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Change is difficult but inevitable. We begin the process of change at conception, and it continues beyond our corporeal presence. Change reshapes our bodies, our minds, and our environment. How we respond to change determines how we adapt within our shapeshifting environment.

In my community, as I suspect in many communities, change arrives in fits and starts. As long as the changes are slow and can be digested one at a time, adaptation is manageable. But when changing climate and shifting populations accelerate the rate of change, struggle and resistance explode.

The estimated population of the Boise metropolitan area currently stands at 761,680, up from the 2010 census of 616,561. Boise proper grew at a rate pf 17.5%, while outlying towns grew even faster. For example, the once sleepy agricultural burb of Star, Idaho grew 131% since the last census. A statistician could quibble with my numbers, but growth has clearly slammed a region that was ill-prepared to become the 98th largest city in the country.

Like much of the west, the Treasure Valley was built on a car-centric model. Families move here for the space, the room to spread out and nurture large grassy yards and maybe a horse or two. We’ve cherished our individuality and privacy. Kids don’t play together on their front yards because traffic whizzes by too fast. They also don’t play at the school just down the street because usually the school is several miles down the street. Kids’ playtime is regimented into organized activities for which parents are private chauffeurs. People don’t shop by foot or by bike because that would involve navigating horrendous traffic on streets with inadequate or non-existent bike lanes and sidewalks. Traffic is a snarling mess which leads to dangerous pollution levels during the winter. Public transit is shunned by many who are married to their cars, and also because it’s just dang difficult to make public transportation pencil out when suburban density is about a thousand people per square mile.

Add to transportation issues, the escalated price of land and exploding cost of materials and you have a runaway housing market that is pricing renters and homebuyers out of the market. Exploding real estate taxes follow, causing people on fixed incomes to make untenable choices between food, medication, and housing.

A recent housing needs assessment, concluded that wages are far outstripping housing costs and that 1,682 affordable units for people making less than $40,000 are needed in the coming year. So far only 63 units have been approved. So we come to a housing market rife with flippers and demolitions, which is decidely painful for neighbors. Case in point.

“Farm house” built in 1909

Owners of this house a few blocks from my home are proposing replacing the 3-bedroom, 936 square-foot house with three, sleek, two-story homes with garages in back that include a one-bedroom accessory dwelling. That adds nine potential bedrooms to the quarter-acre, corner lot. That degree of change is difficult. BUT, that level of development is what our community needs. This property is three blocks from a principal and a minor arterial street, which is exactly where density needs to occur to make public transportation work and to protect prime agricultural land outside the city limits.

The new proposal. Modern, close together, dense, scary.

The complaints about this project follow the usual “vanishing Boise” trajectory:

  • It will bring too much traffic to a residential neighborhood.
  • It will destroy a classic farmhouse that represents neighborhood history.
  • It will change the character of the neighborhood.
  • It will destroy these beautiful old trees.
  • It will raise property taxes.
  • It will decrease the value of neighboring residences. (square that with the previous complaint?)

My response will surely garner hate mail:

  • Yes. There will be more traffic. But people living here will be close to bus routes and able to walk and bike to many of their destinations, which is healthier for them and for all of us.
  • This house hasn’t been a farm house since before the 1950s and for the 19 years I’ve lived here, the house and surrounding property has been slowly crumpling. If it was an exemplary piece of architecture, it should have been protected by the National Historic Register.
  • The North End, most beloved for its character, rose before zoning and building codes existed. It is a hodge-podge of styles with Queen Anne mini-mansions beside hand-built two-bedroom bungaloes with Frank Lloyd Wright wannabes here and there.. Homogeneity does not build character. Just like our bodies, neighborhoods evolve and change. If this were not the case, Main Street would still be a muddy path.  
Main Street, Boise, ID, looking west from 7th St. (Now Capitol Blvd.) From Boise; An Illustrated History by Merle Wells, 1982, Windsor Pulbications, Inc. (Idaho Historical Society)
  • Trees, like people and neighborhoods, have life cycles. These trees, planted within the same decade, are at the end of their lives and pose as much risk as they produce benefit. The City requires new trees be planted with new development, thus establishing a healthy age mix for trees throughout the city.
  • Everyone’s property taxes are rising, whether new homes are built or not. As the population grows the City must provide infrastructure for that growth and since this property sits on built infrastructure it will actually cost less to the public at large than a subdivision that rises out of bare dirt.
  • My “tall skinny” infill house, one of seven on my block has improved the curb appeal and property values of a block of rundown shacks and weed-covered vacant lots. I am sorry that the homes behind mine lost their view of the horizon. (Those homes could also be upgraded to two-story homes, thus housing more people on a smaller footprint.)

I understand that change is difficult. But nothing enrages me more than someone who moved to this community five years ago and tries to blame all who came after for the difficulties a growing community experiences. A five-year resident has no concept of what came before and what has already been lost–and gained. For those who call themselves local or native, I want to know when your ancestors arrived? Were they hear before or after the last glacial maximum? What exactly does native mean and who gets to claim that? And who among us isn’t part of the problem?

Image from Shoshone-Bannock Tribes (who were here long before any of us were.)