Always a lively place, downtown Boise has, over the past decade, grown even more dynamic and attractive. Both homegrown and professional music, arts and cultural events, headlined by the now nationally-known yearly music festival, Treefort; the growth of Boise State University; a vigorous foodie culture with new boutique restaurants and bars; small tech companies which now call Boise home—these are just a few of the vibrant features of the town where you can, seriously, fish the river on your lunch hour.
Before the real estate market, in his words, “started to tank in 2007,” Portland developer David Hale eyed the area around Grove and 14th Streets in 2005 and liked the funky, mismatched architecture, the location at the western fringe of downtown, and the potential for a unique kind of high-density, mixed neighborhood seen nowhere else in Boise. He moved his business to the City of Trees, bought the building formerly housed by the American Linen Company, and made a start with offices there. He looked for a boutique restaurant for the ground floor but didn’t find the right fit, but because of its spacious room with a dance-hall sort of feel, soon he was renting it out for events. Private parties, bands, weddings and corporate events were his first clients, and he didn’t even have to advertise. People just showed up.
“The recession was even worse by 2008 and it hit the real estate market hard,” said Hale. “Most developers were leveraged to the hilt. The Linen Building’s events were my saviors— they made it possible to survive through those years.”
Hale, who wins awards for his projects, is a Tigger-like bundle of enthusiasm and energy who speaks in a refreshingly blunt, authentic way. A lot of information is packed into each of his sentences, so it’s a trick to sort it all out. But in between anecdotes about this or that Boise building there was the story of his development philosophy and how the Linen District is a prime example.
“I like to use what’s already there,” he said. Starting from scratch is one thing, he said, but helping a neighborhood grow organically is his passion. “Anybody can build fresh retail, but it doesn’t have the feeling of a city’s history and real neighborhoods.”
On the main stretch of Grove Street, with its Linen Building, Hale developed Big City Coffee, the hub of the District where coffee and delicious American food meets the Internet meets the people of Boise; the Modern Hotel—a former ugly motor lodge from the 1960s redesigned in mid-century modern boutique-style, with a wooded courtyard, bar and gourmet restaurant; and around the corner on 16th, a townhouse project just getting off the ground. “Residential was part of the original plan,” said Hale, “but it was derailed by the recession. So I’m super-excited to be getting back to that.”
A walk through the Linen District today shows a successful development with the need for more tenants, but its unconventional and funky shops and businesses are doing well. They line both sides of Grove Street and the incongruity of the mix is charming. The Crazy Neighbor, a theatrical costume, accessories, and cosplay shop with amusing displays of hats, beards, wigs, glasses, jewelry and every sort of dress-up item you could want, holds the center on one side, and is joined by Second-Chance Building Materials, which benefits a homeless project, a state liquor store, a beauty supply, a secondhand outdoor-equipment and clothes shop and a yoga studio. The block looks as if it has been there forever, but has been spiffed up recently, without the boring beige consistency of a strip mall.
A corner landmark is Eyes of the World, an import store with enormous inventory from around the globe. It’s worth a few hours to find that unique textile, embroidered Indian sari, or boho wedding dress you’re looking for. Books about the 1960s, 70s and various countercultures are just another thing that gives the Linen District a bit of an early Haight-Ashbury vibe.
At each end of the Linen District there are old, established local businesses with their own buildings: an auto repair and an electrical and lighting store. They visually “anchor” the area and give it a substantial feel. Stretching just beyond is the District’s newest showpiece, a’Tavola Gourmet Marketplace and Café. Its new and upscale exterior is another variety of architecture that adds to the interesting incongruity of storefronts.
With the addition of Hale’s Idaho Street Townhomes— two of which sold within the first week of their offering—the Linen District will finally have the “mix” in “mixed use.” But as it is right now, it’s a neighborhood with a sense of place and is yet another feature that makes Boise interesting. It will only get better.