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‘A pivotal time’: New Boise PDS director talks growth, zoning code rewrite, and housing

After dust collected in the corner office of Boise’s planning department for nearly a year, Mayor Lauren McLean has found a new leader to head up the city’s response to growth and development. 

Tim Keane arrived in Boise from Atlanta to take the helm of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department at the beginning of March. Since then he’s been digging into the city’s proposed zoning code rewrite, exploring the Snake River plain, and mulling how Boise can avoid the pitfalls other rapidly growing cities in America fell into decades ago. 

BoiseDev interviewed Keane on our podcast this week. Here are some highlights from the wide-ranging conversation. 

‘Interestingly different’

Unlike the past two recent planning directors, Keane is a planner by trade, not a developer. 

He spent decades of his planning career in the Southeast US, with an early stint in Davidson, North Carolina before heading to the City of Charleston and eventually landing as the Planning Director for the City of Atlanta. But, he has always been fascinated by the mountain west after reading a book about planning by former Missoula Mayor Daniel Kemmis called “Community and the Politics of Place”.

The descriptions of the culture in this region and the different relationships westerners have to land attracted Keane to take on the challenge of shepherding Boise through its period of rapid growth. 

“That is what interested me (about Boise), that it is different,” he said. “Certainly I could have stayed in Atlanta or gone to another southern city, but it would have been more of the same and I was interested in exploring a different part of the country and this one specifically because of the way Kemmis had described it in this book.”

Keane said much of the role of planning in Atlanta was to repair the damage an ever-growing network of highways had done to the city as the region boomed. This is a different charge than here in Boise where there is still time to create a city ready to grow and change in a way that makes addressing transportation, housing affordability, and environmental sustainability easier, not harder. 

“These are issues Boise is in the midst of grappling with and I feel like it’s a pivotal time for the city and the region to try to navigate those things in ways where we’re learning from what happened in other cities and seeking to find very different solutions in ways that were pursued in the mid to late 20th century,” he said. 

Growing region, slow-growing cities cause problems

Keane said nearly every major city in the United States had seen hardly any change in the last several decades while the outskirts are booming. 

He said this sprawling development pattern makes paying for city services prohibitively expensive, hurting the quality of services and residents’ pocketbooks due to constant tax hikes for cities to try and keep up. Keane said while some people have the feeling that density creates problems with affordability, more traffic, and impacts on the environment, allowing low-density development to spread miles away from the city center instead is what actually causes those problems. 

“A place that grows in that fashion is a place that can’t solve any transportation problems,” he said. “It creates a situation that is unsolvable with how people get around the city affordably and safely. It creates all sorts of dynamics within the housing market that today define how cities are trying to, in a way that almost no one is satisfied with, address housing challenges. It describes the way in which nature has been destroyed in the process of these places growing.”

To plan for a better-growing city, Keane said Boise needs to decide how large of a population the city should be designed for. Then, the city should develop standards and zoning requirements to distribute that additional population where we want it and with standards that make the city better over time. 

“We need to get to, specifically, what is the outcome we’re designing for because without that we’re in the dark,” he said. “People have a hard time understanding ‘How is this change making the city better?’ It starts with understanding that question of ‘What size city we’re designing for?’ and once you know that and how that population might be distributed you start to look at how does the physical city accommodates that growth.”

Shakeups coming to zoning rewrite proposal

Keane arrived after the first two modules of Boise’s proposed zoning code rewrite had already been released to the public. After feedback from city council members and from the public, it is under revision and will soon come back for more input. 

One of the items the public was concerned about was the proposal to allow four units on any parcel in the city. This is a change from Boise’s current policy allowing duplexes in any single-family zoned area. Keane said people were concerned about how this would impact neighborhoods, and he tends to agree. 

Instead of treating all zones across the city the same, Keane said the next rewrite should allow for different types of development in different kinds of neighborhoods. 

“We need to acknowledge it’s not only acceptable, it’s preferred to have a city of different types of neighborhoods,” he said. “We don’t want a city of one type. We want a city that has a diversity of neighborhoods. We need to look at how we can surgically permit some increase in density within single-family but not in a one size fits all kind of fashion.”

You can listen to the full podcast by searching BoiseDev on Apple, Google, Spotify, Amazon, on Listen Boise, or on our podcasts page.

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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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