Written by Sheri Freemuth
When I decided on a career as a city planner, one of the appealing parts of the job was the community activism involved with it. So when I received an email from Sarah Cunningham, a neighborhood activist for Boise’s Central Bench Neighborhood in January, I opened it with interest. She was proudly announcing that the University of Idaho's Urban Research and Design Center was undertaking a neighborhood project in Boise. The first step would be some grassroots survey work. Next would be brainstorming with the design students and their professor Sherry McKibben about the options for transit oriented development at the site.
The just-built Franklin School in 1905. (Photo: Preservation Idaho)
What a great opportunity for the neighborhood, I thought! Then I realized that the focus of their work would be a site at the corner of Franklin and Orchard streets. I had a wave of regret and a bit of nausea; I closed the email.
This was, in fact, the former site of the historic Franklin School. Preservation Idaho, along with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and others had tried to save this school for several years. The site was part of the Independent School District of Boise City’s 2006 bond which involved multiple sites and the consolidation, reconstruction and relocation of schools. When the bond was promoted to voters it was stated that Franklin (and nearby Cole) School would be disposed of, but it did not state that the buildings would be demolished.
In the fall of 2008 the National Trust met with a prospective buyer discussing the building’s possible continued use as a Charter School, ongoing joint use of the fields and play equipment, and the potential for co-siting some senior housing. The School District did not accept this offer and by the summer of 2009 declared that both the Franklin and Cole School sites would be more marketable if the buildings were demolished. The schools were demolished in October of 2009, yet both sites are still vacant and unsold.
Of course, now the residents of the Central Bench are ready to move on. They have lost a public benefit that they had relied on for generations, including a beautiful public building, a park-like amenity (playing fields and playground equipment) and instead are faced with a cleared lot surrounded by chain link fencing.
Demolition at the Franklin School in October 2009. (Photo: Preservation Idaho)
I forced myself to attend the January neighborhood project meeting and was pleased to see a group of more than a dozen ready to engage. As we went around the room, I realized that these citizens loved the old school, too, and truly mourned its loss. Here was a chance for something positive to come of the experience.
In early March the project officially kicked off with a students and residents meeting. Before long it was clear that a priority for the neighborhood was a Cultural Arts and Community Center. The center could include classrooms, gathering spaces, a large performing arts theater, and other public amenities. Final student projects were well underway in the spring, and four alternative plans were presented in early May.
Earlier this month I staffed a table at the 2nd Annual Central Bench Spring Festival. Several of the student drawings were posted for everyone to see. They were beautiful, and any one of them would be the type of investment this neighborhood dearly needs and deserves. I couldn’t help but think what the preservation alternative would be. How nicely could the old school have been transformed into a Cultural Arts and Community Center? How best to really honor the heritage of the area than with the building that educated Boise students from 1905 to 2008 as the centerpiece? (For photos, visit Preservation Idaho.)
But it is past time for me and other preservationists to get over it. When a historic building is lost there is a time for mourning, but the important work of neighborhood planning and development goes on. Preservationists should be welcome and contributing partners in the process of moving on, just as they are in the process of identifying and saving historic sites.
I wonder though how this will unfold for the School District? They still own the property and they presumably are still determined to receive top dollar for the benefit of their patrons. Perhaps they too have gotten over it and will realize that this corner has been a public resource for well over a century and the neighborhood expects and deserves for it stay that way.
Sheri Freemuth, AICP, is a Program Officer for the Western Office. She resides in Boise, Idaho.