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Density ‘applied strategically’: Boise backtracks on citywide upzone in new zoning code proposal

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Boise’s new zoning code proposal got a major shake-up after the first two rounds of public input. 

Planning Director Tim Keane, who was appointed this spring, unveiled his new vision for the city’s zoning ordinance to Boise City Council on Tuesday. This new proposal rolls back up zoning city-wide and instead focuses on allowing denser projects only along certain corridors, or when developers agree to build with sustainable materials and reserve some units for low-income Boiseans. He also suggested the city adjust its policies on annexation to avoid growth in areas of the city where it would be prohibitively expensive to provide services to the new residents. 

He said these changes came after listening to feedback from residents in public input sessions who felt the old proposal was a “one size fits all” solution that didn’t embrace the city’s diversity. 

“We have many suburban neighborhoods, we have traditional single-family neighborhoods and mixed housing neighborhoods and we have urban ones,” Keane said. “Recognizing that part of what makes Boise what it is is we have this variety. That’s not something we should work against, but it’s something we should use to help to frame a new ordinance.”

The city will host a series of open houses on these new changes.

Want more units? Bring affordability 

One of the significant changes this draft makes is scaling back the number of units allowed by right throughout the city. 

The first draft allowed up to four units on any residential parcel, which is a higher density than the duplexes allowed by right on every parcel right now. It also consolidated the city’s three residential zoning districts down to two. 

Keane said he wants to back away from that idea and instead keep the city’s three residential zones with the current density requirements still in place. Instead, if a developer wants to build higher density developments, like a triplex, a fourplex, townhomes or a cottage court of smaller homes in a lower density residential zone, they need to agree to make some units affordable and build with sustainable energy and water conservation techniques. 

Ash and River Apartments
The Ash and River Townhomes in Boise. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev file

“(Without this change) we’ll have given away the density and won’t confirm that we’ll get what the public wants in response to that density in the process,” Keane said. 

In order to build denser than a duplex, developers would need to designate one of three or two of four of the units for Boiseans making less than 80% of the area median income at fair market rents set for that income level. Right now, this means a single adult making $47,000 per year would have to rent the units at $1,179 per month. 

Infrastructure should guide growth

A key theme of Keane’s new proposal is allowing dense growth strategically in areas where the city has public transit and other infrastructure, instead of just everywhere. 

He proposes a series of mixed-use zones with different allowances for the number of units and height depending on their location in the city and where they have transit to support them. 

“We really want the mixed-use zones to be applied strategically so that we’re addressing the potential of downtown, that we’re addressing the changes that are happening and the investment that’s going on on State Street and the acknowledgment that some corridors in the city are different than others, that we now have our pathways plan and corridors in the city that are intended to be about mobility in ways other than driving.”

The densest mixed-use zone, MX-5, will cover the growing footprint of downtown and remove any density calculations and height limits in the area. It will also include some of the areas zoned commercial for more suburban development on the outskirts of the downtown core. The next densest mixed-use zone, MX-4, will be for areas near the four planned major intersections with planned public transit along State Street. This will also have no density calculation and no height limit for affordable housing projects. Other buildings will be capped at 60 feet. 

MX-3, the next step down in density, will be allowed elsewhere on State Street and along Fairview and Vista avenues due to the city’s heavy investment in public transit on these streets. There will be no density calculations here as well and all buildings will be capped at 60 feet in height. It will also include the area around Boise Towne Square Mall. 

State St. could soon see urban renewal in the form of support for a high-frequency transit corridor on the street. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The proposal would also rezone the parcels on the backside of properties fronting State, Fairview and Vista to compact residential zoning. These areas allow homes up to 45 feet in height, fourplexes, townhomes, apartments or neighborhood cafes by right, regardless of affordability requirements. 

“The purpose of this is rather than going right to single family we would have a little bit of a transition there where you would have half a block where you’d step down to an R-2, which is residential, and more in keeping with a single-family neighborhood.”

The final two mixed-use designations would allow for more car-centric businesses, like drive-thru windows, and neighborhood businesses designed for residents to walk or bike to. 

The proposal said mixed-use projects in MX-3 and MX-4 zones could also get reduced parking minimums and built taller buildings if a quarter of the units are designated affordable for Boiseans making less than 60% of the area median income for 50 years. Sustainable construction methods and design would also be required. 

‘Surgically’ permitted infill 

The more you build in areas of the city where services are already available, the less impact it has on taxpayers. 

Keane said the goal is to allow small apartment buildings, cottage courts and other dense projects to be built on underutilized or vacant lots in single-family neighborhoods throughout the city, but not just anywhere. He said deciding more “surgically” where this density can occur, it will both increase the availability of housing throughout the city without straining resources or displacing people. 

This new proposal would allow these denser projects in the denser of the two single-family zones if the property is within 300 feet of a road that carries a certain amount of traffic, as determined by ACHD. The property could also be within a quarter of a mile of an MX-3 area, which are zoned along Fairview, State and Vista due to the availability of transit. 

The lot would have to be vacant, have a structure on it that makes up 25% of the assessed value or incorporate the existing structure into the new project. A project would not be allowed if it had a demolition permit on the property in the past three years, a measure Keane said would prevent property owners from deliberately demolishing functional existing properties to make way for denser projects. 

A map of the areas in the city that qualify for infill under the new zoning code proposal. Courtesy: City of Boise

“Let’s tie these things to the infrastructure, not just spread it out across the city,” Keane said. “Let’s be precise about it and put it where people don’t have to drive all the time which is near transit and our main streets.”

If a location meets these criteria, up to four units can be built by right. But, if a developer wants to increase to 5-8 units the project would need to reserve one unit for low-income Boiseans at a reduced rent rate. To get to a maximum of 12 units, the developer would need to hold two units for low-income renters. 

Slowing growth on the city’s outskirts

While Keane doesn’t want to slow growth, he is hesitant for the city to keep annexing land and building lower-density housing on the edges of city limits. 

He pointed in particular to the southern part of Boise, south of the Airport as an example. Keane said the city should stop encouraging development east of Orchard Street and west of the interstate because it would be too costly for the city to develop, both financially and environmentally.

“We need to be careful of the seemingly innocuous towards enabling relatively low density, suburban development further and further from the city,” Keane said. “We have a sense that Boise should be part of the solution here in seeking to avoid the incredible consumption of land that can happen in a region.”

Instead, he said the city should only be considering annexations that would build homes in areas where infrastructure, like fire service, sewer service and police patrols already reach. He pointed to the proposed Murio Farms project as an example of something his department will be supporting for annexation because of its proximity to other residential neighborhoods and the already approved Syringa planned community. 

What about guidelines for homeless shelters?

Questions about zoning and homeless shelters have been swirling in the past year and a half since debate erupted over whether Interfaith Sanctuary should relocate to State Street or not. 

Part of the original zoning code proposal would have created a 300-foot buffer requirement between emergency shelters and residential zones. Keane said this is unworkable because it would have effectively made building a new homeless shelter anywhere in Boise illegal. 

Up until late last week, part of the city’s new zoning code proposal included a new process for locating emergency shelters and would have allowed them in certain zones of the city, instead of requiring a conditional use permit with public testimony. This has since been removed from the draft and Mayor Lauren McLean said at Tuesday’s meeting the city will keep its current zoning regulations for shelters, including the CUP process. 

City spokesperson Maria Weeg told BoiseDev the shelter conversation should be discussed at length by the community at a later date. 

“We believe the community should have the opportunity to continue to be involved in this conversation, when the time comes, about future siting and licensing for shelter facilities,” Weeg wrote. “The zoning code rewrite is much broader in scope and asks the community for feedback on the overall look and feel of the city. For now, we’re focusing on the rewrite and will take up shelters at a later time.”

Interfaith Sanctuary State St.
Rendering of a proposed new shelter for Interfaith Sanctuary along State St. in Boise. Via The Land Group

The city’s original proposal that has since been removed would have required a shelter to receive a business license, pursue a Good Neighbor agreement, invite businesses within 1,000 feet of the site, the area’s Neighborhood Association, a minimum of two residents who live within 1,000 feet and city staff to provide input on the project. The shelter would also be required to create a hotline for residents to call to report issues, which would require a “timely response.”

The shelter would have had to be located a quarter of a mile from a transit line, be capped at 300 beds, have a minimum of 34 square feet per bed in designated sleeping areas and have enough daytime seating for 50% of the shelter’s total capacity. The city would have also required solid fencing, one electrical outlet per bed, perimeter landscaping and intake areas both indoor and outdoors. 

The city was also initially proposing requirements for a community safety plan for any licensed shelter, including required cooperation with law enforcement, a plan to deploy security patrols within 1,000 feet of the shelter and plans to curb loitering, trespassing and panhandling. Camping would also be prohibited on the property. 

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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