Architects in the 'hood 

Modern neighborhood design looks back to the future

Missoula architects get creative with old-fashioned blueprints and new-fangled laws

During the next few weeks, the Independent will be publishing a series of articles on the unique challenges faced by Missoula in the realm of urban planning. The series begins this week with a look at our neighborhoods.

Until very recently, it was easy to tell established neighborhoods from new developments in Missoula.

Old buildings, designed before World War II, were built on narrow, tree-lined boulevards. Most had front porches where people could sit and chat with those who strolled by. Many neighborhoods had corner stores for buying everything from sugar to sewing supplies and bicycle bells.

Since World War II, and the reliance on automobiles that followed, streets have widened to accommodate traffic. In suburbs across the country, cookie-cutter homes are set on large tracts of land, insulated from the neighbors, and too far from the supermarket to comfortably carry groceries home.

But a handful of forward-thinking Missoula developers are promoting a trend toward building neighborhoods that seem downright retro. The changes, forced mainly by population growth, mirror concerns being considered by practically every community-conscious city in the country.

Such efforts encompass questions of public transportation, money for sidewalks and bike lanes, parks and green space, historical preservation and architecture, access for emergency and fire vehicles, and affordable housing.

Under current zoning laws, you just can't build like you used to, says Allan Mathews, Missoula's historic preservation officer. Neighborhoods like historic Pine Street and the University area, he says, are difficult to replicate because of legal restrictions.

"If you take ideas you've used in historic districts and try to transfer them, you need zoning laws to make it allowable," Mathews says. "But zoning doesn't allow this type of development any more. You have to beg to get a boulevard."

Some developers, however, aren't waiting for zoning laws to catch up with their visions. In recent years, several local architects have set about getting zoning variances so they can design the sorts of old-style neighborhoods their clients are asking for.

James Hoffmann, who has been living and working in Missoula for 20 years, says the trend, so-called "traditional neighborhood design," is the most exciting thing about his job. Hoffmann, who drew up plans for a low-income development on Street that was built in 1996, talks excitedly about a conference he attended on the West Coast, where he got to listen to some of the field's leading voices.

"It was great to hear the big shots," he says. "But what they said was, you can't sit around and try to invent these things on a drawing board. You have to go out and find examples, then test drive your ideas."

Hoffmann says he is challenged particularly by the task of making new homes in these developments affordable for average people. Thus far, he says, it has meant building apartments and condos to increase density, rather than single-family homes. He uses less expensive materials, and often the projects have been subsidized with public money or private grants.

"Barely anyone is producing anything for under $100,000," he says. "We're not building homes that the vast majority of our people can afford.

"If we're going to change that, we have to change our perception. We can't do single-family, detached homes anymore. The land is expensive and the risks are huge."

Homes in the 6-unit Eaton development range from $45,000 for one bedroom, to $65,000 for three. [photo]
Photo: Jeff Powers
The high-density, low-income development on Eaton Street was designed by architect James Hoffmann.

And the result looks nothing like the stockade-like buildings most people think of when the words "low-income" and "subsidized" are used in tandem. The two-story condos are virtually indistinguishable, design-wise, from adjacent houses. The small, neat front porches are adorned with flags and geraniums, looking out over well-kept yards. Homeowners share a common grassy area, lined with sidewalks, a pavilion and picnic tables.

"It's not a strong personal architectural statement on my part," Hoffmann says. "If you get too giddy, too egotistical, you do a disservice to the goal of making people fit into their neighborhood."

Just around the corner from the Eaton Street condos, a more expensive set of houses are being built. The single-family homes which make up the Bridgecourt development on Spurgin Street run from $97,000 to $102,000, according to a sign on the east side of Reserve Street. While the houses are pricier, they still embody elements advocated by urban planners.

The plans were developed by Terre and Jennie Meinershagen (a husband-wife team that runs Rocking M Design out of a cottage behind their home in the lower Rattlesnake neighborhood) in conjunction with the property's owners, Westmont and Diddel Construction.

When completed, the Bridgecourt development will be comprised of 29 houses and a green space on a corner lot, Terre says. The plans include alleys in the back, narrow streets, and small lots -- each will be only 24 feet wide.

Photo: Jeff Powers
The single-family homes of Bridgecourt are designed to de-emphasize automobiles.

"It reduces the impact of motor vehicles because the amount of area devoted to them is minimal," he says. "The front doors face Spurgin, or each other. The cars won't be parked in the front, but in garages off the alley."

Rocking M was able to design the project this way, despite zoning laws to the contrary, by getting variances -- or exceptions -- for the development. Missoula city staffers were concerned about things like having intersections wide enough for fire trucks to turn in, Terre says.

Both the Meinershagens say it would be a mistake to take historic neighborhoods and try to copy them wholesale. But, Terre adds, "There are reasons to look at those old patterns. A lot of good design adapts elements so they are appropriate at a particular site, and for particular goals."

The Bridgecourt project, Terre says, is not one he'd like to see replicated on a large scale. The problem, he says, is a lack of infrastructure. Without neighborhood stores, he says, people are forced to drive, whether they want to or not.

The project also lacks rental units -- which is another tool used by designers to bring people of different income levels together in a neighborhood. These issues were addressed, to some extent, by another Rocking M project, Rattlesnake Gardens.

By the end of the summer, residents in the lower Rattlesnake will be able to walk or bike to a new coffee shop on the corner of Rattlesnake Drive and Powell Street. When all three phases of project are finally completed, it will include a courtyard, cafe and apartments. These things, Terre says, help keep a neighborhood alive.

"We're trying to create something here that the neighborhood can actually use," he says. "If there's nothing here, people have no choice but to drive."

While Rattlesnake Gardens may look more like old-time Missoula than other contemporary developments, Terre says such mixed-use neighborhoods are the wave of the future.

"Achieving quality design is often a long-term process. If we make one or two steps in the right direction with each project, over time people will become more comfortable with changes and it will spread."

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