Get With the Plan 

Unveiling a new vision for the Northside and Westside

I’ve occasionally wondered whether it’s a sign of our culture’s innate pessimism that the word we use to describe a perfect world is “Utopia,” which literally means “nowhere.” Little wonder, then, that so much of our built environment has that slapped-together feel about it, lacking in any logic of form, function, aesthetic appeal or grander vision.

Thankfully, there are those among us who believe that creating a more attractive and functional environment requires not only a long-term collective vision, but also a dedication to the process of getting that vision down in black and white. It’s the kind of project that materializes only after years of effort, hard work, and most importantly, ongoing dialogue with the people who will eventually make that vision a reality.

In autumn of 1996, neighbors from Missoula’s Northside and Westside sat down with planners from the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) in an effort to hammer out such a vision for their community. After 30 months of collaborative effort, through more than 25 general neighborhood gatherings and 20 subcommittee meetings, workshops, mass mailings, a door-to-door survey and a neighborhood picnic, OPG has finally unveiled a working draft of the Northside/Westside Neighborhood Plan.

It should be emphasized that this is a “working draft” and not a final vision being handed down from bureaucrats on high. After all, there are still plenty of people who live and work on the Northside and Westside who have never seen, read or even heard of this document, though that number diminished somewhat after last Thursday’s open house at Whittier School. During that meeting, about 70 people had an opportunity to read through and comment on what has been described as Missoula’s most comprehensive and ambitious neighborhood plan to date.

For those who have not yet seen it, “The Plan” can appear daunting at first, not only because of its sheer gravitational mass, but also because of its Michener-like thoroughness. After all, not many community planning documents outside the City of Jerusalem begin by tracing a neighborhood’s history back 12,000 years.

But the drafters of this impressive tome deserve a lot of credit for putting together a document that is not only easily accessible and thorough, but also comprehensive in the true sense of the word. And an interesting read to boot.

The Plan itself is broken down into seven chapters that address such broad concerns as community character and historic preservation, the built environment, the neighborhood economy, transportation, parks and open space, community services and “anchor institutions” (schools, churches, hospitals, etc.), and public health and safety.

Each chapter begins with a stated purpose and a summary of goals, then goes on to trace the particular history of the chapter’s subject matter. For example, you can read about how the arrival of the Northern Pacific passenger depot in 1883 fueled the growth of hotels, or how the construction of Interstate 90 in 1965 led to the demolition of more than 60 houses and the obliteration of old gardens and orchards.

Each chapter then describes the neighborhoods’ current state under an “existing conditions” section. Lest anyone think this document tries to paint too rosy or nostalgic a picture, consider, for example, the implications of such observations as, “More than half of the neighborhoods’ children live below the poverty level,” or “The 59 percent annual turnover in students at Lowell School is an indicator of the instability we would like to counter,” or that half of the neighborhoods’ housing stock is more than 40 years old. Such simple reminders give the reader a deeper appreciation of the breadth and scope of the challenges this document takes on.

From there, the chapters move into visions section, where solutions begin to coagulate. Clearly, some of the goals sound vague, such as Goal A in the “Neighborhood Economy” chapter, which reads, “Encourage existing neighborhood businesses to stay in the neighborhood and to expand or enhance their current operations.” However, when you read through the action items it lists underneath, the solutions come into sharper focus.

As can often be expected with ambitious plans, there were attendees at Thursday’s open house who said they though the Plan is “a waste of time and manpower,” a “pipe dream,” or “just another layer of rules and regulations for businesses.” However, there were others who saw it as the next major step in revitalizing one of Missoula’s oldest, most historic and most vibrant neighborhoods. And as one skeptical businessman begrudgingly admitted, “It’s still good to see a neighborhood come together like this.”

For those who were unable to attend last week’s open house, copies of the Northside/Westside Neighborhood Plan may be checked out at the Missoula Public Library, OPG offices in Missoula City Hall, or at the North Missoula Community Development Corp. at 819 Stoddard.

OPG will be accepting public comments until Oct. 14. However, this document will also be undergoing further scrutiny by the Missoula Planning Board; the Platt, Annexation and Zoning Committee of City Council; and a public hearing before the City Council as a whole. So the plan’s not finished yet.

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