Boise Mayor Lauren McLean cast the deciding vote to turn down an upscale student housing project near Boise State University. It’s the second time she cast a tie-breaking vote since entering office early this year.
After four hours of testimony, Boise City Council split down the middle on the 196-unit, three-story project proposed for the corner of Boise Avenue and Protest Hill. St. Louis-based developer Collegiate Development Group and several Boise State Students argued the project would fill a critical need for student housing in Boise at a time when the university is bursting at the seams and places to live are in short supply.
Neighbors gave impassioned pleas to preserve the aging, affordable Ridenbaugh Apartments on-site and its towering tree canopy. Opponents pushed council to turn down the project because of its density without adequate pedestrian infrastructure and commercial businesses at the major intersection.
Only four council members were present: City Council President Elaine Clegg, City Council President Pro Tem Holli Woodings, council members Jimmy Hallyburton and Patrick Bageant. Members Lisa Sánchez and TJ Thomson did not join the meeting.
If approved, the project would house roughly 500 students, with roughly 50% of the residents able to purchase a parking pass in the underground garage. The project would include amenities like a swimming pool, fitness room and a coffee shop for residents. CDG also proposed a relocation package for Ridenbaugh residents, offering assistance locating low cost apartments, funds for moving and the possibility of renting units in the finished project for three years at a reduced rate.
CDG originally proposed in October 2019 and faced a long Planning & Zoning hearing until 2 a.m. earlier this year. Residents of the 23-unit Ridenbaugh Apartments shared stories of finding low-priced housing in the area, and their fears of homelessness. Neighbors on the Bench above the project said the traffic, retaining wall built into the side of the hill and its height would impact their quality of life.
Not enough mixed-use
On Tuesday, Clegg and Hallyburton agreed with the opponents, with McLean joining them in the vote. They said the project’s almost entirely residential use did not fit in with the corner’s designation as a neighborhood activity center, which the comprehensive plan mandates as a place for a range of uses.
“Neighborhood activity centers also call for a range of housing types,” Clegg said. “While I appreciate there is certainly a market for simply student housing in this area, there is also a market for other kinds of housing. There’s a shortage of housing for professors, a shortage of housing for graduate students. There’s a shortage of housing for various staff at BSU who are essential workers and service workers.”
In her tie-breaking vote, McLean agreed. She said she would support dense development in the area, but only if it had a mix of residential and commercial uses instead of only student housing. McLean also expressed concern about the lack of analysis of pedestrian infrastructure in the area.
“This is not ready to the point where it is in the best interests of our general welfare,” she said.
Ada County Highway District’s traffic analysis for the project also caused contention. Clegg, and others, expressed frustration the agency only studied how the project would impact the movement of cars in the area instead of pedestrians. Drew Alexander, the university’s Capital Asset and Development Manager, expressed the university’s concern about high-density projects in areas without proper safety in place for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“Concentration of pedestrians moving to and from these projects are higher than many other parts of Boise, but with less infrastructure to support their travel,” Alexander said.
Will affordable housing remain long term? Probably not
In debating the project, Bageant and Woodings pointed out the landlord’s private property rights to get rid of the Ridenbaugh Apartments, regardless of the rezone’s approval. They also thought creating more student housing closer to campus during a housing shortage would help meet several needs in the neighborhood.
“We have existing affordable housing that is no longer wanted by the property owner and there’s nothing we can do about that as a body, unfortunately,” Woodings said, about the Ridenbaugh Apartments. “It’s theirs to divest, it’s their property to sell.”
Bageant said he understood Clegg and Hallyburton’s argument, but he couldn’t vote to deny the project at a time of unprecedented housing demand.
“If we’re serious about housing, we need to be able to explain why we would say no to putting 500 more beds in the City of Boise,” Bageant said. “…If we’re serious about climate, we need to explain why we say no to 500 more beds within walking distance of campus.”