City to hire consultant to develop, implement new design standards

Downtown
The city plans to hire a consultant to gather public input and propose new tools to guide design standards along Missoula’s commercial corridors and downtown district. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

With Missoula awash in a building boom that’s expected to transform the city over the next decade, efforts to guide the design of new construction continues, and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency is looking to lead the process.

The agency’s Board of Directors on Thursday agreed to contribute $25,000 in tax increment financing to help pay a consultant to gather community input and present implementation tools that guide “the look and feel” of future development.

The city’s lack of design standards came to a head last year when Verizon opened its colorful one-story building on a prime downtown corner.

“The tool we’re lacking is design standards,” Mayor John Engen said. “They can be draconian or simple. Our goal is to find something in the middle.”

Engen said he’s heard wide-ranging complaints over the design of several recent commercial projects. The public outcry prompted the City Council to adopt basic standards last year, though they only applied to commercial properties of less than 30,000 square feet and were limited in scope.

Ellen Buchanan said the new consultant will recommend tools the city may use to guide the character of new buildings. The process will take 12 to 18 months to complete and focus on the city’s commercial corridors, including Brooks Street and North Reserve, as well as the downtown district.

“This is the next step in the process we started with Winter & Co. in February,” said Buchanan. “The recommendations that came out of the effort is what this money will partially fund.”

Mike Haynes, director of Development Services, said the project’s first phase will gather feedback on what the community would like to see. The second phase will include implementation of whatever recommendations come from the process.

Hiring the consultant carries a $160,000 price tag. MRA will cover $25,000 of the total cost using tax increment financing from Urban Renewal District III.

“As construction increases, the need for a consistent set of guidelines is becoming more apparent,” Buchanan said. “Establishing guidelines will help developers understand the community’s design expectations, and allow Missoula the ability to require standards of appearance.”

MRA board member Daniel Kemmis supported the idea, calling it a worthwhile investment. However, he urged MRA and its board to take the process one step further.

“It has seemed to me that there’s justifiable caution on the part of City Council about going very far with design standards,” Kemmis said. “Because we’re in a proactive and not a reactive position with regard to so many projects, MRA could conceivably beta test some level of standards that the council itself would not be in a position to adopt.”

Kemmis said MRA could implement its own criteria and apply it to projects seeking public assistance through tax increment financing. If the standards worked, he said, the City Council may be more encouraged to adopt them as policy.

“If the city does develop a series of design standards, maybe MRA adds a layer to that,” Kemmis said. “If you’re going to get something in TIF, you have to design to a higher standard.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com