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Preservation activists hope Boise will change rules on demolition

- Idaho Press

Near the corner of Ustick and Cloverdale roads, all that remains of a 120-year-old farmhouse is a dirt lot.

Soon the 2.3-acre parcel in west Boise could become a small subdivision with 11 single-family homes in the rapidly growing suburb on the Boise-Meridian border. It took less than a day for Crimson Real Estate LLC, the company looking for city approval to build the project, to get a demolition permit to take down the house, historic barn and other outbuildings in order to make way for the project.

Preservation activists are hoping to change that.

Push to slow down process

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In Boise, it takes only a few hours for a developer to be issued a permit for demolition of a building to make way for a new project. As the city has rapidly grown in recent years, historic preservation activists and others concerned about the loss of affordable housing to make way for high-priced residential projects have sounded the alarm asking for the city to reform its permitting process to slow down demolitions.

Preservation Idaho Executive Director Paula Benson said her organization would like to see the city implement a demolition review ordinance requiring buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places or eligible for that listing through a process to determine if they should be demolished, because of their historic significance.

Benson said a process like this wouldn’t necessarily mean all demolitions for these sites would be denied. She suggested an ordinance like this could include a requirement that if a building is allowed to be demolished, the developer could pay a fee to fund historic surveying and documentation of the site before it is destroyed and an interpretive sign to educate the public later about what used to be there.

“It would be a way of funding things that benefit the city overall and could be included in the cost of demolition and redevelopment by the new owner,” she said. “It really makes the process better for the city and better for citizens because it allows for demolition where necessary, but the city gets something in return.”

Even if a building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, that provides no protection if the owner wants to demolish it. 

Boise considering it

It might not be long before Boise considers an ordinance like this. Mayor Lauren McLean told the Idaho Press last month she and City Council President Elaine Clegg have long been in support of new rules limiting demolition permits and expect to see some new regulations come before council at a work session soon.

The draft proposal addresses both demolition and deconstruction of buildings. McLean said she hopes the ordinance will possibly require a six-month waiting period to demolish certain structures, as well as require buildings to be taken apart in more sustainable ways instead of all of the materials going directly into the landfill.

McLean said a demolition ordinance is not just about historic preservation or the environment, but it has a major impact on affordable housing when older housing buildings are taken down.

“The entire time the public has been asking for this and waiting, we’ve been losing housing that is important to people,” she said. “Demolition does connect to affordable housing. If we’re going to address the affordability crisis we have and we’re losing affordable housing for non-affordable housing, is there something we can do to look at the net loss of affordability?”

Travis Apartments a catalyst

How demolition and affordable housing connect was the center of a debate in front of the Planning & Zoning Commission and Boise City Council last summer regarding a proposal to tear down the affordably priced, art deco Travis Apartments building in downtown Boise to make way for a five-story condominium building.

In the midst of several groups mobilizing to try to save the building and its affordable housing units last summer, property owner Creed Herbold took out a demolition permit. This meant the building would be demolished, whether the city decided to grant his rezoning request for the five-story building or not, rendering moot any questions of historic preservation and affordable housing.

McLean, then city council president, said at the September meeting she had hoped for a compromise with the developer before he put in for the demolition permit. But since that’s how Herbold proceeded, it was all the more reason for the city to pursue a demolition ordinance.

“One thing that came out of that is we have started moving forward with a demolition and a deconstruction of buildings ordinance that we ought to have done long ago,” McLean said at the meeting. “From now on, I’m going to think of that as the ‘Travis’ ordinance.”

Information on the number of demolitions in Boise last year was not available by press time.

Hoping to hold on to history

As the city is rapidly changing, historic preservationists are trying to find ways to hold onto Ada County’s history. In the case of the farmstead off of Cloverdale, Dan Everhart from the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office said it was one of the last remaining properties showing that area of Ada County’s agricultural history.

“Where (there)used to be farmland and irrigated crops is now housing and strip-mall developments,” he said. “Those changes, though may be expected, nonetheless serve to erase that history and make it more difficult to understand how and why this region developed in the first place.”

The farmstead on Cloverdale was eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but never actually listed. It was surveyed in 1987, and according to documents on the property provided by the State Historic Preservation Office, it was classified then as a “very threatened site.” It included a two-story Gothic-style farmhouse, a barn, and several outbuildings. Although they were in “excellent” condition in the 1980s, by the time it was demolished the property was in disrepair. Benson said she was disappointed the property was scraped without a chance to further note the details of the site for future generations to learn about.

“The frustration is all of that goes away into the landfill without any documentation or any discussion,” she said.

Margaret Carmel
Margaret is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at margaret@boisedev.com or by phone at (757)705-8066.
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