Editor's Note: In the 1970’s, the City of Boise proposed demolishing most of downtown’s historic buildings and putting up a shopping mall in their place. Preservation Idaho Intern Savannah Willits explored the controversy surrounding Boise’s failed downtown mall, and its role in the larger story of Boise’s urban renewal and current identity. Boise’s successful existing mixed-use scene is due in large part to an active community whose decisions were decades ahead of its time. The following story is reprinted with permission from Preservation Idaho and has been edited for length. For the full story, detailed timeline, interactive map and more, visit PreservationIdaho.org
It is often the case that the shelters envisioned and destroyed can tell a more compelling story about our ever-changing fears, desires, and values, than the buildings that remain present. This could not be more true than in downtown Boise which has been radically reimagined and rebuilt several times over, mirroring the tumultuous ongoing conversation about Boise’s identity and future. The buildings not present, whether unrealized or destroyed, continue to have a lasting presence on the space and layout, economic development, and identity of the city today. They remain the buildings unseen.
A pivotal moment in Boise’s modern urban and identity development occurred during the urban renewal phase which bulldozed through the nation’s major metropolitan centers during the 1950s and 60s. In true Boise fashion, in which national trends hit the city after a period of 10 to 20 years of delay, the first shudders of urban renewal were felt in 1965 and faded away by the mid-1980s. Since the age of urban renewal, mixed-use development principles have guided the urban planning decisions in Downtown Boise. However, the unseen building’s presence—the regional shopping mall never built—lingers over the city.
The absent downtown mall has resulted in a downtown that is not now dependent on a dying retail model nor in desperate need of major revitalization. From the rise of abandoned mall photography to the dramatic decline of major retailers, the mall’s unfilled promise of prosperity has been well documented. Similarly, Boise Dev and the New York Times has reported that Green Street Advisors, a firm that rates malls in the United States, forecasted that “half of all department stores” would close in the next five years, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
In an alternative timeline in which the downtown mall is built, Boise’s retail situation would have most likely have required redevelopment efforts in the form of economic revitalization funding and amenity additions and will continue to require rehabilitation to remain relevant. Similarly, if the regional shopping mall had been built downtown, it would have experienced a higher density of retailer casualties.
There are incredibly high odds that this “alternate universe Boise” would be facing immensely worse economic costs and a bleak future at this exact moment in time. Instead of celebrating a long list of national accolades, the center of downtown Boise would be in desperate need of radical revitalization. Therefore, the existing sustainability of Boise's mixed-use scene owes its dues, in a large degree, to the failed mall.
Overall, the major lingering impact of the absent mall was that it successfully persuaded the Boise community and leadership to bypass a failed method of redevelopment and instead pursue a mixed-use development approach. It was a blessing in disguise. Rather than being passive or apathetic observers of Boise’s evolving identity, community members actively took part in creating a Boise that values economic sustainability, historic preservation, and progressive urban planning practices. Boise’s mixed-use redevelopment plan, cemented during the urban renewal phase, successfully avoided the adverse outcomes of the regional shopping malls that haunt many of America’s metropolitan areas today.
The impact of the historic buildings that were once jeopardized by the mall proposal have continued to be architectural anchors downtown. These buildings not only provide architectural flavor and diversity in style but also embody Boise’s historical duration. Had these buildings been demolished to create room for a mall architecturally, Boise would appear more adolescent in age and sophistication, compared to other peer northwest cities. Similarly, Boise’s layout and image would have been dominated by architecture of the 1970s and beyond, as well as barren surface parking lots in order to serve the large regional shopping mall. Incidentally, by remaining seen, these buildings provide depth and maturity as established urban anchors.
Moving forward, Boise’s ever-changing fears, desires, and values will continue to evolve. As new buildings are envisioned, the skyline rises, and Boise grows in both age and size, conversations about embedding the community’s long-term values into present-day growth are vital. Such as in the case of the proposed downtown mall, these conversations and resulting outcomes will likely be the difference between a long-lasting mistake and future prosperity.
Overall, the legacy of the buildings seen and unseen has a tangible impact on the economic, social, and spatial outcomes. Therefore, it is critical to understand the balance between the reimagined visions and the dust of demolition. Equally important is to understand the community’s legacy of protection, conservation, adaptation, and rebuilding. Boise’s self-proclaimed mission of livability depends on this delicate balance, especially as our community grows.
The impact of the historic buildings that were once jeopardized by the mall proposal have continued to be architectural anchors downtown. These buildings not only provide architectural flavor and diversity in style but also embody Boise’s historical duration.
BUILDINGS ONCE SCHEDULED TO BE DEMOLISHED FOR PROPOSED MALL — Alexander Building; Broadbent Building; Eastman Building; Egyptian Theater; Falk’s Department Store; Fidelity-Union Block Building; Idaho Building; J.O. Jordan and Son Building; McCarty Building; Pierce and Co. Allen-Wright Building; Boise City National Bank Building. 1965 — Boise Redevelopment Agency (BRA) was formed to eliminate blight, promote development, and fuel economic growth. 1968 — Mall proposal with plans to span 15-blocks in Central Business District with at least six above-ground parking structures. 1969 — Pinney Theater is demolished. 1972 — Founding of Idaho Historic Preservation Council. Chinatown is demolished, including Odd Fellows, Hip Sing, Hop Sing buildings. YMCA building also. 1973 — Boise Central School and Spanish Village demolished. 1974 — Egyptian Theater is National Register listed. New York’s Harper’s Weekly features “Tearing Down Boise.” 1975 — Pierce Block is demolished and Falk’s Department Store is National Register listed. Poll shows 71% believe preserving historic buildings is important with 68% stating they would do something else other than enclosed shopping mall. 1980 — Winmar initiated four citizen advisory committees to oversee community design input. 1982 — Pierce & Co. Allen-Wright, Broadbent, and Jordan & Son Building is National Register listed. The citizen group, Preservation Coalition, unsuccessfully sued HUD, BRA and Mayor Eardley for violating National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act. 1985 — After an estimated 13% of Boise’s historic buildings were demolished during urban renewal period, downtown redevelopment efforts takes a new turn. 1987 — Alexander Building is renovated. A team from American Institute of Architects lays groundwork for mixed use plan with community support and recommendations. 1990 — Boise focuses on mix-use, walkability, public spaces, arts & history, and multi-modal transportation.
"The impact of the historic buildings that were once jeopardized by the mall proposal have continued to be architectural anchors downtown."
Rather than being passive or apathetic observers of Boise’s evolving identity, community members actively took part in creating a Boise that values economic sustainability, historic preservation, and progressive urban planning practices.
“It’s a question of context. A question of knowing who we are and where we come from. A question of our human identity. The megastructure is inhuman. Not only that, but it could be anywhere in the world.” – Arthur A. Hart, Director of the State Historical Museum, quoted in Tearing Down Boise
“Four task forces were created.....because their big covered mall met with lots of citizen disapproval. We were an interest group in that we were united in common interest in wanting this to be a nice place. We had a community interest. – Marilyn Schuler