The southeastern entrance to Boise used to be a winding state highway passing through empty fields along the curve of the Boise River.
But, things in the Barber Valley have changed.
The rise of Harris Ranch and other large projects from developers like Brighton have transformed the Barber Valley from its longtime agricultural roots to a suburban paradise for Boiseans looking for scenic views and new homes stretching away from downtown. Each side of Warm Springs Avenue is now dotted with subdivisions branching off in multiple directions, with cyclists and pedestrians traveling through the neighborhood in search of an outing or on their way to work, school or shopping.
Because of the change, the Barber Valley Neighborhood Association and the City of Boise hope the classification of Warm Springs Avenue can change from a higher-capacity urban street to a more residential one. This change would allow for changes to Warm Springs to make it more of a residential neighborhood street friendlier to pedestrians and with slower traffic.
But, unlike nearly every other city in the United States, the City of Boise doesn’t have a say over its own roads. Any road projects, how streets are classified and how they can be designed, are under the purview of the Ada County Highway District, an agency with its own elected officials and internal policies. And so far, ACHD has rebuffed the City of Boise and the Barber Valley Neighborhood Association’s proposal to change Warm Springs Avenue due to internal policy.
This is just one example of how growth and the design of Ada County’s cities is made more complex when cities and the highway district have different visions for how streets should be built and how they should interact with the neighborhoods around them.
‘An unclear path forward’
Up until the 1990s, Warm Springs Avenue was state Highway 21.
This means the road was built with a wide right-of-way and other features that make drivers naturally feel comfortable driving quickly through the area, even though it is in the heart of a neighborhood. BVNA and the City of Boise’s comprehensive plan both hope for changes to the road to give it a slower, more neighborhood feel. Potential improvements on the city and the neighbor’s list include bike lanes, detached sidewalks to make the roadway itself narrower and trees along the roadway.
All of these improvements naturally calm traffic by encouraging drivers to move more slowly through the area. But, the problem is that on ACHD’s Master Street Map, Warm Springs Avenue is designated as an arterial and these sorts of projects aren’t allowed on arterials. To try and pave the way for change on the corridor, the City of Boise put in an application earlier this year to change the designation to a neighborhood collector road.
But, ACHD staff recommended the commissioners not approve the change because of their internal policies. Mayor Lauren McLean’s Transportation Advisor Bre Brush said this was due to the specific zoning plan for the area listing Warm Springs as an arterial road, not a collector. This complicates matters when the City of Boise is trying to make decisions on what sorts of developments should go where in the city, but without the authority to dictate precisely what the roads next door to the project will look like.
“Situations where the vision of the city doesn’t quite line up with ACHD policy it leaves developers with an unclear forward,” Brush said. “Both access and traffic calming are so tied to the adjacent land use and that’s where we see those policy misalignments crop up.”
ACHD doesn’t see Warm Springs the same way as the City of Boise. Highway District spokesperson Rachel Bjornestad told BoiseDev that they are currently talking with BVNA about traffic calming options in the area as part of an upcoming concept study on the road between Broadway Avenue and Windsong Drive. But, in the meantime, they say the road should stay classified the way it is to accommodate the traffic on it, instead of making the administrative changes to allow for traffic calming projects.
“Currently, Warm Springs is classified as an arterial based on the standards set forth by the Federal Highway Administration,” Bjornestad wrote in an email. “Specifically, it is a major roadway that connects two highways. The volume of vehicles is what classifies it as an arterial. Changing the classification would not change the amount of traffic on the road.”
Following publication of this article, BVNA sent a statement to BoiseDev pushing back on some of ACHD’s comments. The organization is frustrated with the agency’s discussion of traffic calming on a section of Warm Springs that is not in the Barber Valley neighborhood. BVNA also disagrees with ACHD that Warm Springs cannot be declassified due to the volume of traffic in the area.
“The stretch of Warm Springs to Windsong Drive is not in our neighborhood and is not the stretch of road that we have clearly been focused on between Eckert Road and Highway 21,” the statement read. “We are disappointed that ACHD continues to misdirect and mislead the public and obfuscate the issue at hand by not even addressing the actual section of road in question and suggesting current collaboration with our neighborhood association is taking place.”
ACHD Commissioners to take a second look
At least two ACHD Commissioners asked for more discussion on the classification of several streets in Ada County, including Warm Springs.
On August 10th, the commission met to review the latest Master Street Map, which decides what roads throughout the county will be classified what to help plan transportation projects. This year, both the City of Boise and the City of Garden City made several reclassification requests ACHD staff recommended denying due to internal ACHD policies, including Warm Springs.
Commissioner Alexis Pickering voiced her concerns, arguing ACHD should be following the city’s lead since they are the ones approving developments and building the vision for their individual cities.
“I think we should be doing and acting on what the cities request,” Pickering said. “Maybe I just object to how we’ve structured this master street map entirely because even though staff have done a great job with communicating what our policies are and where their hands are tied, I am still left with this vacuum where the cities aren’t able to act on what they want the cities to look like.”
Commissioner Jim Hansen agreed, noting BNVA’s long history of advocating for Warm Springs Avenue to be treated like a neighborhood street with pedestrian crossings and traffic calming, instead of a highway. He said the agency should stop pulling the neighborhood association and developers in the area, like Harris Ranch builder Lenir Ltd, back and forth over administrative policy and make the change.
“I believe we have the ability to amend our policies to make it so arterials are viewed as unique to every neighborhood in which they exist and we can reclassify and create new classifications for a major collector in a neighborhood where there are no other roads functioning,” Hansen said. “A logical thing to do is to call this a (neighborhood street) and we can.”
BVNA Secretary Gary Veasy agreed in an interview with BoiseDev. He said the neighborhood association has been trying to get Warm Springs reclassified for years, only to be told a different process or reason it is stuck as an arterial for several years.
“We get ping pong balled back and forth,” Veasy said. “We’re told ‘this is the process you could investigate’ and then ‘no this isn’t the process’.”
ACHD will meet to discuss Warm Springs and other streets that have been recommended for denial of reclassification on October 5.
Atwell Place sparks discussion on Warm Springs
Warm Springs and its street classification played a big role in a public hearing at the beginning of August on a proposed subdivision of townhomes.
BVNA and other residents of Southeast Boise came out to call for changes to a proposal called Atwell Place to build nearly 40 townhomes on 3.2 acres in an East Valley subdivision along Warm Springs. Neighbors argued before the Boise Planning & Zoning Commission the project was too dense for the site and Vesey called the project’s design “a lost opportunity” to make changes to Warm Springs. This parcel is one of the last remaining undeveloped pieces of land along this stretch of the road.
Originally, the concept would have connected the subdivision directly to Warm Springs, which would have added more cars turning onto the road and naturally slowed traffic down on the stretch, but because it is designated an arterial then the neighborhood had to be designed another way. Now, anyone living in or visiting the townhome subdivision will have to drive past homes in the existing East Valley to turn onto Warm Springs.
Boise Planning & Zoning Commissioners voted to deny the project because they felt it was trying to put too many homes onto too small of a site and it lacked the proper amenities, but they were not open to the argument that the city should try and force access onto Warm Springs for this project even if it goes against ACHD policy. Commissioner Meredith Stead said she understands there could be changes down the road to zoning rules and the classification of the street, but that can’t stop this approval.
“We know we have new development code on the horizon, but if we went with ‘We know things will change so we can’t make decisions now’ we’d be at a standstill,” she said. “The future is not guaranteed and just because the city is talking about it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but sometimes the relationship between the city and ACHD can get complicated.”
Commissioner Ashley Squyres felt the same way, noting that allowing a direct access onto Warm Springs for one parcel won’t change the overall issues residents have with the street.
“I think the neighbors are pinning all of their hopes and dreams on this last parcel on Warm Springs to get everything you want and it’s not appropriate to put it on the applicant,” she said.
The project was denied and will be reconsidered by P&Z at a later date now that the applicant has decreased the density to 36 homes, added a network of detached sidewalks and more open space.