New Missoula report says no to corporate architecture, yes to creativity

A new report by Winter and Company recommending design standards gives a thumbs up to many new projects sprouting up across Missoula, but calls for changes in land use and design patterns found in some city corridors. (Missoula Current)

Nearly two years after gathering ideas and concerns regarding the design of new construction and urban growth in Missoula, the firm contracted by the city to study the issue and make recommendations presented its preliminary findings this week.

While there’s no disputing that Missoula has crossed the threshold from town to city, the question remains – how should it grow when land is limited and development pressure is expected to intensify with a growing population?

“People care about Missoula,” said Brad Johnson, a project manager with Winter and Company. “They care about what it looks like and believe the physical character of Missoula makes it special and unique. Part of this study is about celebrating the accomplishments that have worked here.”

Winter and Company, one of the nation’s experts on urban architecture and design, presented the results of its study and its early recommendations to members of the City Council, followed by a public presentation.

The lengthy document offers design guidelines in certain travel corridors and the downtown district, and the tools available to make it happen. The city, encouraged by the public, has been working to establish such standards for a number of years to avoid corporate architecture and make better use of space.

“We’re looking at the city’s desire to actually transform the character of the corridors, to have infill development come and change the character and improve it over time,” said Johnson. “It promotes intensity and more efficient land use than what you see now. It’s part of this focus-inward policy.”

That policy acknowledges the geographical constraints that limit the city’s growth. It also encourages better use of land and quality infill to keep the cost of city services down and create connected neighborhoods.

To accomplish that, several city plans, as well as the latest recommendations offered by Winter and Company, call for greater building heights and densities in mixed-use projects. Housing placed over retail and other blended projects could stand together in well-designed hubs, though the policies and incentives needed to make that happen remain a work in progress.

The days of single-use construction, like a car wash or coffee shop, may be falling out of favor with the Missoula public.

“In the corridors, it was all about transforming the character, but downtown, the priority was maintaining the character that’s there today,” said Johnson. “While we want to respect the historic character, people still wanted to see architectural freedom and express creativity in the future as new design comes along.”

Nore Winter of Winter and Company said the workshops and resulting plan found strong interest across Missoula in creating “character management systems,” otherwise known as design standards and guidelines. At the same time, he said, options varied on how far those standards should go.

The new study encourages the city to continue the conversation as it relates to private development, particularly when it’s completed without public investment. Once tax increment financing is involved, the city has more leeway to make greater demands.

Design guidelines could range from mandatory to incentive based.

“We have a vision for a design we’d like to see in these different areas, but how do we implement it?” Winter said. “The options here – and our recommendations are – to use overlays that would include some design standard and some design guidelines.”

Winter added, “We’d use standards wherever possible because they are clear and easy to administer. But there’s some variables where guidelines are needed because you need to look more at the quality of the result.”