Growing Garden City: The Man Who Started The City’s Transformation

Jun 23, 2015

Jim Neill bought the land that would become the Waterfront District more than a decade ago.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

The neighborhood known as the Waterfront District is a game changer for Garden City. It was the first high-end housing built in the historically poor, southeast section of town. It’s the development that kicked off, what many people believe is inevitable gentrification.

The Waterfront District featured prominently in our recent series Growing Garden City. As we researched those stories, our Adam Cotterell took a walk around the neighborhood with Jim Neill, the man behind the development. Here is part of their conversation. 

Q: So was this whole neighborhood your idea?

A: It was a lot of people’s idea. I was the one who had it under contract at the right time and then I formed the partnership that acquired it and ran it through the subdivision process.

There had been different proposals here in the past. It was an old meat packing plant and since it was 17 acres of ground, it attracted attention from builders and developers at different times in its history.

This was the residue, as I understand it, of the Tom Davis Ranch and Tom at the end of the 1800s was a successful rancher and agriculturalist. His wife was Julia Davis who’s got the park named after her. And he owned several miles of ground along here. It shrank down over time to become Davis Packing Plant.

And so it was a 17 acre parcel here, 2000 feet of frontage on the river, cottonwoods and the Boise foothills in the background. So you know I happened to be down here just scouting around and curious about the area and peered over the cattle gate that used to be [at the end of] 36th street there.

My realtor friend called me the next week and said ‘guess where a big for sale sign went up,’ right on that cattle gate. So it was available and I went chasing after it.

Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Q: As good as the land was, did you have qualms about starting a development in Garden City?

A: I’d have to say yes, I did. People said ‘well what are you going to put down there? Some storage units or something?’ I said ‘No high end residential!’ To me it just seemed like there was going to be some people who would be happy to drive down past the Harley dealership and the Ranch Club bar [to] find a nice spot on the water.

Surel Mitchell was a pioneering artist down here.  I stopped at her house one time before I bought this property.  I thought that if artists are coming down from the North End, brewers and developers can’t be far behind.

Q: Do you see the future of Garden City being more developments like this along the south side of the river?

A: I think so. Garden City is really uniquely situated if you look at a map of Boise, it looks like one of the old Packman things with the city encircling garden city and its got, I think close to four miles of frontage on the river. All around the country people are rediscovering their urban cores and rediscovering the waterfronts and I think it’s just a natural thing.

It’s taking plenty of time. It’s been 10 years. I thought a lot more would have happened since I got involved down here but it’s definitely coming along.

Q: Did the recession slow that down?

A: Yeah, the recession took a bite out of everything. Although the values here didn’t sink as far as they did in some places. But unfortunately a lot of our builders that we had sold lots to got clobbered like everywhere else.

It was pretty bad, I thought I was going to live in my car. I only have a couple mortgages now, I had four or five for a while and they were all of them in default. I think everyone in the building industry experienced that.

Neill credits Sherry McKibben with McKibben Cooper Architects for the Waterfront District's eclectic mix of styles.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Q: If neighborhoods like this are the future of this part of Garden City, what happens to the people that live here now?

I think a lot of them stay in the area, merge into new housing. In Garden City, it’s a relatively small population. This one project has right now a little bit over 100 houses in it so it’s got 300 people. Making attractive, new denser living means that you’re going to accommodate new people and not displace existing residents.

People who are living here in trailers were really at the end of an investment cycle. The trailers were worn out, they’re not something you can rebuild.  And so some kind of new redevelopment has to occur.  I think they are not going to be displaced because there is a mixture of affordable and high end things that are going in.  I think there are some individual situations where people are displaced, but you can’t build your land use policy around not doing anything.

It can look upsetting when rentals are displaced, but looking at it overall, people weren’t being supported by the fact that they lived here at lower income levels in trailers. I mean, that’s not something that has a bright future. It’s something that was sputtering and petering out, some kind of new investment was needed. It’s a rare, good thing when there’s kind of a dynamic interesting response, like is possible here.

Q: Do you think developers need to think about low income housing when making a high income housing development, or is that not your job?

A: I’m certainly not somebody who believes in trickle down; that you just build the highest end always and let somebody pick up the pieces later on.  I think that the idea of a pure market is a fallacy because the value of real estate is location, location, location.  Location in relation to what?  It’s not inherent to the property.  Its location in relation to infrastructure, jobs, restaurants.  It’s a whole kind of web.  Utilities, government puts those in at the public’s expense.  It’s a complicated question.

I think when somebody goes in and says I’m going to build affordable housing, that can lead to as many problems as someone coming in and saying I’m not going to build affordable housing.  There’s just no easy answers.

Construction continues in the Waterfront District.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Q: What’s your next project?

A: I’ve still got a lot of ground here so, I am working with Harding Homes, they’re going to build out a townhome development here. And this [he points] is also a condominium lot approved for 30 units maximum so I’m trying to find builders who can take it from the land stage where I operate and go vertical. It’s not my project but the next big question – ‘is ACHD  ever going to sell or develop their storage yard?’ You don’t need to have riverfront to store gravel piles. They’re bottling up value.

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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