How tall is too tall? 

Getting a rise out of downtown

It may be tempting to think that if any part of Missoula was inclined to welcome tall, modern buildings into the neighborhood without a fight, it would be downtown, where swelling density and vertical development mark the successful growth of the urban core. Think again.

A proposed four-story building two blocks off Higgins Avenue on East Alder Street recently prompted a flurry of panic that’s resulted in a draft “urgency interim ordinance” to change the zoning on that block and a second block to the south, near Kiwanis Park. At a Dec. 12 public hearing, a rendition of the proposed project drew angry gasps of disbelief from some locals while others praised the design as progress. The Missoulian splashed the headline “Downtown neighborhood upset over ‘monstrosity,’” giving vent to worries that the neighborhood’s historic character was in the crosshairs. Others feared for their property values and the fate of downtown, which has risen to its currently vibrant state in part because the Central Business District (CBD) zoning has encouraged urban development over the last 30 years.

All of a sudden, questions about Missoula’s future as a city and what that means in terms of its changing look were forced onto the table. And while everyone agrees that it’s well worth discussing what Missoula’s future guise will be, no one seems to be happy that it’s taking either a monstrous project or a monstrous ordinance—depending on your outlook—to break the ice. Though the draft ordinance proposed by Ward 3’s Lou Ann Crowley was returned to committee after a flood of concerns from neighbors, business owners, lawyers and Council members, it promises to resurface in the new year, when a new Council and a new mayor will have a chance to tangle with the issue. Regardless of the outcome, the ordinance-inciting project—developed by Jake Terzo—won’t be directly impacted, because it’s been in the planning pipeline for months.

The zoning change—which would remove the blocks from the CBD and place them in a new City Center Residential-IV Zoning District—would exert substantial control over attributes like building height, setback, yards and parking. Current zoning allows buildings up to 12 stories high and requires no yards, setbacks or parking lots, while the new zoning designation would limit height to two stories and require yards, setbacks and parking. A central complaint voiced by those opposed to the ordinance is that the new requirements aren’t met by any of the existing structures—commercial or residential—on the block. Existing structures that don’t meet the new zoning requirements would become “legally nonconforming,” which means in the event of a major remodel or a destructive fire they’d have to be rebuilt in compliance with the new rules. Aside from the burden of stricter criteria, property owners also worry the restrictive zoning would tamp down property values and discourage development in the heart of town.

Process Architecture’s principal architect, Ken Smith, who owns and is in the midst of developing a lot near Terzo’s, points out that the proposed zoning’s yard requirements would leave him a whopping 13 feet to work with—not even wide enough for a singlewide trailer. At the Council’s public hearing, Smith presented a litany of the proposed change’s unintended consequences. He says the haste with which the ordinance was drafted has resulted in a proposal wrought with confusion and contradiction.

“That’s probably my biggest beef with it,” Smith says. “That they spent 20 minutes on it and tried to pass it into law.”

Jeff Anderson, the architect of Terzo’s building, worries most about the process the new zoning threatens to supplant. Through the established give-and-take design review process, he notes, Terzo’s project was scaled back from four to three stories, set back from the sidewalk, and stripped of its commercial component. So with the process successfully accommodating neighborhood input, he wonders, why rezone the two blocks, and why now?

“It seems strange that they are pushing forward with the rezoning—it seems difficult to justify that these are the two blocks of the CBD that are most worth saving the residential character of,” Anderson says. “It’s scary to think that on any project you start, if someone doesn’t like it they can get a hold of a Council member and get it stopped—I think that’s the wrong message for the city to send.”

Mayor-elect John Engen has been opposed to the change from the start, saying downtown is the most obvious place for dense redevelopment. The fact that the ordinance is proposed on an emergency basis, meaning it would take effect for six months and then be reevaluated, makes little sense, since the current zoning has been around since 1975, he says.

“It’s an emergency 30 years in the making,” Engen says. “I hope the Council has a reasonable discussion about where to have increased density, and if that’s not in the CBD, I don’t know where it would be.”

Regardless, Dave Strohmaier, newly elected Ward 1 Councilman and president of the Historic Eastside Neighborhood Association, worries about the impact of 12-story buildings next to single-family houses. That the downtown is applying for designation as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places also makes it important to preserve the overall character of the area, he says.

For his part, Terzo—who says people over 50 often hate his modern buildings and younger generations love them—says the controversy surrounding his project doesn’t entirely surprise him. The CBD could stand some scrutiny and possibly some changes, he says, but not solely at the behest of “one group of people—the anti-growth, anti-anything-new.”

“People tell me in insulting tones, ‘How dare you build more than what’s here,’” he says. “It’s just shocking to me that people think the way things are is the way they will always be.”

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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