“The growth and desirability of mixed-use is a big part of this too,” Journee said. “The old 1960s model doesn’t work.”

But the form-based approach still has its limits.

“We don’t think we can put a form-based zone over the whole city,” Fluke said. “I would think State Street is a candidate. Downtown Boise is already basically a form-based code, but it has strict design standards. State Street could look more like that.”

The City of Boise and several other agencies are deep into a process to revamp the use of both the roadbed and areas surrounding State Street to serve a “transit-oriented” design.

“Street edges need to change to be a more human scale, rather than parking lots along the streets,” Fluke said. “We keep hearing from our constituents is that they want a more robust transit system. We need people living along our transit lines and we need to increase densities where appropriate to support transit.”

Concerns about upzoning

Minneapolis, Minnesota recently grabbed headlines for its complete overhaul of its zoning code. The Star Tribune described the plan as aiming for “a more densely populated, affordable and racially equitable city.”

The plan caught national headlines for its approach to upzoning.

For Minneapolis, upzoning “woustateld allow the construction of multifamily housing, such as duplexes or triplexes, in neighborhoods that for decades have been reserved for single-family homes,” according to the Star Tribune.

Vocal anti-growth group Vanishing Boise wrote a blistering Facebook post warning of upzoning, and blasting the process.

“The recently approved $300,000 contract… is the company hired to radically remake our city.”

During an interview several weeks before the Vanishing Boise post, Fluke pushed back on the idea that upzoning was the project’s aim.

“We want to integrate these updated codes into the fabric of the city, and build a very fine-grained mix of land uses,” he said. “It’s not an upzone, but a right zone.”

Sprawl vs. density

Homes in Boise’s Columbia Village. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The City of Boise’s area of impact remained relatively static over the last 30 years. Instead of annexing large tracts of land like recent actions in Kuna, Boise tried instead to keep its footprint intact and add density within the boundary.

“The zoning ordinance must provide efficient and effective levers to maximize land use allowances in appropriate infill locations within the City and its Area of Impact (growth area) without incentivizing sprawl,” the initial RFP to contractors noted.

The city’s comprehensive planning document – Blueprint Boise – works to build more density rather than sprawl.

“Blueprint came out of a larger conversation about larger solutions around housing, transportation and how we prevent sprawl,” Journee said. “Blueprint Boise embraces density, walkability and mixed-use.”

By updating the zoning to more closely match the comprehensive plan, officials hope to better enact the vision through law.

“When you look at a city, the most dense places are often the most desirable,” Fluke said. “Bown Crossing, the East End, Harris Ranch, the North End: these are the places people want to live.”

Parking and planning

Another key component of the density versus sprawl debate is the role of infrastructure and parking plays.

“If we keep sprawling out, we’re creating transportation problems,” Journee said. “We need to have the infrastructure in place before developers comes in — and then wash their hands of it.”

“Parking standards are a big limiting factor right now,” Fluke said. “On average, a single parking space takes 300 square feet (when including drive aisles and other parking lot features). You do the math. If we require four spaces per thousand square feet, we’re all of a sudden mandating more parking space than building space.”

Fluke again points to Hyde Park as a place that gets it right. Businesses there mostly face the street and have little if any onsite parking.

“Hyde Park is a really good example of how parking works,” he said pointing to the limited surface parking. “Yet somehow all of those businesses are thriving.”

Meridian and Boise: one city with an invisible boundary

A decades-old map shows the once very separate cities of Boise and Meridian.

Currently, the City of Meridian is working on a total update to its comprehensive plan, seven years after the last rework.

“We’ve grown like crazy,” Caleb Hood, Meridian’s planning division manager told the Meridian Press. “The rate of change is what is driving the acceleration of this process.”

Boise and Meridian, once two distinct cities separated by miles of farmland, largely grew into one large city with an invisible boundary.

“As a city we are further along the urban revolutionary curve than the other cities,” Boise’s Fluke said. “I think Meridian’s new plan will look more like Blueprint Boise than their current plan.”

As a region, the cities coordinate through the Community Planning Association of SW Idaho. But COMPASS is primarily focused on transportation.

He said that items like roads, sewer, water and public safety are coordinated. He doesn’t see a “huge need to integrate land use efforts.”

The challenges, according to Fluke, come from some of Ada County’s other cities.

“Where it starts to become a problem is when you get cities further out – like Kuna or Star. They really have no incentive to grow compactly because they don’t realize or see the road costs – ACHD covers that,” referring to the Ada County Highway District which controls all roads in the county.

The road from here

Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The contractor on the project, Clarion, will meet with city leaders and other stakeholders, as well as conduct a city tour.

After the city changed course on public feedback, outreach will begin early in 2020.

“We want to get people educated and comfortable with what we are trying to do before we adopt the ordinance,” Fluke said.

The project document says Clarion will engage with members of the public, neighborhood associations and local developers.

The first outreach and design phases are expected to take 30 months. The entire process could take as long as six years according to Journee.

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