City to embark on new design standards

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Members of the Missoula City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee this week authorized the mayor to sign a contract with a consulting firm to begin working toward design standards for new buildings.

The agreement follows nearly a year to the day after several local groups, including the Missoula Downtown Association and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, hosted a workshop addressing the issue.

That Design Excellence Workshop was born in part from complaints surrounding the new Cellular Plus retail store on East Broadway. The bright neon lights, corporate architecture and single use of a downtown property prompted something of a public outcry, and it set the city on a course to write new rules guiding the design of commercial buildings.

City staff and members of the council have since interviewed and selected a consulting firm to craft “character management tools.” If adopted next year, the tools would guide the design of new construction in Missoula.

“We hope to get a contract approved and moving forward this month,” said Laval Means, planning services manager with Development Services. “It would be a 16-month-long project, at the most.”

The selection team chose Winter & Co. to lead the planning process, and it set a budget of roughly $159,000. Of that, MRA would contribute $25,000 while the city commits $75,000. Development Services would provide the remainder.

Mike Haynes, director of Development Services, said the city currently has design standards for commercial properties larger than 30,000 square feet. In late 2015, the City Council also adopted new standards that now apply to commercial properties smaller than 30,000 square feet.

But the standards are limited in scope and the council has pledged over the past 18 months to work toward more stringent rules. Those in favor of tougher standards believe they will improve the built environment. They also believe corporate architecture threatens the city’s character.

Opponents, however, believe the standards are an effort to dictate taste and could drive up the cost of construction, possibly deterring new businesses from locating in Missoula.

Most, however, believe the new design standards can strike a balance.

“There’s people on staff that want us to do design guidelines, and there’s people on council who don’t think that’s strong enough in terms of standards,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. “I was happy with the some of the creative ideas suggested by the consultant between the mix of those two things.”

The full City Council will authorize the mayor to sign the contract on Monday night. The planning process would begin shortly after, though it won’t include historic design standards, Bentley said.

“That’s a very intense process and we can do that eventually, but we didn’t budget enough for that,” she said. “We can give a nod that way and start moving in that direction for downtown. I know it’s what some on the council want, and some in the community.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com