Where necessary civic improvement projects were concerned, the Orchard Street corridor in Boise, Idaho, was the proverbial elephant in the room: a problem that needed fixing, but for which the Ada County Highway District (ACHD) had neither the community buy-in nor the necessary financial resources to pursue. Orchard Street is a busy, four lane road without a center turn lane, inadequate crossing options for foot traffic, limited-to-no parking, and missing sidewalks in a number of areas—making it unsafe for motorists and pedestrians. The side streets off Orchard are mostly residential, and the street itself is lined with many local businesses and culturally diverse restaurants and markets. When the Boise Regional REALTORS® received a Smart Growth Action Grant, it spurred solutions for a more pedestrian-friendly Orchard Street and helped initiate much-needed community collaboration.
“Although municipalities everywhere are recognizing the value of walkable communities,” explains Soren Dorius, Director of Government Affairs for the 4,300-member Boise Regional REALTORS® (BRR), “the situation in Boise is complicated by the fact that its roads are governed by the county through ACHD, which oversees road planning, construction and maintenance.” So, while parts of Boise (like Orchard Street) are in dire need of improvement, the city does not have the jurisdiction to improve them, creating a unique and complicated relationship between city planners and ACHD.
In January, armed with a $15,000 Smart Growth Action Grant, supplemented with $2,000 of its own, BRR began meeting with Boise city planning staff to get the ball rolling. “The issue was daunting at the outset, but once we convinced the city staff that a collaborative walkability study was a worthwhile investment, they jumped on board and agreed on Orchard Street as the focus site,” says Dorius.
“Our first priority was to get the right city and county staff sitting at the table, focused on Orchard Street, and in agreement that something needed to be done in accordance with fundamental walkability principles,” he reveals. A second priority was to determine the needs and wants of community stakeholders, including neighborhood associations, residents and local businesses. “For this project to work, collaboration and input from these key partners was absolutely critical,” said Dorius.
Walkability expert Dan Burden and his firm, Blue Zones, were contracted to conduct a two-day WALKshop program in mid-July for Orchard Street representatives and Boise and ACHD staff. On the first day, Burden and a colleague led a “windshield tour” of the corridor from a shuttle bus provided by the city, giving participants an overview of the challenges. Following the tour, Blue Zones conducted focus groups, and that evening, initial findings were presented to an appreciative Boise City Council. “The information gleaned from our focus groups was incredibly insightful and brought to light a number of areas for common interests and potential collaboration,” said Dorius.
The second day featured a “walk audit,” with the consultants leading groups of participants down both sides of Orchard Street, pointing out the variety of pedestrian dangers. “It was very effective, having key players feel the insecurity of being a pedestrian on this really busy stretch of road,” says Dorius. “The narrowness (or non-existence) of sidewalks, the proximity to car traffic, the lack of curbs and the difficulty of crossing at regular intervals made everyone pretty nervous and one could only imagine how that might feel in a wheelchair, or pushing a stroller!”
After a lunch provided by BRR, Burden presented the concept of “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” traffic calming and walkability improvements. Suggestions ranging from strategic landscaping, to more crosswalks, to flags that heighten pedestrian visibility in crosswalks, to painted curb extensions, could all have an immediate and significant effect on Orchard Street. That evening, the WALKshop findings were presented to the ACHD. “It was night-and-day,” reports Dorius. “The complex and somewhat strained relations between city, community stakeholders and county had been smoothed over by thoughtful collaboration, and everyone emerged wanting to work together on this shared challenge. Our consultant’s expertise, particularly his before-and-after examples from elsewhere in the country, left our WALKshop participants really excited and wanting more,” he adds.
Dorius will be revisiting the ideas from the WALKshop with city and ACHD staff to determine what, realistically, can be accomplished in the near future. Meanwhile, he, the Boise city comprehensive planning manager and a participating city council member have held a forum for BRR members to report on the success and findings of the WALKshop. BRR is also overseeing the creation of a new Orchard Street Business Alliance formed by participants at the event. “Thanks to this grant from the REALTOR® Party,” he says, “Boise Regional REALTORS® is positioned at the forefront of this urban corridor’s future, and we’re seen as a valuable partner in the achievement of healthy and successful communities.”
To learn more about how Boise Regional REALTORS® are helping make local thoroughfares safer, more convenient and more attractive, contact Soren Dorius, Director of Government Affairs, at 208-947-7237.