In late 2001, a small business, Like Nu Car Wash, collapsed into a nearly forgotten creek flowing beneath the blighted downtown of Caldwell, Idaho. The stream, Indian Creek, once flowed swiftly through downtown, but eventually became a drainage site for nearby agricultural and industrial uses, disturbing downtown residents with its high levels of pollution. The city’s solution was to entomb Indian Creek and make way for automobile-dependent development in the early 1950s. By the turn of the millennium, Caldwell, the center of economic activity for the county, had been in decline for about 50 years. Desperate for innovative ideas, the city held a design charrette, led by newly elected Mayor Garret Nancolas, at which the vision emerged of a network of parks throughout the community. Soon after the car wash collapsed, the city seized an opportunity to establish partnerships and acquire property along the creek in order to unbury—or daylight—the waterway and activate 6 acres (2.4 ha) of green space while improving flood control. Restoration of the creek created a new amenity for the city and spurred economic vitality, catalyzing at least $25 million of surrounding real estate development.
In the early 1900s, Indian Creek flooded, submerging Caldwell’s downtown in three feet (1 m) of water. Years later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) designated parts of the downtown as lying in the floodplain and floodway. Through the daylighting process, the city was able to modify the creek to capture stormwater and manage the maximum amount of water flow predicted in a flood event by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA and avoid disaster.
Indian Creek is a tributary of the Boise River, which flows just north of Caldwell. The local river system had been altered through the years, changing flow and capacity rates in response to agricultural field damage and the digging of irrigation canals. After passage of the modern Clean Water Act in 1972, which led to reduced discharges into the stream, Indian Creek began to naturally cleanse itself of generations of contamination.
At the start of the planning process for the Indian Creek Daylighting Project, Nancolas established the Core Area Steering Committee, made up of residents and downtown business owners and given the task of representing the public interest. The committee worked with the Caldwell Urban Renewal Agency (CURA), a city-created authority, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps of Engineers recommended that the city use Section 206 funding for the project, derived from the Water Resources Development Act of 1996, which authorized the Corps to work on projects focused on increasing aquatic habitat. The cost is shared, with the local government responsible for 35 percent of the cost and the federal government for 65 percent.
Nancolas hired Dennis Cannon as the downtown redevelopment coordinator, a position in CURA, to help the city achieve its vision and to direct the project.
“Community participation was absolutely necessary,” said Cannon, now retired. CURA and the city worked with local nonprofits, including the Idaho chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Landscape Architects, the school district, and other stakeholders to lead town hall meetings and keep the community involved in the project.
Initially, there was community pushback against spending taxpayer dollars on the creek. “The turning point was when the Army Corps of Engineers showed the community what the downtown looked like from the sky,” said Cannon. “It was a wreck and showed a deteriorated city. A second flyover showed what a restored stream would look like, and finally a third flyover showed more businesses and green space along a new Indian Creek.”
After these images and renderings were shared with the public, the city worked with schools, held art contests, and continued gathering ideas from local stakeholder groups, including social organizations, the Rotary Club, and more. “It was a completely community-driven project,” Nancolas said.
Early in the design process, however, the federal government stopped funding Section 206 projects, forcing the city and CURA to reevaluate how to complete the project.
“It was a blessing in disguise. . . . If we had not lost the Section 206 funding, the creek would not look like it does today, as that funding was strictly for riparian habitat restoration,” Nancolas said. “At that time, we had already begun looking at which properties to acquire, began demolition, and we were well into designing the creek when the federal government decided they were not going to fund any 206 projects.”
ElJay Waite, the city’s director of finance at the time, agreed. “When the federal government pulled out of the project, the total cost dropped about 50 percent due to the difference in prevailing wages in the city,” he said. “So we saved money there, and [it] allowed us to use cash and credit to get the local banks involved and bonds issued for the project.”
The city partnered with several local businesses, state and local government agencies, economic development corporations, and others to obtain needed funding to support demonstration projects, environmental remediation, planning, and construction involved in the Indian Creek daylighting and creation of surrounding parks.
Because of the success of an urban renewal area completed by CURA near the Indian Creek daylighting demonstration project, the city was able to leverage growth to introduce tax increment financing and issue bonds to purchase properties along and above the creek. The city issued two bonds to reconstruct the creek and build amenities along it, with a seven-year bond payback period.
The city acquired almost 20 properties along the waterway and based the park design on the location of these properties, giving the creek a dynamic shape through the downtown.
Local developer Skip Oppenheimer, president of Oppenheimer Development Corporation, developed phase one of the new Treasure Valley Community College, a three-story building on the creek side and rated Gold under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.
“One of the key reasons that we became interested in the Caldwell downtown was the Indian Creek project,” he said. “I think we pictured it being enormously attractive and important. It adds a very distinctive quality to downtown Caldwell. Very few cities have that to offer.”
By 2015, 1,550 feet (472 m)—five city blocks—of the creek had been restored, with bioretention swales, native plants, and trees lining it, and six acres (2.4 ha) of new greenbelt and 2,700 feet (823 m) of walking and biking trails had been created. The face of the downtown urban renewal area was quickly changing around the new creek and park system. Between 2014 and 2015, the taxable property value in the area increased by 5.5 percent.2
Today, the city offers an incentive package to continue encouraging new development downtown, including paying 60 percent of the cost for streetscape design improvements (lighting, benches, irrigation, trees, and landscaping), as well as provides a downtown wi-fi system, a police bike patrol rotation, a $500,000 transportation grant, and cost reductions for permits for buildings that incorporate LEED standards. Almost all the downtown property owners participate in the incentive program. The master plan for the downtown incorporates smart growth principles and uses zoning and design standards to ensure that these principles remain prevalent.
In July 2018, Indian Creek Plaza opened with 57,000 square feet (5,300 sq m) of public space, including a stage, an ice rink and skating ribbon, fire pits, and water features that include a splash pad and fountains. Together, the plaza and creek are expected to generate $2.7 million in revenue for Caldwell and attract 330,000 visitors in the first year alone.
Low-impact development. Low-impact development (LID) is a land planning and design approach that uses natural system processes to capture and store stormwater runoff. Indian Creek flows in a meandering pattern to help control the current. Sloping banks line the creek with vegetation and trees that not only offer a place for recreation, but also act as a water-pervious barrier for higher-than-normal creek levels.
“We designed it this way so we didn’t have to worry about another flood event in the future.”—Mayor Garret Nancolas
LID strategies manage stormwater in a way that has minimal impact on the surroundings while promoting natural water movement and a healthy ecosystem. Designers adjusted the flow of the creek by strategically incorporating riffles and pools to both control the sediment discharge and encourage improvement of natural habitats. Riffles—shallow landforms where rocks break the surface of the water—enhance aquatic habitat because they help oxygenate the water; pools create a safe environment for aquatic habitat.
Use of LID principles helps the restored creek protect surrounding properties from flooding as well as activate a beautiful public amenity that invites thousands into the downtown for festivals and park programming.
Indian Creek is now a beautiful natural amenity for downtown Caldwell that provides flood management and attracts economic development. In response to the designed load capacity of the daylighted Indian Creek, FEMA in 2009 redrew flood maps to reflect a much lower flood risk in the downtown, allowing property owners along the creek collectively to save an estimated $3.5 million in flood insurance premiums annually, Nancolas said.
Since 2015, the creek has spurred at least $25 million in new construction in Caldwell’s downtown core, according to ElJay White, former Caldwell director of finance. “A majority of growth in Caldwell has happened since the opening of the creek, and it is continuing to accelerate,” he said.
In summer 2018, there were 11 buildings under construction and numerous businesses moving back to downtown Caldwell. “Those things wouldn’t be happening if we didn’t start with the creek, said Nancolas.
When FEMA downgraded the flood risk downtown, it made it much easier to obtain building permits and encouraged a more efficient development process. The LID strategies employed in the creek design enhanced flood control and ensured that the surrounding development would be safe from flood risk. “By alleviating the downtown’s flood risk, [the daylighting] lowered development costs and allowed us to continue building in areas that were in the floodplain and sometimes in the floodway,” said Nancolas. “[The creek] is a huge benefit for the city because of the safety it provides, but also from an economic development standpoint.”
The Indian Creek daylighting project has been recognized for its achievement in design and impact with the Idaho Smart Growth: Presidents Award (2005), and Caldwell was designated a “Preserve America Community” by First Lady Laura Bush for 2004 to 2008. It was also highlighted at a ULI Idaho event in early 2018.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The city initially relied almost exclusively on federal funding, starting the project with no other partners. Loss of the federal government as a partner slowed the process by about two years. Inviting other partners earlier in the process might have kept the project on schedule.
Partnerships are of key importance. Each partner brings something to the table and engages a new audience. At least 13 different entities were formally involved in this public/private partnership. For example, the Idaho Transportation Department funded the trail system that connected the downtown to seven local schools, the National Park Service funded parts of the creek design and trail system master plan, and Oppenheimer Development Corporation designed and constructed surrounding catalytic development projects.
The city originally was going to fund the project through a federal grant, explicitly for riparian habitat. When that funding was pulled, the city was forced to pursue the project through other partnerships, opening the door for more ideas and a more dynamic plan that incorporates community input.
Keep the public involved throughout the project and enlist the local school district as a key partner to help market the project. Project coordinators invited students and their families into the process through design competitions, for example.
Dennis Cannon, redevelopment coordinator (retired), City of Caldwell
Mayor Garret Nancolas, City of Caldwell
ElJay Waite, finance director (retired), City of Caldwell
Dean Gunderson, “Daylighting Caldwell,” River by Design: Essays on the Boise River, 1915–2015, Investigate Boise Community Research Series, No. 6 (Boise State University, 2015), https://sps.boisestate.edu/publications/files/2017/05/River-by-Design-6.8.15.pdf.
Caldwell East Urban Renewal Agency, Financial Statements, September 30, 2015, www.cityofcaldwell.org/home/showdocument?id=2036.