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Aging downtown hotel to get new life as The Sparrow: ‘most would say “tear it down”‘


BoiseDev Project Tracker

For more than 50 years, an old motor lodge has stood at the corner of 11th St. and Grove St. in Downtown Boise. The three-story building is right in the heart of Downtown Boise, complete with a pool, free breakfast room, a small lobby and about 60 hotel rooms.

But for the last several years, the Safari Inn has been closed. The property is largely abandoned except by folks who use it for monthly parking. But soon, the Safari will have new life – and again serve as a hotel, with a new look and concept.

Boise-based Oppenheimer Development Corp. struck a deal with the Barnes family, which has owned the property for generations. They will bring in Bozeman, MT-based Nest Partners, and give the hotel a completely new look and “vibe.” Soon, the decades-long Safari will end, and Sparrow will take flight.

Nest started not on a lark – but with The Lark. They found an old hotel on Main St. in Bozeman and went about giving it new life. Projects followed at an old Days Inn in Missoula (The Wren) and an old Red Lion in Walla Walla (The Finch).

Now, The Sparrow will join Nest.

The Safari Inn as it stands now. The building will soon become The Sparrow under a proposed plan. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

“We take old 1960s motor lodge, and bring innovative ideas on the exterior,” Nest’s Erik Nelson told BoiseDev. “There’s a creepy vibe on these and you have to break it and come up with some cool things. We’re architect heavy on our team – so we’re focused on that from the beginning.”

The Safari used to include the lobby and hotel room building on the Grove St. side of the block, as well as the one-time Grand Hotel building on the Main St. side, with a skybridge connecting the two sections across an alley. But the rooms along Main St. are now micro-apartment project B-Side. That development left the remaining piece of the hotel empty.

The Murelaga family owned the hotel under a long-term ground lease with the Barnes family, according to Oppenheimer VP Jeremy Malone. The lease expired in recent years, and the family of Larry Barnes sold the ground to the Richter Family Trust. Doug and Skip Oppenheimer worked with the new property owners and brought in Nest.

“The land has been in the Barnes family a long time,” Malone said. “Murelaga had a 40- or 50-year ground lease that expired. He knew he wasn’t going to re-up on the lease so it closed.”

‘Breathe new life’

An outdoor living room concept at the corner of 11th St. and Grove St. Via CSHQA

The 11th and Idaho corner is quiet now, with large parking lots on two corners and the vacant hotel on a third. But Eagle-based Pennbridge Lodging plans two hotels across Grove St., and Hendricks Commercial Properties plans another across 11th. If all four hotels are built, it would add 452 new rooms in the area.

But while Pennbridge and Hendricks propose brand new buildings, much of the Safari will remain intact when it becomes the Sparrow.

“What a cool intersection to be at so we can be at the future of Boise,” Nelson said. “We couldn’t be more pleased to be at the location. It’s what we do is breathe new life.”

The Capital City Development Corp. is at work in improvements to Grove St. that would upgrade streetscapes along one side of the hotel site, and is also planning on a new 11th St. bikeway that would sweep along the other street side.

Community space, food truck, coffee

The old pool will give way to a new plaza on the corner, with community gathering space and a pool. The 61 existing hotel rooms will get a makeover, with new furnishings, paint, and locally-created art. Right now, parking tucks under the main hotel building, but Nest hopes to remove the spaces and add seven additional hotel rooms on the ground floor.

Nelson said he envisions the project as a basecamp for people to visit and explore Boise.

“People that would stay with us are interested in exploring the communities they visit,” he said. “We’re not inclined to keep you tied up on the property. We want you to get out and explore Boise.”

The project won’t include an on-site restaurant or bar, but will add a food truck spot right on the corner. At the Bozeman project, the food truck features a Vietnamese concept from Boise native Heather Marie.

“Instead of creating a restaurant in the hotel, we want to create a place that brings the locals to us,” Nelson said. “The people who stay here can mingle with the people who know the place. Not the sad hotel bar where people don’t know anyone from there.”

The lobby will include a new coffee shop space, which will open onto the plaza. The partners say they hope to evoke a European sense with coffee in the morning and beer and wine toward the end of the day.

Nelson mentioned ideas like a taco truck or other concepts for the foodservice.

Unique rooms

Each room will have its own look and feel. In other projects, some rooms include traditional beds, while others include bunk beds.

“A lot of what we create in the rooms is made by hand,” Nelson said. “We come up with creative things.”

The exterior of the hotel will get a complete refresh as well. But some architectural elements will remain – including one currently hidden from view.

“Wit the overall structure of the building, we can’t figure out what the intent was. On the lobby, it has this sawtooth roof with vaulted rooms inside hidden behind the facade. We are deconstructing it and trying to build back the essence of it.”

Opportunity with challenge

Nelson and Oppenheimer said they could have torn down the aging buildings and built something brand new. But instead, the adaptive reuse brings opportunities along with challenges.

“Part of is just purely to do something that is recycled,” Nelson said. “It’s a better use of creating more life into it. As designers and as a team, we like the sideboards it creates. We have to stay within what it is. It allows us to look at it and be both inspired, but find the solution.”

Not that the temptation to rip it all down wasn’t present.

“This is where we start. You’re like ‘ack – woah!’ Most people would say ‘tear it down!’ But it’s rewarding to come back and do something that activates the space and not being totally consumptive of the space,” he said.

“It’s just going to be a cool project that’s going to transform the part of downtown,” Malone said. “It’s fun!”

The project will go through Boise’s design review process, with an application expected this week. Malone and Nelson say they hope to start work next year and open in 2023.

Don Day - BoiseDev Editor & Founder
Don Day - BoiseDev Editor & Founder
Don is the founder and publisher of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow. Contact him at [email protected].

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