Boise takes over repairs of historic downtown building, citing ‘inaction’ by the owner

The city of Boise is taking over repairs of the historic downtown Union Block building, citing inaction from the owner and public safety concerns.

Boise’s chief building official, Jason Blais, said in a letter to Ken Howell, the building’s owner, that the city is pursuing structural design and repairs at Howell’s expense under a facade easement, which allows the city to act to preserve buildings with historical or architectural significance. The letter, obtained by the Idaho Statesman, was sent Thursday.

“The city’s highest concern is the safety of everyone who lives, works and plays downtown,” the city said in a statement provided to the Statesman on Monday.

The city cordoned off the Union Block building at 730 W. Idaho St. on Nov. 9 after officials inspected the space. Notices posted to the building’s doors said “Do not enter. Unsafe to occupy.” An order to vacate the building listed several subsections of the city’s code for dangerous buildings.

The former entrance to Moon’s Kitchen in the Union Block building in downtown Boise on June 11, 2024. Moon’s Kitchen moved to a new space in the Zions Bank building after the Union Block building was condemned by the city on Nov. 9, 2024.
The former entrance to Moon’s Kitchen in the Union Block building in downtown Boise on June 11, 2024. Moon’s Kitchen moved to a new space in the Zions Bank building after the Union Block building was condemned by the city on Nov. 9, 2024.

The Ada County Highway District also closed the sidewalk, on-street parking and far-right lane of traffic next to the building on Idaho Street between Capitol Boulevard and Eighth Street as a precautionary measure.

The city ultimately gave Howell, a Boise developer and owner of Parklane Management Co., which leases apartments, offices and retail space downtown, about six months, or 180 days, including a 120-day extension, to make the necessary fixes to shore up the building and reopen it.

Howell told the Statesman Monday that the city “had no right” to condemn the building in the first place.

The two-story building has been under construction for years, with steel beams temporarily holding it up, after Howell got approval from the city in 2018 to carve out an additional floor below ground to lease to businesses or other tenants. The basement renovation was only supposed to take about a year. An original permit for the rear basement wall since expired “due to inaction of work with no required inspections,” Blais said in the letter, which was first reported on by BoiseDev. Howell has to reapply and obtain a new permit to do any further work on the wall.

Photos show cracks, bowing posts

At a public hearing in January, Blais gave a presentation detailing numerous issues stemming from the project.

He showed photos of several large cracks, temporary shoring posts bowing under significant weight and areas where the facade has separated from the exterior of the building.

This photo, obtained by the Idaho Statesman via a public records request, shows red steel posts temporarily holding up the front of the Union Block building. “If you look closely, there are shoring posts that are bowing, and bowing means it’s overloaded,” Jason Blais, the city’s chief building official, said.
This photo, obtained by the Idaho Statesman via a public records request, shows red steel posts temporarily holding up the front of the Union Block building. “If you look closely, there are shoring posts that are bowing, and bowing means it’s overloaded,” Jason Blais, the city’s chief building official, said.

“To ensure public safety and restore normal traffic flow on Idaho Street, we have notified the owner of our intent to make the necessary repairs to the front of the building and look forward to being able to reopen the lanes on Idaho Street,” the city’s statement continued.

Howell said by phone that none of the posts temporarily holding the building up are at risk of suddenly failing.

“The implication is that sandstone blocks are flying everywhere,” he added.

Blais said in the letter to Howell that the city’s priority is to permanently support the front of the building. He said Howell still hasn’t installed a framing system to support the 121-year-old stone structure following the basement renovation. The permit for that part of the project is under review.

City says many repairs are incomplete

“Currently there is no updated approved structural design for this,” Blais wrote to Howell. “Due to your inaction, these repairs have remained incomplete.”

A blocked off entrance to the Union Block building in downtown Boise on June 11, 2024.
A blocked off entrance to the Union Block building in downtown Boise on June 11, 2024.

Howell said he’s completed much of the work already.

An email Blais sent to Howell on May 20 included a checklist of work items, with several showing completion or approximately 80% completion.

For example, the list notes that much of the temporary shoring to reinforce the floor has been removed, and the remaining floor work is nearly complete. Repairs to the foundation and support wall on the east side of the building are also nearly finished, and special inspection reports were provided to the city. Cracks in the masonry wall have been fixed and inspected. Howell has also obtained a fire sprinkler permit to replace the system in the basement — that work is in progress, according to the list.

Still, several other items on the list were marked as incomplete, such as the “crucial” framing support for the front of the building, which the building is vulnerable and dangerous without, Blais said. Repairs to the foundation and wall on the west side of the building and cracks on the building’s interior remain outstanding.

The city is giving Howell 30 more days to receive approval for and complete other outstanding work items. If that work isn’t completed by July 6, the city may elect to complete it at Howell’s expense, too, according to the letter. Such work includes repairs to a space on the first floor previously occupied by Mai Thai, a restaurant that temporarily closed just before the building was condemned thanks to a kitchen fire.

The former entrance to Mai Thai in the downtown Union Block building on June 11, 2024.
The former entrance to Mai Thai in the downtown Union Block building on June 11, 2024.

Mai Thai is now doing takeout and delivery out of a kitchen at 2900 W. Excursion Lane in Meridian.

Moon’s Kitchen, a breakfast spot that operated out of the Union Block building for 15 years, moved into a second-floor restaurant space in the Zions Bank building at 800 W. Main St. in January.

Howell says he wants ‘to wrap up the project’

Meanwhile, Howell is suing the city over the building’s forced closure.

The lawsuit seeks damages for the loss of tenants and reputational harm to Howell, his company and the building, which “will continue to be regarded as a dangerous building, thereby lowering the market value.” It also seeks payment for expenses incurred defending any litigation filed by those tenants. The lawsuit said tenants have threatened legal action against Howell and his company for breaching obligations outlined in their lease agreements.

The city has previously declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“At this point, I just want to wrap up the project and get the building looking fabulous,” Howell said. “I love and admire my city. I hate the fact that I have had to resort to a lawsuit.”

Union Block building restored in ‘90s

The Union Block building, completed in 1902, is a Boise landmark. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and its sandstone facade is a quintessential part of the downtown streetscape.

The front of the historic Union Block building in downtown Boise on June 11, 2024.
The front of the historic Union Block building in downtown Boise on June 11, 2024.

It was designed by Boise architect John E. Tourellotte in 1899, according to the Idaho Architecture Project, and completed three years later. It’s made of brick and sandstone sourced from the local Tablerock quarry, which was used in the construction of several other downtown Boise buildings, including the Capitol. The Richardsonian Romanesque-style structure has a 125-foot-long frontage with five arches and many windows.

During the 1960s the building fell in and out of occupancy and was in danger of being demolished. A few decades later, in the 1990s, the city gave Howell a contract to restore it. It reopened five years later.

Tim Keane, the former director of the city’s Planning and Development Services department, previously said the city has a great interest in protecting it. He said the Union Block building, and others like it downtown, are tremendously important to the city’s character.

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