Twenty years ago, downtown Boise was desolate and cratered with abandoned buildings, a stark contrast to the city's picturesque setting in the Rocky Mountain foothills. Now, bicyclists cruise Main Street in this Idaho town, and a new crop of city dwellers crowd cafes and stroll to the theater while luxury condo prices top $1 million.
In the last five years, developers have built $25 million worth of condos and lofts downtown, and builders have asked the city to approve another 14 residential projects valued at more than $300 million, according to Phillip Kushlan, executive director of Capital City Development Corp. Plans range from a $2 million low-rise to the $140 million, 34-story Boise Place, offering condos and a hotel with views of Bogus Basin ski trails.
The flourishing local economy, driven by a strong technology sector and growth in the health care, manufacturing and brokerage industries, has attracted a stream of newcomers. Many transplants relocated from Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle, where would-be homebuyers were priced out of the market.
Boise's population has grown 27% since 2000 to 211,000 today, and part of the attraction is a backdrop that amounts to an outdoorsman's paradise — promising weekends of kayaking, trout-fishing, golf, hikes, excursions to Sun Valley or one of Idaho's picture-postcard lakes.
Downtown's vivid streetscape and nightlife entice young professionals as well as empty nesters from Idaho suburbs and small towns. “You have people who are tired of snow blowers and lawnmowers, and people who came to Boise with the high-tech industry,” Kushlan says.
While many cities have tried to spark new life in crumbling downtowns, not all have succeeded. Too many developers built pricey, isolated high-rises in run-down districts and expected buyers to flock to them. Boise built a vibrant urban culture first, and housing followed.
The city offered museums, ballet and theater. And in 2005, the $62 million BoDo complex of retail shops, 180-room hotel and nine-screen movie theater opened. Tax Increment Financing helped some developers as the city borrowed against anticipated tax revenue to invest in urban renewal, dispensing funds through the development agency.
The Idaho capital made its share of errors: a downtown mall failed, and the focus shifted to renewing historic districts. In 2003, after studying the successes of Portland, Denver, Seattle, and Memphis, planners realized they had overlooked the affordable housing market.
Besides luxury dwellings like the Royal Plaza, the city needed 5,000 units that policemen, firemen, or computer specialists could afford. Encouraged by the thriving restaurant and retail sectors and strong job growth, builders responded with condos costing under $350,000. Developer Mark Rivers priced 40 of 218 condos at his Library Blocks development from $180,000 to $217,000.
Not all proposed projects have made it. Boise Tower, a planned high-rise, became mired in financial problems and was declared in default. Gary Rogers, developer of Boise Place in the same location, defaulted on a $2.6 million loan, but has until Aug. 2 to pay it off. Overall, downtown property value has risen from tens of millions of dollars in 1987 to $543 million, according to Capital City.
Developers are building downtown because many people like the lifestyle, walking to restaurants, stores and nightlife, says Karen Sander, executive director of the Downtown Boise Association. The city has won many awards. “We're at the top of a lot of people's lists.”