Designing the future: workshop explores new guidelines

One of the nation’s foremost planners praised Missoula for its downtown community but said, like many American cities, it’s traffic corridors needed work. The city will explore new design standards, picking up on the basic standards adopted last year. (Photo by Martin Kidston)


When Noré Winter considers the shortcomings of urban design in Missoula, his answer could be applied to most American cities. The traffic corridors – from Brooks to Reserve – have been poorly planned with cookie-cutter box stores and a dependence on the automobile.

Some call it “Anywhere U.S.A.”

“These aren’t places we want to be or go,” Winter said. “We do so out of necessity. As with many American cities, we’ve done a bad job.”

Winter, one of the nation’s foremost experts on urban design, guided local leaders and citizens through a workshop Friday to explore the benefits of good urban design and test new guidelines that could be implemented locally.

Last year, the Missoula City Council adopted rudimentary design standards for commercial buildings smaller than 30,000 square feet. The effort marked the beginning of what city leaders and many citizens hope will precipitate more strident guidelines down the road.

“There’s definitely some things that were left undressed, some of which is city wide,” said Mike Haynes, director of Development Services. “We’re definitely interested in looking at some specific corridors and some specific areas and seeing if we need to further refine the standards we have.”

Friday’s workshop drew a diverse crowd, and most participants agreed it was a good first step in exploring what more – if anything – the city can do to reign in poorly designed commercial properties, such as the Cellular Plus store on Broadway and Autozone on Third Street.

During the workshop, participants were asked to define Missoula, picture the city’s future and envision what type of building projects would best blend with the city’s character. With an additional 20,000 residents expected to arrive within the next few years, smart planning and better use of limited space have become dominant conversations.

“A lack of good design standards can certainly drive up costs,” Winter said. “They can also cause you to miss opportunities to enhance value for everyone. Where you have good, reasonable design standards, it helps create value for individual property owners and the community at large.”

Winter believes good design standards also make a city more attractive to outside businesses. In an age where employees can work remotely, beautification and a sense of place can serve as an attractive incentive.

But some fear that design standards can drive up building costs, though that also is open for debate. Some builders, such as the new Sweetgrass Commons project in the Old Sawmill District, are spending more up front to save residents money down the road on things like heating and power usage.

Most agree that housing prices and the cost of living in Missoula should be part of the long-term conversation. They also believe smart guidelines can take more than one factor into consideration.

“When you go down this road you want to think about implications, but you also want to be prepared for new growth and how it fits,” said Laval Means, planning services manager with the city. “We need to think about keeping things affordable, but I think there’s a way you can do all of those. From a cost perspective, there are things you can do to guide that development that don’t turn up cost.”

Harold Nelson, a former architect who teaches at the university level, took an esoteric view of urban design. The self-described academic said design goes beyond a drawing to include something deeper.

Participants in Friday’s workshop gave their impressions of design in Missoula.

Not everything, he said, can be measured by aesthetics.

“I’ve been places where the aesthetics were dicey, but it had a wonderful quality of life,” he said. “Under every design is a belief system. People are driven out of a sense of value. What’s the underlying value system from which these designs are going to spring?”

While Winter believes the city’s commercial corridors could use work, he praised downtown Missoula for its vibrancy. He also believes the city’s relationship to open space and the surrounding environment is hard to find anywhere else.

The city’s valley location presents unique opportunities for planners to consider new building projects and how they play off the local geography, whether its the Clark Fork River or the protected surrounding hills.

He’ll write a memo summarizing the input received during his Missoula tour. The City Council will consider the recommendations – a move that will test the will of council members to continue the work started by their predecessor last year.

“I think this council has the will to look at design standards, but I don’t think that will has been tested yet,” said Ward 6 council member Michelle Cares. “The conversation is happening.”