Search for Downtown Boise Transit Center Site Drags On

May 04--In 2005, Sen. Mike Crapo got a $9.6 million earmark for Valley Regional Transit to build a new bus and transit center in Downtown Boise. More than five years later, not only is the transit center not built, but Valley Regional Transit has not decided where to put it.

In fact, it's asking the public for opinions on another possible location -- and just last week discarded a briefly considered option that would have involved tearing down the Record Exchange at 11th and Idaho.

The new possible site for the center is a parking lot along 12th Street between Idaho and Main streets adjacent to the Record Exchange and Royal Plaza condominiums. Residents read about it in a Statesman story four months ago and asked VRT for a meeting in April when they had heard nothing from the agency.

"We were kind of blindsided by this thing," said Bill Robins, who has lived in Royal Plaza for about three years. "We had no idea it was coming."

VRT met with Royal Plaza residents April 21 and gave them a map depicting two possible locations adjacent to their building -- one on the north half of the block, which is home to the Record Exchange, Neurolux and a parking lot. This was news to the owners of the Record Exchange, a Downtown fixture for more than 30 years.

"One would think they would at least talk to me about the potential. That would have been polite and appropriate," said Record Exchange co-owner Michael Bunnell, who did hear from the property's possible developer. "It would take a significant offer or proposal for us to even consider relocation."

VRT officials said Friday that the news got out before they were ready to talk about it publicly, but that the agency is alerting Downtown property owners now about a public meeting on Thursday. Postcards announcing the meeting were mailed last week.

VRT director Kelli Fairless also said the agency has decided to no longer consider the option that involved the Record Exchange building -- which Bunnell had not heard.

"More bizarre news," he said Friday.

WHAT'S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?

A new transit center would serve as a hub for transportation services including buses, streetcars and regional high-capacity transit such as passenger rail. It would include taxi and vanpool access, bicycle parking, restrooms and transit information and ticket offices. A new transit center would replace the existing Downtown transit mall, which is spread out along Idaho Street between Capitol Boulevard and 9th Street and on Main Street between 10th and Capitol.

Valley Regional Transit has partnered with the city's urban renewal agency, Capital City Development Corp., which is contributing $1.5 million to the $11 million project.

BUT WHERE TO PUT IT?

After evaluating about a dozen sites, the Valley Regional Transit board in May 2008 selected "Site H" at the northeast corner of 11th and Idaho streets. The Federal Transit Authority approved the site in June 2009.

Valley Regional Transit has since worked on getting the site appraised, designing the building and negotiating with the property owner, Tomlinson and Associates.

At the same time, transit and city officials have continued looking for other sites in case Site H falls through.

Downtown's largest property owner wants Site H to fall through.

The owner of the 4.5-acre Boise Plaza complex north of Idaho Street, Rafanelli & Nahas, threatened to halt its own $100 million development plans -- a hotel, residential condos, office buildings and a city park -- if a transit center is built next door.

In an attempt to find a new location, Boise and CCDC staff drew up plans in 2009 to put the transit center along 10th Street, then contemplated using part of a parking lot adjacent to U.S. Bank on Main Street. Other potential sites were in front of City Hall or at a vacant lot at Capitol Boulevard and Front Street. None of these sites panned out.

WHAT NOW?

Valley Regional Transit on Thursday will give the public a chance to weigh in on the plan for Site H and to review the site adjacent to Royal Plaza. The latter option was a surprise to some property owners, because a few years ago the transit agency rejected it, in part, because it was adjacent to the 26 high-end condominiums.

At the time, the property owner, Oppenheimer Development Corp., was not interested in putting a transit center on its property, according to a 2009 VRT report.

But today Oppenheimer is interested.

Royal Plaza residents don't understand why a site once considered inappropriate is now appropriate. Their concerns include air quality, noise and traffic -- the transit center would bring about 250 bus trips a day.

"This is where we live," said Robins. "These places are not an investment. These are not retail spaces or offices. These are our homes. We are very concerned about what type of impact this would have on us."

VRT said the site near Royal Plaza may be a better location because it is sandwiched between two major streets, and because Oppenheimer's willingness to partner in the development could bring amenities such as a parking garage and retail and office space -- as well as money -- to the project.

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428

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