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 (TheFreeDictionary.com)

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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)

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

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