Blight fight 

Urban renewal districts threaten Missoula's distinctive character

Regular readers of this column know that I support virtually every crazy scheme you can think of. For example, I am in favor of Mayor John Engen's plan to purchase the city water supply from the Carlyle Group, even though that global asset management firm surely has the interests of the townspeople at heart. Missoula for Missoulians, I say, and I mean anyone who moved here or works in town or otherwise interacts with the city not through a Telex machine in D.C.

I am concerned, however, about the Missoula City Council's plan to declare urban renewal districts along North Reserve and East Broadway. I live in the second of those districts, and while it is probably blighted, I worry what will happen to me and my fellow reprobates after the city spruces it up. Missoula for Missoulians, I say, even though many of us are weirdos or poor.

We should acknowledge that the legal and financial mechanics of an urban renewal district are not a big deal. After the council declares a district blighted, city government can capture revenue from growth in its tax base for the next 15 years and reinvest it in development projects.

That's it, logistically. Ideologically, though, declaring blight signals the council's attitude toward certain areas and, by extension, its larger vision of the city. By definition, blight is the kind of thing you don't like. And over the last decade and a half, the council has expressed its displeasure with several parts of town.

District II, for example, includes the Clark Fork riverfront from Ogren Park to Catlin Street west of Russell—with "riverfront" covering everything between Toole Avenue and South Fourth Street, plus an unfashionable chunk of the Westside. Then there's District III, which covers the entire Brooks Street corridor between Mount and Reserve.

There's also blight from Kiwanis Park to the Orange Street bridge along Front Street. If council goes ahead with its plan for a new district, the entire north bank of the river will have been declared blight from Orange to East Missoula, except for the Doubletree Hotel. Located in the center of Missoula's riverside blight district, the Doubletree remains a lovely place for you and your family to sleep.

I agree that many of these areas are gross. But they also include much of the city's affordable housing. District II and the riverfront are home to a substantial portion of the student population, as well as young people who cannot yet buy in to Missoula's vertiginously expensive market for houses.

From council chambers, it may look like a good idea to aggressively increase property values in these areas. For students and working renters, however, it could make it harder to get by in a town where the cost of living relative to wages is already dauntingly high.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

According to Jim McGrath of the Missoula Housing Authority, fair-market rent in Missoula increased 14 percent in 2013. That's an astounding jump. It contradicts national trends, and it reflects the steady reduction in affordable housing that has burdened this city even as the job market stagnates.

Clearing out the cheap motels along Broadway and the student apartments on either side of the river will only exacerbate this problem. Those districts may have shabbier housing than other places in the city, but they are also vibrant neighborhoods that contribute to Missoula's unique culture. I question whether council appreciates the value of that culture, given some of its past uses of urban renewal district money.

In January, for example, the city gave $66,000 in property tax assessments funds to Wadsworth Development Group so it could build a Starbucks on Brooks Street. There is already a Starbucks about one mile from that location, to say nothing of the many local coffee shops nearby.

I question whether subsidizing national chains is how Missoula wants to renew itself, much less spend taxpayers' money. But that seems to be what the Missoula Redevelopment Agency has planned for the proposed blight area on North Reserve.

"Whether you like big boxes or not, it's a planned development," director Ellen Buchanan told the Missoulian. "And if you look at what's going on up in this area, it's anything but a planned development."

I do not like big boxes, even if they do constitute a plan. The massive parking lots and river of shimmering traffic along Reserve Street are a bigger affront to my concept of Missoula than bad apartments and cheap motels. I can find an Outback Steakhouse anywhere. But I have never found another town like this one.

Maybe instead of forging a new city, council should try to get more use out of the Missoula it already has. Municipal government hears from real estate agents and developers more often than it hears from students and low-income weirdos, but we are a necessary part of this town, too. Missoula for Missoulians, I say—even if you could get more property taxes by replacing us with a Starbucks.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and chain restaurants at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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