Thursday, February 25, 2010

Something new to do in Boise

UPDATE: The next Impromptour is this weekend ... Saturday, March 6, 2010, at 2 p.m. on The Grove. Come enjoy a springtime urban stroll with us. $15 cash or pre-pay online (see below).

I'm pleased to say I have a new gig as a partner in Boise Walking Tours, which will be officially relaunching this spring. Linda Byron and Judy Secrist started the historical strolls in 2000, and I've joined them to help take the venture into a new decade.

While the tours are mainly going to be geared to groups visiting Boise, we'll also be holding drop-in tours once or twice a week (to start, anyway) for Boiseans who are looking for something fun to do. The first of these "Impromptours" will happen at 4 p.m. this Sunday, February 28. That's right - after the Olympic men's hockey finals.

The original Boise Walking Tours route centered on Old Boise, but I've designed a tour that takes in a somewhat larger area, from the Grove to the Anne Frank Memorial to the Basque Block and the heart of downtown. We'll be covering about two miles total in 90 minutes at a nice leisurely stroll. Much of the information will be familiar to people who've lived in Boise a while, but I think you'll enjoy the walk (it's supposed to be in the 50s again on Sunday) and learn something new even if you've been here for decades.

The tours cost $15 per person, and you can either pay cash at the start or use the PayPal link on our website if you'd rather use your bank account or credit card. We're starting this somewhat quietly; you can think of the first few tours as a "soft opening." But I once led a version of this same tour for about 30 people on President's Day Weekend a few years ago, so I am ready for anything.

For more info or dates of other upcoming "Impromptours," see our website, Facebook fan page, or Twitter feed.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A sign of things to come

On a walk the other day, I noticed this sign on the south side of Federal Way near Protest and Kootenai. I don't know how long it's been there, but it's an indication of our neighborhood park-to-be, Terry Day Park. The Day family donated the land to the city more than three years ago, but the sign says it isn't going to remain developed for a while.

For all the great parks we have in Boise, the Overland-Federal Way neighborhood has no real park to call our own. Platt Gardens and the Depot are a brisk 15-minute walk from my house, but there's no slide or swings, and dogs aren't allowed, even on leashes. Manitou Park isn't much farther, but accessing it as the crow flies requires a scramble down canal company-owned land. Neither situation is ideal for children.

Bowden Park by South Junior High is a little bit closer, but it's nearly as undeveloped as the Day parcel. So it'll be a happy day indeed when Terry Day Park provides a playground and picnic spot for the neighborhood - and perhaps a community garden, as well, from the write-up on the Boise Parks website.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Transit: It's time to get creative

I grew up riding the Port Authority Transit trolleys in Pittsburgh. Two separate streetcar lines ran between Bethel Park (the suburb where my family lived) and downtown. The trolleys took us to Pirates games, movies and concerts. Even after I got my driver's license, I realized that it was way cheaper to take the trolley to my downtown summer jobs than to drive.

My childhood love for public transit hasn't let up. As an adult, I'm the sort of person who considers transit to be as much tourist attraction as transportation mode; I was almost as excited last summer to finally get a chance to ride the Salt Lake TRAX light rail as I was to see Green Day in concert that same trip. In other words, you'd think that I'd be a huge fan of the Boise streetcar concept, and that I'd be devastated at yesterday's news that our city lost out on the federal grant that would've underwritten a good chunk of its cost.

Nope. If anything, I was rooting quietly for the grant application to fail. For one thing, I prefer the idea of starting with a north-south line to connect downtown with our cultural district and Boise State. But beyond that, I question whether we ought to be pursuing any sort of fixed-line streetcar service when our bus system is so insufficient. I was far more disappointed to learn that Valley Regional Transit lost out on a $26 million grant to improve local bus service than I was to hear that the streetcar funds fell through.

Of course, I am familiar with the main reason our bus system is so bad: Unlike most states, Idaho refuses to let local citizens decide whether to pay a little extra in sales tax to fund public transit. Idaho was one of only nine states to get entirely shut out of yesterday's transit grants. Pointing to the four cities (out of a dozen applicants) that got streetcar grants yesterday, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter noted to the Idaho Statesman that Tuscon, Portland, Dallas and New Orleans all have local option authority.

Alas, living as we do in a state where legislators refuse to give citizens local control, Boise now has to get creative. The Statesman had an excellent editorial on Sunday pointing out how the city - faced with a strong vote of support for local libraries that still fell short of the unreasonably high two-thirds majority required - found a way to build the branch libraries we so badly needed in this city.

The difference is that 57 percent of Boise voters supported branch libraries, while nowhere near that high a percentage supports the current streetcar plan. It will also cost a lot more money to bring the local transit system into the 21st century than it will to build a few libraries.

But we have to start somewhere, and the answer - for Boise - is not a fixed-line streetcar route. It's buses that run past 6 p.m., and on Sundays, and more than once an hour mid-day. It's buses that serve the growing populations of Eagle, Meridian and Kuna.

It's temporary trolley service that runs at times when people are already downtown and want to have fun: First Thursdays, for example, or Morrison Center concert nights. We all know how popular the Boise State football game-day trolleys are; why not expand that concept?

Let's look at creative marketing and schedule tweaks that makes bus riding cool and fun. For example, how about special service that would allow people to take a bus between downtown Boise, Towne Square Mall and the Idaho Center (and back again at 11 p.m.) for big concerts? How about keeping bus service available until 9 p.m. on summer Wednesdays for Alive After Five or running buses until midnight for 10 days during the Western Idaho Fair?

Valley Ride is strapped for cash, and these ideas would require public-private funding partnerships along the lines of those that were envisioned for the streetcar route. But Boise's compact, walkable downtown doesn't need a permanent 2.3-mile streetcar running east-west or north-south so much as it needs a way to help people travel to and from downtown to eat, drink, work, shop and have fun in the first place.

Update 10:30 a.m. February 18 ... Here are some other thoughts on Boise's transit situation (h/t Treasured Valley):
Randy Stapilus at Ridenbaugh Press
Kevin Richert at the Idaho Statesman

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blueprint for Boise hearings this week

The city is holding two open houses this week to take public comment on its Blueprint for Boise comprehensive plan revision and the city's new parks and recreation comp plan. The sessions are set for 6 to 8 p.m. tonight (February 16) and Thursday (February 18) at the Idaho Historical Museum in Julia Davis Park.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Vancouver, without tickets

In this article from the Pacific Northwest news site Crosscut, Whidbey Island writer Sue Frause tells of an Amtrak trip to Vancouver, just to check out the Olympic vibes. It reminded me of a day trip my daughter Natalie and I made to Salt Lake City eight years ago during the Winter Games in Utah. (It was a relatively easy drive from Twin Falls, where we lived at the time, and where the Olympic torch relay had visited not long before the Games.) We didn't have tickets for anything, but we had a good time just walking around the then-new Gateway area, which was packed with free activities and exhibits.

I worked on the first edition of Lonely Planet's British Columbia guidebook, so I spent a lot of time in the province a decade ago. I haven't been back much since then, save for a lovely family vacation on Mayne Island three summers ago, but I really enjoyed the opening ceremonies of these Vancouver games. It's probably too late for most Idahoans to plan even a quick trip to Vancouver during the Olympics, but British Columbia is well worth considering for a getaway later this year.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mark Rivers, talking sense

Mark Rivers, one of the smartest guys in Boise, did a two-part interview with BSU Radio this week. In Part One, he says that while Boise city administration has good intentions and integrity, it lacks vision when it comes to economic development. Is the state any better? "Don't get me started," he tells reporter Elzabeth Duncan, noting that Butch Otter's signature Project 60 is "asinine."

In Part Two, Rivers suggests a better streetcar route, calls Boise State University our city's biggest remaining "factory," and says downtown Boise is still in pretty good shape. Listen here.

And no, he doesn't want to run for office. Of course, I can't blame him, and I agree that people like Rivers can probably do more good outside the political process than within it.

Interesting side note: I just got the save-the-date postcard today for an intriguing City Club program on April 15. BSU's Nancy Napier and Bob Lokken of White Cloud Analytics will discuss whether Boise is living up to its promise of a creative economy.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Another downtown loss, but a bit of good news, too

Postscript April 19, 2010: Listen to a Boise State radio story about Boise Blue and "The Art of Saying Goodbye."

Postscript February 12:
While it doesn't diminish the loss of Boise Blue, I heard some really good news yesterday after I posted this. Another locally owned business - a real fixture in the Think Boise First movement, in fact - will be relocating downtown this summer. The news is not yet widely known, so I won't say which one, but it's a business that knows what it takes to beat the trends toward online shopping and big-box price wars.

I am a strong believer in local businesses and downtown Boise, and although closures like Boise Blue and Macy's give us all pause (especially amid a still-rough economic climate), there are still many people who would prefer to shop, eat, hang out, and even live downtown.

Just a few weeks after Macy's announced it will close its downtown Boise location, I was saddened to read today that Boise Blue Art Supply, a downtown fixture for decades, will be closing soon. The store has been suffering from lack of parking, the congestion wrought by the long Capitol renovation project, and - everyone's favorite bogeyman - online shopping.

I'm not in the market for art supplies very often, but I stopped in a couple of times. Once was to buy a cheap ballpoint pen when I found myself downtown without one. Late for a meeting at the Statehouse, I lay my money on the counter and begged the staff - waiting on another customer - to keep the change so I could get on my way.

Another time, shortly after I moved to Boise, I was captivated by an exhibition of student photography showcased in Boise Blue's windows along Jefferson Street. I went inside to learn more, and the staff kindly gave me the name and phone number of the Boise School District employee who coordinated the project.

That's the kind of community-minded support that artists mentioned in today's Idaho Statesman article by Anna Webb. "It's sad when any business closes, but it's especially sad when it's a business like Boise Blue that's supported the art community for so many years," Cherry Woodbury of the Idaho Watercolor Society said.

And of course, Boise Blue's name (originally derived from an early focus on architectural blueprints) took on a whole new meaning in recent years, as blue became the color most associated with Boise. The store often had a pro-Broncos message on its reader board.

Boise Blue will be missed, and its closure offers yet another reminder that it's good to shop locally, with Boise-based businesses, whenever and however we can.