Boise officials are steering toward denser neighborhoods in the next phase of the city’s growth and worsening affordable housing crunch.
At a work session on Tuesday, Boise City Council spent nearly an hour giving detailed feedback on the second draft module of the city’s effort to rewrite the zoning code it launched in 2019. This module, released in January, offered the first look into new proposed guidelines for parking, density, height, and design standards for new projects that could be adopted into the city’s guidelines for approving future development for decades to come.
While city council members praised city staff for their work on the module so far, they told city staff it did not go far enough to address the needs of a small city developing into a more urban one with a shortage of housing units. They also hope for a simpler, more flexible code to reduce the number of times the council has to make exceptions and changes to accommodate projects they say fit into neighborhoods.
City Council President Elaine Clegg said the draft seemed to envision the more suburban city Boise is now, instead of the rapidly growing and urbanizing city it will become in the years this code will be in effect.
“I look at how this is written today. It’s written in large part based on what we’ve built over the last 50 or 60 years with those kinds of setbacks and height limitations,” Clegg said. “It’s not necessarily based on what we’d like to see get built, especially in a new environment.”
Fewer setbacks, taller buildings
Nearly every council member chimed in with ideas on how to make the draft more aggressive toward the goal of building more infill housing and creating a more walkable, public transit-friendly city.
Suggestions from the group included taller buildings in mixed-use activity centers and denser residential zones, with buildings being allowed to be up to 40 feet in residential zones and up to 65 feet in activity centers close to transit and services. Council members also voiced support for removing setbacks in activity centers, allowing buildings to come up to the sidewalk to maximize space for development and walkability.
There was also support for shrinking the minimum lot size to allow for more homes on smaller pieces of land. Council Member Bageant pointed out that many of the city’s most valuable homes in the North End would not be allowed to be constructed today because of their small lot size, which he said should not continue into the next era of the city’s zoning code.
Council Member Holli Woodings joined Clegg in hoping for a more urban focus in the draft. She suggested rolling back the city’s policy of not allowing accessory dwelling units on properties that aren’t owner-occupied. She also said the code should require a conditional use permit for bars in residential neighborhoods, but those businesses should be allowed to operate in any commercial zone.
“I look at our most successful parts of the city, and they have bars right up against residential, and it’s fine,” she said. “I think it creates walkability, it creates neighborhood character, and it does a lot of the things we want it to do for the future of our city.”
What does ‘protect existing neighborhoods’ mean?
A substantial section of the second part of the zoning code rewrite deals with ways to lessen the impact of density on existing single-family homes.
These measures, like adding special lower height requirements and regulations on exterior lighting, were added to the initial draft to add more density while shielding existing residents from impacts. But, city council members had some concerns about how the protections would work and who would benefit.
Bageant raised a concern that the zoning code would create new reasons to deny development people don’t have legal rights to under the Idaho land-use code, like protections for their view. For him, the biggest key to protecting a neighborhood is not keeping it from changing but making it a place where people of all economic means can live, there are open spaces, and it’s safe from crime.
“In my mind, we don’t want to build moats around the richest parts of our town and make them even more valuable as we exclude even more people from coming in,” he said. “…Protecting the neighborhood in my mind is protecting the neighborhood, safe, accessible, open, economic opportunity, all walks of life. That’s what we want to protect. That’s not the same as not allowing development of a certain kind or protecting uses from other uses.”
City Council Member Lisa Sanchez brought up her own experience purchasing a small, affordably priced infill home south of Boise State in the early 2000s. She said without those new homes being built, she wouldn’t have been able to become a homeowner, and she wants to try to build a code that doesn’t foster negative feelings toward new neighbors.
“I personally know the benefit of being welcomed into a neighborhood, and I also know the feeling of getting used to being in a neighborhood and being protective of it, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s we need to do whatever we can of diminishing that attitude that newcomers are going to harm the existing neighborhood.”
Parking, parking, parking
How much space developers should be required to build for cars continues to be a balancing act.
On one hand, City Council Member Jimmy Hallyburton said he felt some of the parking requirements in the proposed zoning code draft would require too much parking for small businesses operating in commercial zones. He gave examples of places like the Lusk District and the North End, where he said companies might be forced to build more parking than is necessary in those dense areas and could make their project too expensive.
“If we’re trying to focus on getting to a more walkable, bike-able city, I still think a lot of the parking requirements are still way too big for most of the stuff we see there,” he said. “I would like to see how we can really take a look at parking so we’re not creating too much and we’re not building empty parking lots in the future that won’t get used.”
Council Member Luci Willits wasn’t so gung ho about cutting down on required parking across the city. While she understands the city’s goal to become a denser place more easily navigated without a car, Willits said it’s important that the new zoning code acknowledge how many neighborhoods still require a vehicle to get around.
“There are areas of the city where you have to have a car, and we have to be mindful of that,” she said. “Not everyone can bike or walk to work in all areas of the city. I’d like to make sure that level of detail is clear and also noted that there are different areas of the city that have different needs.”