In Boise’s Collister neighborhood, subdivisions and shifting land use

SycamoreScale

The Sycamore Neighborhood, a district of large lots within the larger Collister Neighborhood Association Boundaries. In red, the “Collister Center” shopping development. In yellow, the approximate site of Dr. Collister’s 20-bedroom mansion (now the site of Boise City Fire Station No. 9). City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

Water and agriculture played prominent roles in fostering growth in the Collister neighborhood, a bucolic ‘burb nestled against Boise’s foothills. But it was through transportation and urbanization, through an electric streetcar line threaded through Collister Station, mixed with an influx of business and new residents, that later solidified the characteristics of this unique area.


These supposedly competing forces—of urbanity and the countryside—in tandem define this unique place. Preserving both legacies may require a better understanding of history, and clever approaches to mitigating the effects of new development.

History of a Neighborhood

Most prominent among the area’s early residents was Dr. George Collister, Ohio native and physician, twice elected to the Boise City Council and a early pioneer of local community health. Convinced to head “out west” by his sister Julia, wife of an Idaho Supreme Court justice, Dr. Collister established an expansive farm and one of the valley’s first peach orchard within the then-sparsely settled community that would later bear his name.

“Shaded by nearly 11,000 peach, prune [sic] and various other fruit trees, Dr. Collister built a 20-bedroom mansion, overlooking the developing orchard on some, ‘245 combined acres of his and his sister’s land a few mile’s west of the city limits on Valley Road, (now State Street),'” according to Dr. Todd Shallat’s seminal Collister neighborhood history “Peaches, Plums and People.” Following Dr. Collister’s death in 1935, his vast land holdings were divvied up. Approximately 150 of his 245 acres were donated to form the school and grounds of Collister Elementary, which still stands today on Catalpa Drive. The remaining land, situated between Catalpa to the North and roughly State Street to the South, was eventually sold to RH and Elton Davidson, according to Shallat.

“In 1944, they subdivided the newly acquired land, forming the microcosm of what is now called the Sycamore Neighborhood, squarely nestled between Taft and Sycamore Street, and Catalpa Drive to the North. The Sycamore neighborhood is easily identified by its 101 acres of similarly designed and oriented lots. The acreage was divided into 98 different, 7/8 acre parcels that allowed one horse, one cow and one hundred and fifty chickens each, believing the that [sic] each lot could be self supporting with room for a large garden,” wrote Shallat.

Land cultivation in general, and Dr. Collister’s farmstead in specific, helped form the area’s early identity. Later, sale and subdivision of hundreds of acres of farmland, through ensuing decades of urbanization initiated in the 1940s and 1950s, complicated the narrative. Later still, the area’s evolving role as a “streetcar suburb,” then as a home location choice for car-owning Boiseans, would come to define the place in bold new ways. The future of Collister may look very different than its past.

A aerial photograph of the Collister area in 1939, before Dr. Collister's farmland was subdivided. City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

A aerial photograph of the Collister area in 1939, before Dr. Collister’s farmland was subdivided. City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

The Collister area, 1964, after a large portion of Dr. Collister's property was subdivided. Another portion became the site of Collister Elementary School. City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

The Collister area, 1964, after a large portion of Dr. Collister’s property was subdivided. Another portion became the site of Collister Elementary School. City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

The Collister area, 2013. City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

The Collister area, 2013. City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

The maps above depict changes brought to the neighborhood through a national homebuilding boom, robust economic growth and widescale suburbanization post World War II. In 1939, the area surrounding Dr. Collister’s property was populated by small farmsteads and few homes. By 1964, years after Dr. Collister’s property was subdivided and his mansion razed, hundreds more had made their homes in what had once been the far edge of town.

Today a constituent part of the larger city limits, some residents believe Collister represents a neighborhood that has lost its identity, Shallat writes. Credence is lent to that argument by the last image, an aerial photo from 2013—an image which reveals little of the area’s vibrant history.

Contemporary Challenges

GIS mapping tools reveal how land development patterns have shifted over time. Here, an aerial photo of the Collister area from 1964 shows numerous large lots and ample farmland, overlaid by today's parcel lines and roadways. City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

GIS mapping tools reveal how land development patterns have shifted over time. Here, an aerial photo of the Collister area from 1964 shows numerous large lots and ample farmland, overlaid by today’s parcel lines and roadways. City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

A section of the Collister neighborhood today. Indicated in yellow are so-called "flag lots," subdivided from the original large parcels. Modern subdivisions and the cul-de-sac development pictured in the right side of the image have fundamentally altered the character of this area, and confront the neighborhood's agrarian legacy. City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

A section of the Collister neighborhood today. Indicated in yellow are so-called “flag lots,” subdivided from the original large parcels. Modern subdivisions and the cul-de-sac development pictured in the right side of the image have fundamentally altered the character of this area, and confront the neighborhood’s agrarian legacy. City of Boise Advanced Property Research. Accessed 3/8/2014.

Continued suburbanization, increased traffic and other side effects from resulting urban sprawl beyond Collister have also influenced its sense of place. Foothills development, the growth of Eagle, Idaho, and greater traffic flows along State Street and Hill Roads have, in some ways, isolated parts of the community from neighboring areas.

As the two maps above reveal, subdivision threatens what remains of the neighborhood’s characteristic large lots. The second map reveals a number of parcels which have new “flag lots” carved into the original acreage, connected to the roadway by a narrow strip of land. Cul-de-sacs and other creative efforts to increase density in the Collister area continue to alter remnants of its agrarian character.

As planners, we often consider infill and density to be positives, no matter the cost. Within the Collister neighborhood, existing land patterns reveal clear ties to early city history. In order to preserve the neighborhood’s large lots, and by extension the ability for residents to engage in urban agriculture, it may be worth developing planning strategies to help foster those practices.

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