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Ada County hears pitches from three landscape architecture firms on the future of Les Bois Park and Expo Idaho

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Ada County is looking for a new partner to help them plan for the next generation of Expo Idaho. 

On Tuesday, the Ada County Commissioners heard three back-to-back presentations from landscape architecture design firms, both local and from elsewhere, who are vying for a contract with the county to design a sprawling 90-acre park at the fairgrounds. This new park will span the area currently covered by the dilapidated horse stables and abandoned Les Bois racing track, which currently sits empty with the exception of the grandstand being used for concerts at the Western Idaho Fair. 

This is the latest step in a years-long discussion at Ada County about how to redevelop the nearly 300-acre site, which includes the fairgrounds, Memorial Stadium, Lady Bird Park, acres of surface parking and the abandoned track.

The future of the Turf Club, which the county had an offer for off-track betting, remains unknown. None of the three proposals the commissioners heard on Tuesday included the facility as an off-track betting location, and two out of the three didn’t appear to include the building in the design at all. One of the county’s other ARPA projects is reroofing the building.

Now, county staff will rank the top three finalist firms based on a number of factors. The Commissioners will select the winning firm at an open business meeting later this month. Even though the firms will be ranked, the commissioners will be able to choose any of the three firms they choose, regardless of ranking. 

The county plans to use federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to help launch the park, but they haven’t settled on other funding sources to get the project done. It’s unknown if they would create an urban renewal district, privately fundraise, seek grants, use county funds or any other sources to pay for a dramatic renovation of the area. 

Here is a description of the three proposals, in the order in which they were presented: 

RIOS

Moving the river to the footprint of the horse racing track is a major part of Los Angeles-based RIOS’ vision for the site. 

A cornerstone for RIOS’ plans for the park include moving the Boise River into the flood plain area of the park and expanding it with multiple channels for water to flow through, bringing the river down into the larger loop of the existing horse racing track. With the track serving as a multi-use pathway for users to travel around to different amenities throughout the site, visitors could explore a pier on the northwest corner, a river education center, multiple sports fields surrounded by the track or a newly constructed “adventure island” in the middle of the Boise River. 

A view of RIOS design concept for the Expo Idaho site. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

Jason Shinoda, a landscape architect with the firm, told the commissioners the goal was to create a more dynamic, natural river setting by splitting the river into channels and bringing it into the park. He said this uses the areas topography to its advantage to make it a more interesting park for visitors to explore. 

“Something that’s important is embracing the seasonal flux and dynamic aspects of the river,” Shinoda told the commissioners. “We’re proposing to expand the foldaway of the river to two channels which creates island moments. We’re embracing the idea that water will raise and recede through the life of the year. It creates more interesting experiences for users.”

The revamped grandstand would remain intact and act as a gateway into the park with a plaza welcoming visitors near a newly built community center, roughly located where the Turf Club currently sits. And instead of keeping the grandstand as it is now with it’s back to the rest of Expo Idaho, RIOS envisioned allowing those entering the area to see into the rest of the park as well as adding two spiral staircases to bring visitors from the ground up into the stands. 

Adventure Island would have amenities like rock climbing, places for nature viewing and ropes courses and the northwest corner of the park would include a pier for visitors to look out over the Boise River. A dog park would also be included, along with beaches to enter the river with kayaks and rafts. The park would also have playgrounds for visitors. 

A view of the renovated grandstands, which would be opened up to the public, as you enter the park. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

In response to a question from a county staffer about the feasibility of getting the necessary approvals to move the Boise River in time to use ARPA funds to pay for it before they expire, RIOS landscape architect Brent Jacobsen said his group has experience with large scale water projects and is prepared to explore all of the complex details required for the project to become a reality. 

“We have a water resources engineer on the team and we’d want to start that early and talk about what’s feasible and possible,” he said. “We can think through how that channel works, but we think it’s an important move to think about and see if we can achieve it.”

The Land Group

Eagle-based firm The Land Group hopes to bring the adventurous Idaho backcountry home to Ada County. 

This firm’s plan envisions five districts of the park, all of which serve different users with different needs. The plan calls for wide open fields for playing and organized sports, a community-focused space with food trucks and community gardens, a river district with space to wade and play in the water and a “destination playground” at the center of the project. This design would also maintain the existing grandstand and turn the Turf Club into an education center focused on science, technology, engineering, arts and math educational programming for students. 

A concept map of The Land Group’s proposal for the Expo Idaho site. Courtesy of The Land Group

Matt Adams said the goal for the park, and the Movement District at its heart especially, is to provide a place for anyone to play, rock climb, run trails and experience nature in Idaho’s largest city like they would in McCall or Sun Valley. 

“You can do anything in this park that you can do in Idaho,” Adams said. “It’s everything you could experience in Idaho, but for a child who can’t get there they can walk down the street and experience those activities. We create equity because we have a safe place to play with kids who are not from their community. It’s good to play with people that are not like you.”

A key feature of the southern edge of the park is a community district with gardens, picnic areas, food truck stalls, an orchard and a kitchen incubator. Kitchen incubators allow food business owners to rent kitchen space for pop-up events, to create products or otherwise pilot their business without the intensive startup costs of renting a storefront of their own. There would also be a market on-site for kitchen users to sell their prepared food. 

The Field District area of the park would include miles of trails crisscrossing the park, wide open fields for recreation, nature watching and overflow space for events or sports games. The Land Group also plans a series of interpretive trails for the area, which could educate visitors on the history of Garden City’s Chinese immigrant population, the Oregon Trail and the Indigenous tribes who used to live in what is now Ada County before it was settled by westerners. 

The River District will include places for visitors to walk along the river, wade into the water and put watercraft in and out. And like RIOS, the Land Group proposes to make a welcoming plaza space around the Grandstand to bring visitors into the site. But, the heart of the project is a large playground with play equipment built into natural features like boulders and trees, water features for kids to play in and towering play equipment that keeps kids safe but gives them the “perceived risk” they need to want to keep coming back again and again for adventures at the park. 

A rendering of the proposed destination playground at the Expo Idaho site from The Land Group. Courtesy of The Land Group

During the question and answer portion, Expo Idaho Director asked about parking spaces in the design. Adams told him the goal would be to create a park that is accessible to users on foot, by bike and public transportation instead of just cars, but he admitted there might be more of a need for parking for a regional park of this size with the type of amenities he designed. 

“For this vision, is it under parked?” He said. “It could be. That could be a fair comment.”

Port 

The third firm competing for the design contract also wants to embrace the contours of Expo Idaho’s flood plain, but in a different way. 

Philadelphia-based firm Port envisions a 25-acre segment of the project area on the western edge near the grandstand being used for traditional park amenities, ringed with two loops of multi-use pathways for pedestrians, cyclists and other users around sports fields, sporting courts for tennis and pickleball and a cycling pump track in front of the grandstand for visitors to watch the action. 

An overview of PORT’s concept for the Expo Idaho site. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

This section, called the “Heart of the Park,” would also include a renovated grandstand and a new exploration center for partnerships to provide programming on agricultural heritage and environmental conservation. The large lawn in this area could also play host to concerts, events and recreation from visitors. The southern end of the park, dubbed destination play, would include playgrounds, water features and an area for skateboarders, rollerbladers and scooter riders to do tricks. 

While this section of the park would be elevated, the vast majority of the park would be called the Lowlands and turned into a sprawling wetland marsh with nine different habitats ranging from forests closer to the river all the way to ponds and meadows. This area would include walking paths, overlooks and other ways visitors could walk or bike through nature, while also embracing the parks natural inclination to flood because of the former path of the Boise River. 

A rendering of the Lowlands portion of PORT’s proposal for the Expo Idaho site. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

Christopher Marcinkoski, a painter at Port, said the goal would be to use ARPA funds to bring the Heart of the Park online first and then slowly form the Lowlands over time by excavation, planting native species and loosening up the long compacted soil at the center of the now-defunct track. 

“This would be a landscape built over decades,” he said, of the wetland area. “This is not a landscape we could produce for year five, but a landscape we could produce over a long time period.”

One issue Batista had with the design is the location of the pump track directly in front of the grandstand. He pointed out it would displace the Western Idaho Fair’s concert venue, which typically hosts a crowd of 17,000 attendees. Marcinkoski said there could be a stage set up on the great lawn in front of the Exploration Center, but he said it would only host a few thousand people. But, he said the design is flexible and can be changed to accommodate the county’s needs. 

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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