Won't back down 

How Bob Oaks helped the Northside live again

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Oaks and other activists had been trying to make West Broadway a more pedestrian friendly, mixed-use area that would connect to bike paths. It could be another place for people to live and garden, with smaller shops—even a grocery store like Safeway—that had a neighborhood feel rather than destination, stop-and-go supercenters.

A year earlier, the Northside and Westside had submitted their joint neighborhood plan, which had been included in the Missoula Urban Comprehensive Plan. "It took four years to get the plan done and as soon as it was done, the controversy arose," Oaks recalls. "The neighbors who worked hard on it were suddenly feeling like they were sitting at the kids table at Thanksgiving dinner and the adults were in the other room."

A citizen-advocate group sued the city, but the state supreme court upheld Safeway's deal. The neighborhood did get some concessions: Safeway reduced some parking and put in windows (the original plan had a windowless cinderblock wall facing Broadway) and an asphalt path that could help connect the trail system. Standing in front of the Safeway now, you can see how it could have been worse. The front entrance sports brick arching and slanted roofs. Still, the large parking lot and gas station rule it out as a neighborhood store.

click to enlarge When the railroad created the Orange St. underpass below the fruit warehouses, at top, it was the only place for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross from the Northside into town. Today, the dark tunnel sports a colorful mural and supports the Northside Kettlehouse. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • When the railroad created the Orange St. underpass below the fruit warehouses, at top, it was the only place for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross from the Northside into town. Today, the dark tunnel sports a colorful mural and supports the Northside Kettlehouse.

A year after the Broadway battle, Maxine Jacobson, a social work professor at the University of Montana, asked Oaks if students from her Community Organizing class could help him. Jacobson recalls that Oaks was skeptical of outsiders coming in to start a project and then, inevitably, leaving. "It wasn't easy because he had a general distrust of academia, and probably rightfully so," she says. "He's a tough house to play, and he had no problem challenging me about anything, which I always liked."

They started looking for a site for a food co-op. The idea was based around turn-of-the-19th-century settlement homes like the famous Chicago Hull House, run by Jane Addams. It was a Progressive Era idea, where people of means set up places the poor could find food, shelter, and education, and meet as a community. "So we had this vision—Bob, the class, and myself—about recreating this kind of a settlement house," Jacobson continues. "And a food co-op, commercial shared-use kitchen, and café were paramount in Bob's mind."

One potential location, St. Joseph's School, fell through; it was eventually made into a parking lot. But in 2006, Oaks and Jacobson's class found a home on a one-and-a-half-acre lot in an area of trailer homes. They built the co-op in an old freight building, put up 17 land-trust homes, and started working on the community kitchen and café.

Jacobson and Oaks have continued to work on projects over the years, bringing in students to join forces with residents and improve areas piece by piece. "Other groups may say that they're all about collaboration and participation, but Bob does give everyone a voice in the neighborhood to contribute to the project, for real," Jacobson says. "It's not just, 'Oh we're going to have a token poor person from the Northside tell us what they think.' No. It's probably the most labor intensive, most time consuming part of those processes, but he's always been about getting people's input. He has an incredible knack for keeping people on board. He recognizes people's strengths." But, she adds, he's no pushover. "He won't compromise on some things. If he thinks that it's going to hurt people who have less of a voice, then he's going to come right out and say it. That's the Advocacy Bob, saying exactly what he means and making people uncomfortable. And I'm glad; I'm glad there's somebody in this world who can do that."



The biggest challenge

On a cloudy spring day, Oaks takes me on a tour of the Northside and Westside neighborhoods. We hop in his tan Winstar van in the parking lot of the Missoula Food Co-op and head to his house to pick up Gus, his Olde Boston bulldog. Oaks's neighbor is outside shooting arrows at target, and he waves to Oaks, yelling merrily "You're right in my line of fire."

Oaks lives in a modest copper-colored house on the edge of an alley, the kind of house that realtors optimistically call a bungalow. "I live in an alley house," he says. "That's one of the great shibboleths of some folks on city council: 'Alley house? Ugh.' Well, it's worked for me since 1988. And when I bought, it was $35,000."

We drive along the north side of the railroad tracks, where Oaks points out one of NMCDC's earliest projects, The Greenway, an eight-block trail built in 2002 along the railroad fence. It leads to two pocket parks. Old Man Ballard Park is a little green space with a picnic table. "There was actually a house there that had burned, and the debris had never been cleared," Oaks says. "There was still an old kitchen floor and the linoleum was out there covered with trash and weeds, and people had dumped couches and stoves. We did a clean-up and made a park."

At the corner of the park is NMCDC's first housing project, Whittier Court—a cluster of five houses, each a different color, that was built in 2002 and seamlessly blends in with the other houses nearby. Two of the original owners are still there and one newer owner recently added a bedroom and deck. Though high-density house clusters are a historical pattern for the neighborhood, it's a model NMCDC can no longer use: They're illegal to build now.

click to enlarge Burns Street Square - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"I don't find that sensible," Oaks says. "You could build a four-plex with the same number of bedrooms, but you can't build dense, detached houses anymore. When there's been an attempt to increase the density, it's fought viciously by a number of city council people and the homeowners associations. They're afraid if any neighborhood is densified, it'll breed undesirable density in their neighborhood. I think it was the best development tool in the city."

Housing has been the biggest challenge for NMCDC—and the one it's embraced most fervently. In the mid 1990s, NMCDC was able to get 30 households into homeownership with a program that offered $2,000 in down payment assistance and a 2 percent mortgage. By the late 1990s, housing prices on the Northside rose to the point that the assistance was no longer enough to get low- and moderate-income families into homes there. They needed to be able to subsidize up to $30,000 or $40,000.

"To justify paying that amount we had to demonstrate that that subsidy stayed long-term and that, if the family sold, that money stayed with the property," Oaks says. "That idea really went with what I wanted to see on the Northside, too, which was increasing first-time homeownership for young families. So we started the community land trust."

Whittier Court was the first housing development in the area based on a community land trust model. In 2000, NMCDC established its Land Stewardship Program. The community land trust allows NMCDC to buy the land where a house is—or they can construct the house—and sell the house itself to low- and moderate-income first-time homebuyers who earn less than 80 percent of the area median income. The homeowners own the house and lease the land for a small fee. Because the land costs are removed from the equation, it's more affordable, but the homeowner still gets tax benefits and builds equity by paying off the mortgage.

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