Boise has more than doubled in size since 1980, and the growth is luring in chain retailers. Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce/Flickr

The small Idaho city is facing an influx of newcomers—including chain retailers—that some fear will threaten its smart-growth vision.

CVS Health, the largest retail pharmacy chain in America, announced early this month that it planned to purchase Aetna, one of the largest health insurance companies. It was a move analysts say was meant to keep the brick-and-mortar pharmacy juggernaut competitive as e-tailer Amazon moves in to disrupt the prescription drug industry.

Over the last few years, CVS has become all-but-synonymous with “drug store” for much of the U.S., wiping out independent pharmacists as its outlets have marched through cities coast-to-coast. CVS has been on a tear during the last decade, with stores in 49 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Brazil. The number of CVS stores grew more than 30 percent to more than 9,700 from 2012 to 2017. More than 1,600 are located inside Target stores, which in 2015 sold its pharmacies to CVS for $1.9 billion.

The state of Idaho, however, has only two lonely CVS outposts. Both are inside Targets, and neither is in Boise, the fast-growing high-desert capital city of 223,000. The company has been trying to remedy that situation: In October, a developer filed an application to build a single-floor 12,000-square-foot CVS retail pharmacy on Boise’s West State Street, an urban gateway that links multiple neighborhoods to the city’s downtown.

To make space for the store and its parking lot—which would have occupied nearly a city block—the developer planned to demolish three homes and a building with 23 low-income residences, at a time when the city’s downtown is quickly gentrifying and concerns about low-income residents being pushed out are intensifying.

But CVS ran into a chorus of community opposition, triggering a land-use battle that pits the pharmacy chain against a cadre of spirited smart-growth advocates who say that the drug goliath threatens the town’s essential character. Boise has been welcoming an influx of new residents lately—many from high-cost cities in California and the Pacific Northwest—drawn by the relatively inexpensive housing and laid-back outdoorsy vibe. (Boise’s local ski hill, Bogus Basin, is a nonprofit.) Longtime Boise residents don’t want the development that’s coming along with these newcomers to turn Boise into a city indistinguishable from the places they left.

The battle began, as so many do, over parking. Before breaking ground, the developer applied for a city waiver to put in 48 parking spaces, which is beyond the number allowed based on the size of the building. Neighbors rallied against the proposal, which they argued would have increased traffic, harmed the walkability and charm of the neighborhood, and removed badly needed affordable housing. The developer’s application was met by more than 500 public comments in the first two weeks.

But, instead of reducing the number of parking spaces, the developer upped the size of the store size to 19,000 square feet—large enough to allow the 48 parking spots without a waiver.  

“It was a big middle finger to the neighborhoods,” said Stephen R. Miller, a professor of land use law at the University of Idaho, who is on the board of the city’s North End Neighborhood Association. “It was like they were saying, ‘We recognize there is opposition, and we are going to proceed with an even bigger project.’”

It’s not like this neighborhood was hurting for pharmacy options: There’s already a Rite Aid directly across the street from the proposed development, and an Albertsons less than a block away. But the site is zoned commercial, so there seemed to be little neighborhood advocates could do to stop it. Then, early last week, the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission denied CVS a conditional-use permit to install a drive-thru, after it was met with more than three hours of public comments against the proposal. Neighborhood advocates are now waiting to see how CVS will respond; the developer can appeal the decision or build the pharmacy without the drive-thru and try again later. CVS, and the lawyer representing the developer, declined to comment. Boise’s mayor, David Bieter, also did not reply to multiple calls for comment.

A Boise protester takes on CVS. The company’s proposed store would take the space of several homes and apartments. (Photo courtesy Save Boise Neighborhoods)  

A city’s values, versus its laws, is at the heart of the CVS battle in Boise, where efforts to encourage denser, more walkable development have been picking up steam. In 2011, the city adopted Blueprint Boise, a 20-year plan to manage growth with the objective of making Boise “the most livable city in the country.” The plan is heavy on smart-growth policies including promoting mixed-use development, open spaces, and a walkable and bike-friendly urban core. But it’s just a policy, not a binding regulation.

The various neighborhood advocates who assembled on social media under the banner Save Boise Neighborhoods say that, so far, Blueprint Boise isn’t reflected in the city’s outdated zoning laws, which allow companies to build suburban-style commercial developments surrounded by moats of parking, like the proposed CVS store. “You are taking something human scale and putting in something scaled for automobiles,” says Nicole Windsor, president of Boise’s West Downtown Neighborhood Association. “That seems contrary to what the city values.”

Windsor lives a stone’s-throw from the proposed CVS development, and walks downtown to her job as a food scientist. She’s worried not only about the immediate neighborhood impact of a large parking lot, but about the sense that neighborhoods and citizens are getting shut out of the planning process, which more often than not gives the nod to developers, regardless of whether their schemes fit the Blueprint Boise spirit.

Take the CVS drive-thru conditional-use permit: Five neighborhood associations opposed it, but city planners still recommended it in a staff report.

Cody Riddle, the city’s planning manager, defended that decision. “I don’t think it’s fair to say we ignored it,” he said. “If we are recommending something, we don’t place an emphasis on elements that speak against it, but they are in the report.”

But Riddle did acknowledge the conflict between the policies in Blueprint Boise and the CVS development; ultimately the decision required balancing policy and zoning. “The property is zoned commercial and has been since the ’60s, and with that comes some development rights,” Riddle said.

Neighborhood advocates say the battle against CVS isn’t really about the pharmacy. It’s more a response to the rapid growth and rising housing costs they fear are changing the character of the city. The population of Boise and the surrounding area has more than doubled since 1980, and it is projected to face dramatic growth in the coming decade. The walkable neighborhoods near downtown are facing some of the biggest rent hikes. Since 2015, median home values in Boise have jumped more than 30 percent to $228,000, according to Zillow, and are forecast to increase nearly 6 percent in the next year.

“Prices are going up, and I think that is inevitable,” said Windsor, who has lived in the neighborhood for five years and seen many of her old neighbors move out. “Our neighborhood was affordable, but as prices got up it’s less of an option for people. That is very unfortunate.”

The growth has also drawn other chains—Boise now has a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s—that tend to approach the city with suburban-style development, rather than the mixed-use proposals they offer larger Western cities like Denver and Portland. But if the CVS dustup demonstrates the downsides of economic growth, it also shows off one of Boise’s key advantages when it comes to fending off unwanted development. The city’s modest size, Windsor said, means that neighborhood associations tend to stick up for each other, even if a proposal wouldn’t affect their area directly. The CVS resistance drew big crowds from multiple groups, and she has little doubt that their drive-thru proposal would have sailed through the Planning and Zoning Commission if so many people hadn’t shown up to oppose it. That, she said, made all the difference.

The battle probably isn’t over. Windsor is now waiting to see how CVS will proceed after losing its drive-thru—and gearing up for a fight brewing on another front: Nearby, there’s a proposal for a new Starbucks, with a drive-thru window.   

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