Boise wants more affordable housing, higher density, more transit. Here’s the plan

·11 min read

Building heights. Parking requirements. Neighborhood markets. Lot sizes. Transit. Mixed-use complexes.

The details of a zoning code are often technical, filled with minutiae and dry specificity. But together, they add up to something large: the look, layout and feel of a city.

In Boise, a years-long process of rewriting the city’s zoning code for the first time in 60 years is wrapping up, and the city’s Planning Department has submitted a final draft to the Planning and Zoning Commission, which plans to hold public hearings in late April.

Many of the changes outlined in the more than 600-page document are drawn from the city’s comprehensive plan, a 2011 document that laid out goals for sustainability, mixed-use districts, establishing incentives and changing parking requirements.

In an interview with the Idaho Statesman, the city’s planner, Tim Keane, discussed what the biggest changes would be and explained how Boise hopes to avoid the pitfalls of sprawl, unaffordability and car reliance that many other cities have faced.

“We’ve got this chance to avoid that and build more affordability and a greater diversity of things as we’re growing, versus having to go back and try to repair all the damage later,” he said.

Plan would encourage more housing units

Under the current zoning law, Boise has residential zones, which differ in the number of units they allow. Most of the city’s neighborhoods — like the North End and Northwest Boise, much of the Bench and West Downtown — are zoned residential.

The new zoning laws would let developers raise the number of units allowed on a parcel if they designate a portion of the units as affordable and use sustainable materials during construction.

While current zoning allows single-family homes or duplexes, a developer could build four dwelling units — doubling the density — if one of three or two of four of the units were designated to be rented to households making no more than 80% of the area median income, or sold to households making no more than 120% of the area median income.

In Boise, a two-person household making 100% of AMI earns $70,026 per year. The affordability requirements would last for 50 years.

Lot sizes in most of the city’s residential areas would also decrease, meaning that multiple, smaller homes could be built in areas where there is now only one home.

Those projects would also have to meet several sustainability criteria, including using only electric or geothermal energy within the building and consuming 15% less energy and saving 15% more water than would otherwise be required.

Other incentives would allow builders to go up to between three and 12 units if they are near a mixed-use district. And they would have to meet a set of other criteria, including: at least 55 feet of street frontage; use of a vacant lot or structures that add up to no more than 25% of the property’s value; no demolition permit for a primary structure within three years, to avoid demolition of existing housing; and new parking would have to be situated in the rear.

Infill sites could add affordable housing

On busier residential streets, developers would be allowed to build more housing if they use a vacant lot or reuse an existing building, up to four units on a lot where there is now only one.

If one of those were designated as affordable housing, they could build between five and eight units, and as high as nine to 12 if two of them are affordable.

Infill sites within neighborhoods could also reduce their parking requirements and build more density if a portion of units are designated as affordable.

Zoning laws would add mixed-use districts

The new zoning laws create mixed-use districts, which would allow for much denser development along public transit corridors, like the planned bus hub along State Street, and in “activity centers,” like the intersection of Emerald and Orchard streets on the Bench, Hyde Park and the Boise Towne Square Mall.

These areas would likely see large apartment complexes going up, with mixes of retail commercial space and apartments. The city would also allow developers to increase the heights of their buildings if they made portions of the units affordable and designed more sustainable buildings.

Though the parking requirements for high-density mixed-use zones would remain in place, builders could qualify for a 50% reduction in parking if a quarter of the homes are designated for households earning less than 60% of area median income.

As many cities look to reduce the necessity of driving and make urban environments more pedestrian friendly, some have moved to nix parking requirements altogether.

Boise is choosing a different approach, which Keane said was a compromise between those who want no parking requirements and those who see a need for even more parking.

The new plan seeks “to make reductions where we felt like it would be helpful,” and provide single-family zones with more flexibility because there is often on-street parking, Keane said.

In mixed-use districts with large developments, the city decided it would make more sense to keep the requirements as they are, just with added incentives.

“If we could kind of surgically replace some of those spaces and give you more room to build affordable (units), that was the thinking,” Keane said.

Some residents have objected to the proposal and argued that it would significantly change neighborhoods.

A group called “Reject Boise Upzone” criticized the increased density in neighborhoods and lack of public hearings for some applications.

Dave Kangas, a spokesperson for the group, told the Statesman that larger buildings on neighborhood streets would change how they feel. He said homebuyers usually “buy a home because you liked the looks of the neighborhood” and its uniformity.

“It’s not so much an objection to having more units or even getting some affordability, it’s trying to blend in the architecture and the buildings that are here and people that are here,” Kangas said.

He added that he worries the Bench and West Boise would have the largest density increases because of their proximity to transit corridors.

A neighborhood market, called Hollywood Market, sold groceries on 8th Street and Resseguie in Boise’s North End until it closed in 2008. In decades past, the city’s historic North End had many neighborhood grocery stores.
A neighborhood market, called Hollywood Market, sold groceries on 8th Street and Resseguie in Boise’s North End until it closed in 2008. In decades past, the city’s historic North End had many neighborhood grocery stores.

Proposal would encourage neighborhood cafes

Historic neighborhoods in Boise, like Hyde Park, have cafes and coffee shops near residential streets. Other parts of Boise, for the most part, do not.

The new zoning laws would allow such establishments, called “neighborhood cafes,” to be built, so long as they are small and have limited hours. They would have to serve food and be allowed to sell retail items and alcohol.

Drive-throughs are prohibited, and the establishments would need to provide two parking spaces, including a spot for disabled people, as well as bicycle parking.

The cafes could be up to 2,000 square feet in size, and could only be open between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. If they have outdoor seating, it would have to be less than the indoor seating capacity.

On residential street corners, the cafes would be allowed outright. Within blocks, applicants would need to apply for a conditional use permit, which requires a public hearing.

Not everyone is sold on the idea. The Upzone group’s website called the neighborhood cafes idea “intrusive,” and said that the effects of the new law would be “immediate, significant, and permanent.”

Some applications won’t require hearings

While many of the zoning revisions relate to allowed uses themselves, Boise is also planning to streamline application processes for projects that planners want to see.

Under existing law, city planning staff have authority to approve certain “minor” applications, such as accessory dwelling units, duplexes and home-based businesses. More substantial applications, like conditional use permits, planned unit developments and rezones require a public hearing before a commission.

The new law would instead separate land-use decisions into four types, with different review standards for each.

Type 1 and Type 2 applications would be made by the Planning Department. Type 3 decisions would include conditional uses and more complex applications and would be made by an appointed body, like the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The most significant applications would be Type 4, which would include changes to the zoning map. Those decisions would be made by the City Council.

City planners aim to use the code to incentivize the types of projects they want to see.

The city’s proposal makes it easier for developers to pursue projects with higher density in transit corridors. If the developer planned to build a low-density, single-story commercial building with a surface parking lot, the project would require a hearing, which is a change from current law. But a higher-density, six-story apartment building with first-floor retail would be categorized as a Type 2 project and would not require a hearing.

Type 2 applications could be appealed and reviewed by a newly created hearing examiner, who would take testimony and rule on the facts of the application and ordinance.

State code requires public hearings on subdivisions, conditional use permits, variances, annexations and rezones — all of which would still be required under the new system.

Keane said the city’s engagement with the community has led to the law’s overhaul, and that the hearing process would encourage developers to build what the community wants.

“We want to make those things easier,” he said. “We want the community helping us make sure this ordinance is successful. That’s why we designed it this way.”

He also noted that the city now has a community development tracker, which allows residents to track what’s going on in their neighborhood.

Kangas, who objects to the rewrite, said he is concerned the city will lose leverage with developers by allowing greater density outright.

Under current law, Boise often uses development agreements — which are legally binding documents — to require builders to add in infrastructure or otherwise support community interests when they apply to construct buildings that exceed a zone’s allowances. If those developers don’t need a variance, though, Kangas said the city wouldn’t have the opportunity to add restrictions.

Boise planner calls affordability criticism ‘utterly wrong’

Fred Fritchman, a past president of the Southeast Neighborhood Association, wrote in a recent guest opinion in the Statesman that the new law would result in the demolition of affordable housing and would “strip mine” local neighborhoods by allowing more density in them.

Keane said the idea that the new zoning law would reduce affordable housing is “utterly wrong.”

For decades, Keane said that in most U.S. cities, rising property values from increased demand has caused modest-sized homes to get demolished and replaced with mansions.

“That’s what our ordinance right now gets us,” he said. The new code is designed to avoid that pattern, he added, by allowing smaller units and creating an incentive for developers to build units designated to be affordable.

Under the new law, Boise would “go from having no protection” for affordable units to measures in place that would prevent their replacement and encourage new ones, Keane said.

When residents in existing neighborhoods object to changes, growth gets pushed into the desert, farmland and Boise Foothills, causing sprawl, harming nature and leading to more expensive housing, Keane said.

“This doesn’t work. We’ve proven it for 50 years in this country,” he said. “This idea that the zoning of the ’60s and ’70s is a way towards protection of affordable housing hasn’t worked once. So why is it going to work here suddenly?”

In the future, a need to build more public transit

The city’s plans to focus density in transit-oriented parts of the city highlights the focus on public transportation, which now has limited ridership and frequency in Boise.

Kangas told the Statesman that he thought designing neighborhoods for transit without first having in place the needed investment is “putting the cart before the horse.”

Keane said that while the region will need significantly more investment in transit in the future, it all starts with development.

Cities with zoning codes dating from mid-century require people to spread out and be served by highways, Keane said. Phoenix and Salt Lake City were built that way, rendering efficient public transit difficult to design. If Boise wants to grow differently, it needs to be built differently, he said.

“The thing that comes first is the development pattern,” he said, referring to the city’s layout. “If you don’t have the development pattern, you’ll never have a transit system.”

By focusing on transit corridors now, Keane hopes for development to be focused in areas that have existing routes. And along State Street, designs for a more robust transit corridor are underway.

But the city’s needs will require further investment, he said.

“It’s going to require not just the city but the region and the state to acknowledge that in order for us to be mobile, and have economic development, and be a growing place, we’re going to have to invest in something other than highways,” he said. “Which means public transportation.”

Hearings before the Planning and Zoning Commission are scheduled from April 24-27, with City Council hearings to follow.

Residents can also submit comments online or by email to