All the necessary elements of an urban land dispute have converged on one five-acre property in Boise, Idaho: a city under pressure to meet budget demands, developers eager to turn a profit in an emerging marketplace, and a neighborhood organization hoping to preserve a historic part of its community. Yet the Reserve Street Armory does not play host to any tensions between these parties.
Instead, the city has recognized the potential the Armory site has for Boise, where a boom in luxury and market-value housing has left the workforce housing stock in short supply. Both the city and local residents believe the Armory can help address this shortage, as well as other needs in the neighborhood, all while keeping the historic building intact.
The 40,000 square-foot Art Deco armory was built in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration, one of the most popular of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The site, which was sold to the city in 1993, has been abandoned for years, and photographs of the interior reveal extensive damage and vandalism.
Despite the Armory’s current condition, the site appraised for almost $2.5 million in 2006. In 2007, the city tentatively scheduled the property for a public auction later this fall, intending to use the proceeds of the sale of the Armory and other properties to fund an expansion of the city library.
Enter the East End Neighbors Association, the local community group that organized a separate advisory board to preserve the Armory.
“It’s been part of that neighborhood since 1937,” says Erik Kingston, a board member. “It’s really a part of the history and heritage of the city. It’s an iconic building.”
The Armory was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. According to the Register, the armory has historical significance for “its association with the reorganization and professionalization of the Idaho National Guard during the period between the two World Wars,” as well as architectural significance as a definitive work of Boise architects Tourtellotte & Hummel, who were prominent during the 1930s.
Not only does the EENA view this as an opportunity to preserve the structure, but also as a way to adapt the armory to a new use. Earlier this year, the advisory board held a two-month community visioning process in which neighbors expressed their desires for the property, most of which revolved around a mixed-use site containing a farmer’s market, offices, a charter school, and mixtures of workforce and market-rate housing.
Under the supervision of professor Sherry McKibben, undergraduates enrolled in the University of Idaho’s Urban Research and Design Center followed up with conceptual drawings for the site based on suggestions from the community visioning process.
“The most exciting potential outcome is what we’re calling a Sustainability Center,” Kingston explains. “There are a lot of folks interested in sustainable business and this would bring them all together into one space as a sustainability cooperative.”
The Armory has one asset that makes such an option feasible: access to Boise’s geothermal system, which could reduce the site’s energy costs by 30 percent – more if prices continue to rise – and its carbon footprint.
Preservation itself is both a cost-saving and environmentally friendly option to razing the building and starting anew. Taking into consideration demolition costs, the property’s $2.5 million appraisal drops more than 20 percent to below $2 million. New construction would also destroy the site’s “embodied energy,” encompassing all the energy used over the decades to construct, operate and maintain the building. The EENA does not want to see this energy go to waste.
The city of Boise is currently considering transferring the property to Capital City Development Corporation, the city’s urban renewal agency. According to city spokesman Adam Park, the CCDS would create a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the site before putting the property up for sale.
“The redevelopment plan would have heavy neighborhood involvement,” Park says, who was encouraged by the efforts of the East End Neighbors Association. “We’ve gotten good feedback from the neighborhood already. It’s been a positive process.”
The city has particular interest in the Armory’s potential to diversify the economic base of downtown Boise, where market-rate and luxury development has limited housing options for the workforce.
“There’s a need for workforce housing in the Boise area,” Kingston says. “Everything starts at $200,000, and for this market, what’s affordable to the workforce is more in the $110,000 to $190,000 range.”
Providing housing for this demographic would allow better access to dozens of local employers, the city’s downtown areas and the sprawling nature reserve across the street from the Armory. “Affordable housing,” Kingston continues, “It’s really a wage subsidy for local employers. Housing is part of the city’s infrastructure.”
The city seemingly agrees.
“From a policy framework, the idea of introducing higher density housing, with an emphasis on workforce housing, is a very attractive option,” says city councilwoman Elaine Clegg. A mixed-use site would also allow East Enders to live and work locally without much automobile traffic. “This reflects the general direction of the city in terms of making neighborhoods self-sufficient.”
According to Clegg, the city views the community-minded redevelopment process as a way to satisfy all interested parties without acting unilaterally. It’s part of what she describes as a continued effort from city council to “not just involve people, but to make their involvement meaningful.”
“It’s not just about the bottom line,” she says. “It’s about quality of life.”
At this point, anything could happen to the Reserve Street Armory. For now, the city’s postponement of the scheduled auction has given East Enders confidence that a consensus can be reached between the community and the city government.
“We’ve got some creative thinkers on the city council and in the mayor’s office,” Kingston said.