Megastructure shmegastructure

“(A Mega-structure is) a large frame in which all the functions of a city or part of a city are housed. It has been made possible by present day technology. In a sense it is a man-made feature of the landscape. It is like the great hill on which Italian towns were built.” Fumihiko Maki (1964, Mega-structure: Investigations in Collective Form, the first published use of the term)

Shmeg: 1. Secretion of the male reproductive organ, a slang for semen (Urban Dictionary), 2. A derivative of the Yiddish word “shmegegge”, meaning baloney; hot air; nonsense (


Boise’s 1963 proposal for a downtown “megastructure” (Atkinson Associates, Comprehensive General Plan – Boise City, Idaho 1985)

I first visited Boise in 1984 when I was a young architecture student, interested to see where my parents had moved after my dad’s retirement from the military. After leaving college, my wife and I (and our two-year old son) decided to relocate from Minneapolis to Boise. The architectural job market was hot, there was a lot of construction (especially around the recently opened Boise Towne Square Mall), and I was able to land a drafting job fairly quickly. I began to hear stories about the strangely deserted downtown, about its failed urban renewal history and its lost Chinatown. But what interested me most was the idea that Boise’s leadership had been pursuing the construction of a massive downtown shopping mall. Further, it seemed the only thing they managed to construct was the connector from the interstate to the central business district, and an oddly shaped single-story convention center with a curiously vacant adjacent plaza.

In the late 1980’s, enthusiasm for the Boise Towne Square Mall was infectious — even local folk musician J.J. Dion was commissioned by a radio station to write and record songs about the soon-to-open mall.

The reasons offered for the failed downtown mall fell usually into two camps. Either the city fathers had become so enraptured with securing federal Housing and Urban Development funding that they failed to forge supportive partnerships with the private developers who were to build the mall — or the idea that the mall, itself, was crushed under its own over-inflated architectural program.

“… (The Boise Redevelopment Agency’s) goal is to arrest urban decay and stem the flight from the inner city. In its eight-year pursuit of this commendable purpose, it has gone through three developers — Urban Properties, Inc., of Pittsburgh, which decided it couldn’t afford the project; Boise Cascade, which overextended itself in other fields and had to withdraw; and the current designee, the Dayton-Hudson Corporation of Minneapolis — but almost from the beginning, BRA and its appointed commissioners have been inflexibly wedded to a single concept: a megastructure.” (L.J. Davis, Tearing Boise Down, Harper’s Magazine)

In his 1974 article in Harper’s Magazine, Lawrence Davis clearly fell into the latter camp — actually using the term megastructure to describe the proposed mall. This was the first time the neologism had been used to describe the proposed Boise City Center (a.k.a. the downtown mall) and by pairing the term with the large-scale demolition of portions of downtown, he linked the project to what he felt was an inescapable conclusion, “Boise stands an excellent chance of becoming the first American city to have deliberately eradicated itself.”

Davis also referenced what he felt was a questionable assumption on the part of the downtown mallers, that there would likely not be enough electrical power in Boise to adequately service the mechanical needs of such a massive structure.

There can be little doubt that the energy pinch will eventually creep up on Boise, however — no place in the world can escape it, not even rock-ribbed Republican territory — and the megastructure’s enormous need for power will do its bit to chivvy matters along. (L.J. Davis, Tearing Boise Down)


The proposed Boise City Center project (Illustration by author, based on Atkinson & Associates Illustrative Plan, overlaid on recent image of downtown Boise, Google Earth)

This megastructure, officially named the City Center project, would have required the re-construction of nine city blocks in the central business district — bounded by 6th Street, Bannock Street, 9th Street, and Grove Street. Three block lengths of Capital Boulevard, Idaho Street, and Main Street would have been vacated and converted to pedestrian promenades — with 8th Street being enclosed in a glass-ceiling covered arcade. Interestingly, the earliest version of what became the Grove Plaza (now at the intersection of the former 8th and Grove Streets) was shown to have been located on the Capital Boulevard promenade fronting what would become (in 1976) the new City Hall complex.

As early as 1967, Boise was already proving up its intent to redevelop the downtown area — taking receipt of a $250,000 federal grant to begin the planning and survey work necessary to acquire the eventual $4.3M of federal funds to purchase property and redevelop the central business district.

But, as we know, the City Center Project never materialized. For a moment though, let’s compare the project to development that did occur. Arguably, the vacation of the public streets would have been a difficult public space to develop and manage, there being adequate examples of such pedestrian malls in cities around the country that have failed to catalyze the hoped-for commercial development. But, was the project a brobdingnagian “megastructure” doomed to plunge the region into perpetual power outages?


Boise Town Square Mall superimposed on downtown Boise (Illustration by author, overlaid on recent aerial image of downtown Boise, Google Earth)

In the image above one can see that the Boise Towne Square Mall, completed in 1988 just a year before my wife and I moved to Boise, is nearly identical in size to the originally proposed City Center project — actually the Mall contains about 200,000 more square feet of retail space than would have been in the City Center project. Also, the Towne Square Mall (located directly off the connector, built to originally feed regional traffic to the City Center project) is surrounded not with pedestrian promenades, but nearly 2,500,000 square feet of asphalt parking lots and circulation drives.

Boiseans are an amiable, even-tempered people. Slow to anger, relatively untouched by urban traumas, they have had little experience in community organization outside their churches. Not long ago, though, a great many of them made the common discovery that cars were parked where their childhoods used to be, that their city was in serious danger of ceasing to exist, and that directly in the path of bulldozers lay virtually all that remained of their architectural heritage. It made them mad as hell. (L.J. Davis, Tearing Boise Down)

One can’t help but feel that the mechanisms put into place to help facilitate the construction of the City Center project resulted, instead, in the construction of a far more devilish development — the Boise Towne Square Mall. Traffic to the Mall (few Boiseans refer to it by its colonial-esque nom de plume) is fed by the I-184 connector by two off-ramps, and the Milwaukee Avenue intersections, which serve as the the principal surface roads accessing the Mall, are routinely listed as the worst congested intersections in Boise.

And, perhaps worse of all, the Mall was constructed on some of the most productive farm land in the county — located just 3-1/2 miles west of the downtown.


Boise Town Square Mall location in aerial image from 1964, showing current road layout (Boise GIS dataset)

The image above was taken in 1964, just a year after the Atkinson Associates planning process (with its City Center illustrative plan) was launched. Even though two of the farmers sued the original developer to keep the Mall from being constructed, by 1976 they dropped their suit and the moneyed interests began to coalesce.

Though it seems Davis’ dire warnings of megastructured-doom never materialized, the economic and social pressures to build something proved up another of the observations made in his article. Perhaps, all the hoopla surrounding the downtown City Center project was simply a diversionary tactic, just so much hot-air; when the real intent had been to build a suburban mall out by the freeway all along.

A few years ago a number of city fathers stood to make a good deal of money off the way the city was sprawling to the west, out into the best farmland in the county, and they saw nothing wrong with doing so. (L.J. Davis, Tearing Down Boise)

Most recently, in a town just 3-1/2 miles west of the Boise Towne Square Mall a newly minted “Lifestyle Center” has been christened.

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Site plan for The Village lifestyle center located in Meridian, Idaho (American Builders Quarterly)

In 1990, when the shopping fervor over the new Mall was at its peak, the sleepy agricultural community of Meridian (located just three miles to the west of the Mall site) had a total population of just 9,600 folks. The manifest destiny of westward migration (writ small) has burgeoned this community’s 2016 population to nearly 88,000 people. And with that new population, came a desire to develop a new shopping and entertainment opportunity.

While one may vent their liver over the loss of farmland, the growing expanse of Sprawl, and the proliferation of means to pilfer the pubic of their hard-earned pay – one thing becomes abundantly clear. The people who visit these places strongly desire the sensorial delights of urban places. Like the Mall though, one has to drive to this location.


The Village’s fountain square and urban-esque density is devoid of any residential uses (The Land Group)


Getting Schooled on Walkability

Just as every neighborhood should have a reliable fire station, every neighborhood should have a good public school.

Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, 2010)


A comparison between a walkable neighborhood school and an unwalkable sprawling campus (Lisc Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, 2011)

There has been a considerable amount of effort in recent years to build (or re-build) walkable neighborhoods. With professional organization like the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the American Planning Association(APA), to the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy (LI) — all chiming in with their own advocacy efforts.

Most of the purported reasons for making a community walkable deal with reducing the miles needing to be driven by the residents of any town. This could, in turn, reduce the outlay of public resources needing to be spent on motor vehicle ways, and the amount of money the typical household would have to spend on owning and maintaining their vehicles. These two effects (the ability to reduce demands on tax revenue, and an opportunity to increase an individual family’s net disposable income) speak directly to both conservative and liberal values.

What’s driving walkability?

But, before we can draw any conclusions about the beneficial aspects of walkability we should look into our actual travel habits. This will help us to better understand the potential benefits of revising our public policies, by allowing us to focus our attention on the best avenues for improvement.


Traffic jam in America (Dan Chung, 2009)

The average American household, living in a single-family detached residence, makes just about 10 vehicle trips per day. And of all trips on public thoroughfares, only about 16-percent of them are work related (NHTS, 2009). The next largest percentage of trips are connected to getting kids to school or childcare (at ~10-percent) and shopping (primarily getting groceries) (at ~21-percent). In fact, there are more trips devoted to these latter two purposes than to all worked-related trips combined during any 24-hour period. Delving into these travel purposes a bit deeper, for the mandatory trips taken during the morning commute (equal to 80-percent of all vehicles on the road at that time) upwards of 19.5-percent are related to students driving themselves, or being driven to school. Let’s consider that figure for a moment — nearly a fifth of all peak morning mandatory traffic is related to kids getting to school. And, as we know, we design our roads to handle the peak traffic demands (not their 24-hour carrying capacity).

Why should we really want walkable communities?

This brings us to the single greatest reason any community should adopt walkability standards — to make our public schools walkable AND the center of every walkable neighborhood.

Unfortunately, the primary focus in most walkability publications has been on convincing the typical work commuter to either walk to their job, rather than drive — or take a bus to a centralized transit mall, then walk a short distance to their office. Even though the number of workers in a typical downtown’s central business district are nowhere near the total number of workers living in any one community. Most of these publications (and very few of the walkablity experts) have been looking at children’s travel habits — and very few analysts have been trying to understand the underlying reason why children have been walking (and biking) to schools less and less over the decades.

A notable exception has been the work of writers like Kaid Benfield with the Sustainable Cities Collective. In a recent post, Benfield artfully parsed the reason why our American schools have become increasingly less walkable and more dependent on private automobile use. Such writings more accurately frame the dire situation facing parents and children these days. So, rather than placing blame on the purported, ever-increasingly sedentary American lifestyle we should be investigating how the average American school has become increasingly less walkable since the late 1960’s (when these statistics were first being tracked).

As the typical American metropolitan area has grown less dense since WWII, the average American school district has adopted consolidation strategies, essentially super-sizing schools and their respective campuses. Since 1940 the average school in America has increased its enrollment by over 514% (Ehrich). This super-sizing effort has stripped the typical neighborhood of most school campuses, as school districts acquire outlying, inexpensive land to implement their larger consolidated programs. These massive school campus standards dwarf the campuses of yesteryear.


An example of unworkable public school campus placement from Loudoun County, Virginia (Google Earth, 2013)

As a result, families must either rely on buses, carpools, or personal vehicle to ferry their children to and from school. A startling statistic to keep in mind is that in 1969, approximately 41-percent of American students walked to school — but by 2001 that figured had dropped to less than 13-percent.

Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do. The neighborhood school is the place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. They create a sense of community among strangers. As we lose neighborhood public schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors.

Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, 2010)

Dr. Diane Ravitch, the Research Professor for Education at New York University and the former Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration, has been calling for the re-birth of the neighborhood school. She believes that every neighborhood should have at its heart a public school.

What is a “right-sized” school?

But let’s take a step back and ask what such a walkable school-centered neighborhood might look like. Since most studies indicate that the average person is willing to walk about five minutes to reach many of their trip destinations, it’s reasonable to consider a “walkable neighborhood” to be sized within a circumscribed area defined by a (roughly) quarter-mile radius — that is, a distance that the average person can walk in five minutes. This circumscribed area is also called a Pedestrian Shed. Although it would be unreasonable to claim that the center of that radius should be a magical job center that employs everyone that lives within that neighborhood, it is supremely reasonable to assert that an elementary school should rest at the center of every Pedestrian Shed. Why so?

Using the Boise School District’s Student Generation Rate (the number of children expected to come from each average household) of .67 students/household, we would expect to see 13 students generated out of every 20 households. These students would fill the following categories: seven students in kindergarten thru 6th grades, three student in 7th thru 9th grades, and three students in 10th thru 12th grades. If an elementary school were placed at the center of a five-minute pedestrian shed (which covers about 125 acres) — and with a net residential density of approximately eight dwelling units per acre — there would be enough elementary school-aged children to fill one 200 to 250 student elementary school.

Though this might sound like a much smaller school then we’re used to, it is right-sized to a walkable neighborhood — with one to two classrooms per grade. Three of these elementary schools feed into one right-sized junior high — with an enrollment of 600 to 750 students. While two of these junior highs feed into one right-sized senior high school — with an enrollment of between 1200 and 1500 students. Most important to these school metrics are their ability to form a central part of the lives of the residents in each neighborhood.


The scale-ability of right-sized Neighborhood Schools (image by author)

Additionally, the campus sizes for these schools must also be right-sized. A walkable neighborhood’s elementary school’s campus would be no more than two city blocks in size – between four to five acres – which would be large enough for the school building, a neighborhood playground, and a small grass field. A right-sized junior high school’s campus size would be about four city blocks in size – between eight to ten acres – larger enough for the school building, and a running track & football field. And, a right-sized senior high school’s campus size would be approximately six city blocks in size – between twelve to fifteen acres – large enough for the school building, a running track/football field, and tennis courts or baseball field.

One particularly helpful tool that communities and school districts can use to help assess their own policies in regard to walkable schools is Nathan Norris‘, Smart Growth Schools Report Card. This report card’s metrics rank communities along several dimensions and then applies an A-F grade for that community’s performance.

Related articles:

Sustainable Public Education in Idaho

Idaho is a place with a highly educated population; which is recognized as the key to economic development and long-term employment stability. Idaho Sustainability Vision Statement

Idaho School DistrictsThe following link is to a paper providing an overview of the conditions facing public education in Idaho. It provides a snapshot into current conditions, makes specific recommendations for improvement, and ties the subject into the broader subject of sustainability within the state.

Though the general presumption concerning educational excellence revolves around the funding issues facing primary, secondary and higher education institutions within the state (and those expenditures that have a direct impact on those constraints, primarily teacher/student ratios); when the subject is viewed through the lens of sustainability the matter becomes more deeply integrated into the financial and employment concerns facing each community within Idaho. This paper will attempt to draw a correlation between each community’s educational resources, and its ability to foster an environment for long-term economic and employment stability.

The paper lays out the argument for a reduction in school campus size, and campus placement criteria, that would more fully integrate primary schools into each neighborhood.

Sustainable Size

Hailey: A Town Square for Every Season

As the small mountain resort community of Hailey, Idaho has grown, the lack of a centrally located place for residents to gather and celebrate has become a stumbling block for community participation.

Hailey Quote

This research project was undertaken to in a effort to plumb the depths of public sentiment regarding a new Town Square, and to assemble a set of programmatic design criteria for such an urban open space. These criteria fell into three distinct categories of attributes; Adjacencies, Activities, and Amenities. Additionally, the research lead to a prioritization of a list of potential sites in the downtown area that could support a new Town Square.

Unlike the conventional urban design approach of deliberating upon the appropriate Form and Function of a public open space, the author included the range of acceptable “adjacencies” for such a space. This permitted the community members to express their preferences for types of land uses and spaces that should be located next to their unique town square.

Here’s a link to the Executive Report for the project (on the author’s Academia page):

The research effort involved authoring and conducting a modified charrette effort that engaged key community stakeholders in the creation of a set of three-dimensional maquettes; which modeled their preferences for the three categories of attributes. This detailed information was then used to constructed a public survey for the community (a population that included all residents, business owners, and employees). These preferences were then used to develop a set of architectural programmatic criteria for a new Town Square – with these criteria then being used to prioritize a set of potential sites for this public open space.

This report was presented back to the mayor and city council on June 1, 2015.