Missoula’s inward development key to slowing urban sprawl

Construction continues in the Old Sawmill District. Planning experts say Missoula has the potential to accommodate urban infill and greater heights in some districts, and it has plenty of old buildings and properties that could be redeveloped for new uses. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

As Costco hunts around for a new Missoula location, its final choice could hold implications for growth and development for years to come, with some suggesting that a move to a far-flung location could open the gates to urban sprawl.

Backed by recent statistics and the latest growth plans passed by local governments, presenters with the WGM Group said Monday that local residents must decide what kind of future they want to see, be it a compact city built around essential services, or a sprawling metropolis that gobbles up farms and distant communities.

The question is, is Missoula ready to grow up instead of out?

“Growth follows the path of least resistance,” said Jeremy Keene, a principal engineer with WGM Group. “While that may be easier, it’s harder to get to and serve. That results in inefficiencies with roads and other infrastructure, and the ability to provide basic services.”

Keene and Nick Kaufman, a land use planner with WGM, suggested Missoula’s quality of life, as indicated in an endless series of “best of” national listings, has placed the city on the map as a good place to live.

That has resulted in continued population growth that shows little sign of slowing down. It also has resulted in a tight housing market and climbing prices, which reached an all-time high of $265,600 in the first quarter of 2017.

“It used to be that people came to a place because of jobs,” said Kaufman. “Now they come to places where they want to live. Our advantage in Missoula is our great place.”

Yet accommodating the city’s growing population has presented challenges that are somewhat unique to Missoula due to its geographical constraints.

Unlike Bozeman, Helena and Kalispell, they said, the growth potential in Missoula is somewhat limited to what’s become the urban core. While most residents like it that way, as indicated in the city’s latest growth policy, city planners – and city residents – must resist the temptation to sprawl.

“Suburban sprawl is the path of least resistance, and the results in other cities haven’t been great,” said Keene. “It results in longer commute times, it’s land consumptive and it tends to lack character.”

Keene said new trends in Missoula present exciting opportunities as urban planners look to the future. The city has potential to accommodate urban infill and greater heights in some districts, and it has plenty of old buildings and properties that could be redeveloped for new uses.

Missoula continues to creep to the west, despite efforts to keep development close to the city’s core and existing services. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Among them, Keene noted plans around Southgate Mall, the Old Sawmill District and the Riverfront Triangle as the latest redevelopment opportunities. If done well, such projects could keep growth close to existing services and urban amenities.

“Redevelopment is a big opportunity for all cities that have gone through developing and had those areas go back through transitions,” Keene said. “These are good tools for development to accommodate higher density.”

Keene said pressure to grow outward will remain, though city and community leaders remain committed on growing inward. Because of that, the debate around Costco – and other projects to follow – are likely just getting started.

“If you take a major use like Costco, and if it leapfrogs out to the Wye, there will be a wave of development that goes with it,” Keene said. “That’s what happening in Kalispell. They developed away from the core of town and everyone went with it.

“Now you have a new commercial center that’s not anywhere near the center of town,” he added. “That’s the decision we have to make when we chose where everything is developed.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com