The first of two large proposals to redevelop a piece of long-fallow piece of farmland near Vista Avenue is on hold until early next year.
Last week, Boise City Council heard an application to build 358 units on 18 acres of the so-called Simunich site on Victory Road, just east of Vista along the New York Canal. This is one section of an effort to redevelop the site after decades of ownership by the Simunich family, with the larger eastern portion of the large parcel set to begin hearings for approval next month. A smaller parcel on the western edge of the site remains owned by a private owner and will stay undeveloped as of now.
Council members were overall impressed with Las Vegas-based developer Morgan Stonehill’s design combining townhomes with three-story apartments and urban-style detached sidewalks with tree-lined streets, but the majority were swayed by concerns from the neighborhood about traffic impacts. Instead of giving the project a thumbs up or a thumbs down, council members opted to delay it until January 10, so this project and the larger, neighboring multi-family development with hundreds more units to the east can be considered together.
This will also give the city time to talk with the Ada County Highway District about its plans to build out infrastructure in the area and why improvements to intersections and to nearby railroad crossings were not required.
City Council President Pro Tem Woodings said, noting that even though this development will pay impact fees to ACHD to pay for the impacts to growth, those fees won’t necessarily be used in Boise and could go toward widening roads in the outer suburbs of the county instead. She supported taking more time to consider whether the developer should be required to do more improvements to the general area, instead of just right in front of the project along Victory Road.
“It’s not the traffic I’m worried about, it’s the traffic safety I’m worried about,” she said. “What is it going to look like for bicyclists and pedestrians once you have so many more people using that form of transportation to get around. It’s clear from the traffic study that the cars can be accounted for, and there’s plenty of capacity for the cars, but how are people going to get around, and how are we going to ensure safety for that?”
‘No idea, no plan, nothing’
Traffic, and safety for the area, was the biggest topic of discussion during the hearing.
Dave Kangas, a member of the Vista Neighborhood Association, said his neighborhood knew the large site would redevelop eventually, but they could not support the project in its current form because of how little improvements were planned for Victory Road. He was particularly concerned about the two-lane road on Victory with no sidewalks and only plans to put bike lanes in front of the project instead of hooking the lanes into a larger network.
He was especially concerned about the lack of plans for a raised pedestrian crossing and a traffic light at the intersection between Victory Road and Malad Street. Kangas and another neighbor who testified were also opposed to no requirements for the developer to improve the railroad crossing on Victory over to Federal Way to the east.
This crossing has steep drop-offs on either side as the road comes up to cross the tracks and has no sidewalks for cyclists and pedestrians, pushing them into traffic in the narrow stretch.
“There’s been extensive work to create a bicycle-oriented development of both of these developments,” Kangas said, referring to both pieces of the Simunich redevelopment. “They have 400 bike parking stalls at this development, and the one next door has 600, but there’s no safe way to get across Federal Way. We have no idea, no plan, nothing that says how this traffic is going to be mitigated.”
Debra Nelson, the attorney representing Morgan Stonehill, refuted this. She pointed to the developer’s traffic impact study, which she says adequately took into account both parts of the development and produced numbers showing the development wouldn’t contribute enough traffic to the area to require improvements to any intersections, even if it would add hundreds of units.
She alluded to comments from Commissioner Chris Danley at the Boise Planning & Zoning Commission who said roads of this size should be able to accommodate 8,000 trips per day, which gives plenty of capacity for the residents of the project to drive in the area.
“These roads were built for this development, and your plan calls for this level of development or even more intensive zones here,” Nelson said.
Council members want more time
The questions and uncertainties about the large-scale development gave council members pause.
One of the questions was what sort of improvements ACHD was planning for this stretch of Victory Road in its Five Year Work Plan, what exactly those improvements entail, and when they’d be constructed.
“I think part of that discussion has to be with ACHD and what does that five-year plan look like and where are we at with implementing this five-year plan, because if it was three years away I would approve the project now because I knew there would be a small gap where these (infrastructure improvements) wouldn’t be here, but if it’s five years down the road or more down the road that makes it a lot harder,” City Council Member Jimmy Hallyburton said.
City Council Member Luci Willits took it a step further and questioned whether Boise should move to try and either dissolve ACHD or somehow leave the organization entirely.
“I think we have to have a very serious conversation about Boise owning its roads,” she said. “This is insane. This is ridiculous to me. We’re going to continue this bureaucratic nightmare until we do something different. I think most people are quite confused we don’t have that control anyway.”
Only City Council Member Patrick Bageant declined to vote to delay the project.
“I don’t totally understand why the traffic studies say what they said, but the applicant has met all of their obligations to us for this rezone for 358 units and we aren’t coordinated for a clear vision for what we want on the street, but I’m not sure why they bear the burden for that especially when we’ll be looking at it again for the property to the east very soon.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Dave Kangas’ role in the Vista Neighborhood Association. It has been corrected to reflect that he is a member.