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The Boise River: nature, development, and water quality shape its future

There aren’t many cities where you see someone fly fishing a few hundred feet from a downtown office building. 

Winding through the heart of town, the Boise River is a central piece of life in Idaho’s largest city. It’s home to floaters in the summer, dogs chasing sticks into the shallows, and a range of wildlife. The river has come a long way from its polluted past. 

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But, as the city grows it’s also an economic driver bringing development projects to capitalize on the river’s beauty during the boom. The question of how the banks of the Boise River will be developed will define the capital region for decades to come. 

A tale of two river cities

Boise and it’s smaller neighbor Garden City both front the Boise River and play host to miles of the city’s iconic Greenbelt, but walking through the two cities is often a different experience. 

Crossing into Garden City’s portion of the Greenbelt system, you instantly notice more housing up close to the river, restaurants right off of the path and clearer views to the water. New, dense townhomes have sprung up in Garden City just across the footbridge from Esther Simplot Park and walkers can step right off the Greenbelt and into a Joe’s Crab Shack on Garden Street. 

[Proposal would bring Garden City’s tallest buildings: riverfront hotel, apartments, rooftop bar, and a Greenbelt ‘boardwalk’]

Boise’s Greenbelt is a more natural, secluded experience. There are occasional buildings and residences backing up to the pathway, but the city has left the dense vegetation between the Greenbelt and the river largely untouched. It feels nothing like a riverside boardwalk and there’s very little commerce right on the Greenbelt. With a few exceptions, you must venture hundreds of feet off the walkway to grab a beer or find a place to eat. 

The patio for Telaya Wine Company off of the Greenbelt in Garden City. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

This is not by accident. In the 1990s, Boise passed its Boise River System Ordinance that requires strict 70 setbacks from the river’s edge, or even more in some areas to protect specific habitats. The only activity allowed within that setback is the Greenbelt. The ordinance even prevents Boise from removing dead vegetation near the river’s edge. 

Cody Riddle, Boise’s deputy director of current planning, said the ordinance’s goal was to prioritize flood protection, fish and wildlife habitat and recreation over any kind of construction. 

“We’ve approached it where development is the lowest priority,” Riddle said. “It’s not to say we disallow it, but it can’t be at the detriment to those other goals. It is quite natural in most places at least for that corridor and the ordinance reflects that.”

Garden City’s approach is far less regulated. Mayor John Evans said many properties along the river have already developed over the years and “the ship has sailed” on slowing down building in many areas, especially north of Glenwood Street. He said his city does have zoning regulations and requirements for setbacks to keep developments away from the possibility of flooding, but he expects more intense development along the river in the coming years. 

“A lot of it is a function of the free market and how (the river’s) gained a lot of interest,” he said. “The river is a valuable resource and an attractive development opportunity for those who have the ability to assemble multiple parcels in 100 by 300 foot increments to get enough land together to do something.”

Boise River 3.0

The Boise River hasn’t always been as clean as it is today. 

In the early days of western settlers taking over the land around Boise from the Boise Valley People, the Boise River became a dumping ground for sewage and other waste from meatpacking plants. It was even dredged extensively during the Gold Rush in the 1800s so miners could search for silver in the river bed, according to Boise State Public Radio. 

Runoff from agriculture operations and other heavy industries also added to the problems during the 20th century. By 1965, the Boise River was considered the second most polluted river in Idaho. 

The City of Boise’s construction of a water renewal plant to keep sewage out of the river and environmental regulations in the late 1970s from the federal government helped clean up the river and restore it to what it is today. The tough emphasis on preservation from the City of Boise in its urban planning helped preserve acres of habitat and let the ecosystem recover and thrive. 

[1970 film showcases Boise Greenbelt on eve of 50th anniversary]

But, what comes next? Some developers, like Derek O’Neil with River Shore Development, think it’s time to reimagine a new way for Boise to develop around the river. O’Neil is hoping for a balance between clear cutting the trees to build a San Antonio-style riverwalk and leaving the river untouched. 

“We have a lot of people living downtown and lots of people commuting to and from downtown, so (the Boise River) can’t be the same up by Barber Park or the same as it is downriver,” he said, on a walk near Shoreline Park in Boise. “We have to plan for more people using it and we need to be thoughtful about how it’s used and how it’s activated. It’s the third evolution of the river and how it coexists with development and people.”

The Greenbelt through shoreline park and a Boise Parks and Recreation maintenance shed. Improvements for this area are included in the master plan for the Shoreline Urban Renewal District. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

O’Neil, who previously served as Boise’s Director for Planning and Development services and built Bown Crossing, said he isn’t ready to share any plans he has for development in the area near the Boise River. He left his city post in September 2018 and joined his current development company, which purchased the former Kmart site at the corner of Shoreline Drive and Americana Boulevard. 

The property was originally proposed for a sports park for the Boise Hawks, but opposition moved the site elsewhere on the edge of downtown before a ballot initiative ended chances of the project happening in Boise. O’Neil and his partners purchased the site in the summer of 2018 and have held onto it quietly since. Tandem Diabetes filled the large former Kmart store.

Enter Urban Renewal

The Kmart site is located in the Shoreline urban renewal district, which opened in 2019 and will be collecting tax increment financing until 2039. It was once planned to be a major part of the financing for the proposed sports park, but developers like O’Neil who own property in the area and Capital City Development Corporation are hoping the district can drive change. 

O’Neil enthusiastically testified in favor of the district at Boise City Council in late 2018. 

Activating the river is a major part of the plans for the district, which has lagged behind the rest of downtown Boise in economic activity. Possible improvements outlined in the plan for the district include another footbridge across the Boise River, Greenbelt improvements and a public plaza near the Boise River where the tree canopy has already been cut down. 

CCDC’S Development Director Doug Woodruff said the district is an opportunity to use development to improve the quality of the river. He said it will benefit from stormwater improvements to reduce harmful runoff into the river, but if the district invests in more thoughtful river access it will reduce the impacts on the ecosystem. 

A conceptual map of planned improvements in the Shoreline Urban Renewal District. Courtesy of Capital City Development Corporation.

“Instead of saying ‘hey let’s disregard the tree canopy and let whatever happen,’ I think a balanced approach is asking ‘is there a point where river access can be improved?’” he said. 

“One example would be Shoreline Park where the path goes to the river’s edge. There’s a big opportunity there where that can be improved to allow safe access down to the water for families to come and play in the water, tubers to get in and out, fishermen to get access and all of these sort of things and add some more tree canopy too.”

O’Neil agrees, and hopes the projects coming online in the area during the next 20 years interface with the river more, while also preserving the environmental asset. He gave not even a hint of what he’s hoping to build in the district, but he was excited about all of CCDC’s proposals for the area. 

“It’s a real natural, great environment,” he said. “That’s what people love. We also have to plan for people loving it to death and be more meaningful in our development.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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