Lest there be any lingering doubt about this matter, the rezoning battle over the modest brick storefront at 1221 Helen, which now stands precipitously close to being forever known as Freddy's Feed and Read, was never about pizza. That message was made abundantly clear by the overwhelming majority of folks who testified at Monday night's public hearing in City Council chambers.
It was an evening pregnant with childhood reminiscences of the beloved bookstore and grocery, replete with nostalgic accounts of nickel-priced cookies sold out of a glass jar on Freddy's counter, children thumbing through comic books, and university radicals lounging around smoking cigarettes while planning the next socialist utopia.
For a time, the evening threatened to unravel into a game of civic one-upmanship, as life-long Missoula residents pleaded their case both for and against the new establishment by invoking how many generations Montanan they are, or the familial ties that bind them to the University Area neighborhood. Others tried in their allotted three minutes to trace the tangled web of fate and circumstance that led them to one of Missoula's most cherished historical icons.
Noticeably absent, however, were the inflated egos and petty self-interests that often run rampant through zoning battles of this kind. In fact, how rare indeed to discover in the banal venue of council chambers so many citizens willing and able to speak from the heart with such passion and eloquence about their simple desire to see a new business enterprise succeed in their own neighborhood.
Thankfully, the discussion never spiraled down the drainpipe into the minutiae of traffic counts and maximum seating capacities. Regardless of whether the speakers were arguing for or against the rezoning application, virtually all the testimony shared a common theme: a plea to council members to maintain the value, character and integrity of the neighborhood and the community at large. In short, it reflected a longing for a simpler past, and a fear of an uncertain future.
Perhaps it's unfortunate that the official process of evaluating zoning applications doesn't include a personal assessment of the applicants themselves. In this case, such an inclusion would reveal plenty, because what is essentially being debated here is not residential driving patterns and customer parking habits so much as the face and persona of a business that may potentially inhabit a residential neighborhood.
In this regard, applicants Tom and Maya Frost would fare well, with an impressive track record of community involvement and civic activism, both in Oregon and Missoula. In their hometown of Forest Grove, the Frosts were champions of downtown revitalization who bought old buildings and renovated them, as well as having built a skateboard park in their own neighborhood.
Having lived in Missoula only six months, the Frosts have already made themselves an integral part of their community. Maya serves as executive director of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Resource Center, as well as on the Ethics Board for the University of Montana and the Missoula Police Department's Citizen Advisory Board. Having bought a home several blocks from the proposed restaurant, they are not exactly the absentee business owners who would be indifferent to their impact on the neighborhood.
The same can be said about Esther Ball, a life-long Missoula resident and long-time business owner of Bernice's Bakery. Testimony from her neighbors on South Third Avenue attests to her commitment to creating a neighborhood-friendly establishment that is an inviting and pleasant place for people to gather. As for Martha Newell, majority owner of the Freddy's building, her long history with Freddy's Feed and Read already speaks for itself.
Obviously, my personal views are readily apparent on this issue. Though not a native of Missoula myself, I grew up and lived a healthy chunk of my life in mixed-use neighborhoods of New York, Chicago, and Austin, Texas, where businesses like Bernice's and Pizza Schmizza abound. I, too, have fond memories of pizza parlors and bagel shops where I knew the proprietors' names, and they knew what kind of coffee I drank and what pizza toppings I preferred.
But as for the residents who remain opposed to this rezoning request, I fully respect your desire to protect your homes, your families, your peace of mind and, yes, your parking spaces from the unwanted encroachment of ugly, noisy, crowded, and sterile business establishments, as well as all the undesirable elements they attract.
However, all evidence indicates that this is not who's asking to move in. Property values can only appreciate with the arrival of unique, interesting, locally owned businesses that encourage non-vehicular travel. Problems of noise, odor, and litter can only be mitigated when business owners live in the area and are readily accessible to the residents they affect. Vandalism, theft and other petty crimes can only decrease when children and teens have places to gather, where neighbors and proprietors know each other and look out for each other's property, safety and general well-being.
Jean Collins, an Episcopal priest who testified Monday night summed it up best: "I think Bernice's Bakery and Pizza Schmizza will feed a lot more than just empty stomachs."
I, for one, hope they get the chance.