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Urban infill: Missoula City Council approves high-density housing on vacant lot

Infill development, like that taking place along Wyoming Street in the Old Sawmill District and further west, has reached South Catlin Street, where a developer plans to construct 33 apartment units on a lot rezoned by the Missoula City Council on Monday night as residential. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The march to develop central Missoula with high-density housing continued Monday night, as the City Council applied a new infill-zoning category for the second time in as many weeks.

The rezoning to RM2 Residential allows developer Damian Khoury to build 30 apartments rather than the previously allowed 22 units on a parcel located at 217 S. Catlin St. The property is currently vacant.

As they did a week earlier, several neighborhood residents and council members voiced concerns about inadequate infrastructure, including narrow roads, sewer problems and missing sidewalks.

But Ward 3 Councilwoman Emily Bentley said that good development often brings privately funded improvements to infrastructure.

“To say that we shouldn’t allow any development until all the infrastructure is perfect is saying the taxpayers have to pay for all of the infrastructure before private development goes in,” Bentley said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Two council members voted against the decision: Jon Wilkins and Heidi West. Michelle Cares was absent.

Wilkins, Cares and West also opposed last week’s decision to rezone the nearby Wolf Glen Apartments to allow construction of 17 additional units.

Both developments are located near Russell Street and in a neighborhood with increasingly high-density housing.

A native Missoulian, Khoury told council members that the last thing he wants to do is overbuild within the city.

“What I would like to do is build some nicer two-bedroom, two-bath apartments,” he said Monday night.

Architect Mike Morgan said without the reclassification, it wouldn’t make financial sense to build only 22 units on the property, which is located immediately adjacent to the Milwaukee Trail, between Second and Wyoming streets.

In their rezoning application letter to the city, Morgan and Khoury applauded the new RM2 Residential zoning classification.

“Considering Missoula’s projected growth along with statistical data showing that over half of Missoula’s residents rent their place of dwelling, we are pleased to see the new RM-2 zone,” they wrote. “Missoula is in need of more zoning districts that allow higher density multi-family uses without competing with commercially zoned properties.

“We are also pleased to see Missoula’s new ‘Focus Inward’ Growth Policy that promotes compact development, using currently available land and infrastructure close to its urban core, to better accommodate today’s demands, enhancing connectivity, and maximize sustainability.”

The biggest demand in the Missoula market is for “housing that’s affordable while mixed with neighborhood commercial uses,” according to Khoury and Hoffman. “217 Catlin Street is a prime location for contributing to the Focus Inward Policy.”

That’s not the sentiment of neighbors, however, who are watching their once-quiet streets grow crowded.

Neighborhood resident Kim Walterskirchen spoke against both the Wolf Glen and Khoury rezonings, each time voicing his concerns about taller buildings and diminishing property values.

He asked the council to consider implementing the growth policy in a more holistic way to account for neighborhood diversity and atmosphere.

Councilman John DiBari addressed Walterskirchen’s request, saying that lumping multiple projects together is complicated and difficult to address.

With Monday night’s vote, the 1.4-acre lot will be reclassified from RM2.7 Residential to RM2 Residential. This increases buildable height from 35 feet to 45 feet, as well as increases the number of units per acre.

Missoula’s growth policy estimates that within the next 20 years, the urban area’s population will increase by 18,500 people, requiring 9,000 new housing units.