Members of the City Council took a wonky dive into land use across Missoula on Wednesday, looking at opportunities for infill development and where another 6,500 dwelling units might go over the coming decade.
Cut through terms like hexagons, composite maps and entitled lots, and the Missoula Development Guide presents a basic framework for the city’s focus on inward growth while utilizing existing infrastructure, transportation and services.
But it could also inform decisions made by the City Council on several upcoming subdivisions planned west of Reserve Street on Mullan Road. While Missoula needs a greater inventory of housing across all classes, where to place the dwellings stands central to the looming debate.
“This is a critical look at how we envision the community developing over time and understanding what we have going on in terms of infrastructure and land availability,” said council member John DiBari.
The Missoula Development Guide shows high opportunities for development clustered in certain areas of town, including the Brooks Street corridor, central Missoula, and areas between Reserve and Russell streets.
While it’s not expected that every parcel will develop to the maximum potential allowed by zoning, the new city map suggests a general capacity of roughly 33,000 units in areas identified as suitable for development.
But fewer than 4,300 of those are considered “highly suitable.”
“We can see there’s capacity for the growth that we see, and places to put the 6,500 units we see coming in the next 10 years,” said Tom Zavitz, a senior planner with Development Services. “There is capacity here and we don’t need to continue to sprawl. But the hard part is, how do we get at that undeveloped capacity?”
City planners identified suitable parcels as those that sit close to existing services, including water and sewer, parks and schools, transit, grocery stores and other amenities that round out a neighborhood.
Under that formula, the Reserve to Russel corridor offers that greatest opportunity with around 11,300 suitable parcels. The Brooks Street corridor holds around 8,700 suitable parcels, followed by East Mullan with around 5,300 parcels.
“We have three subdivisions you’ll see soon out in the Mullan area,” said Zavitz. “But for that Mullan area, we should be thinking about providing commercial zoning and other things that can make those single-family developments more neighborhood like.”
The city’s focus on inward growth is often misunderstood, Zavitz said. While it does focus new development toward the center of Missoula to preserve agriculture and prevent costly sprawl, it also looks to focus growth around community spaces and neighborhoods.
Clustering new development around existing city services also reduces costs to both the developer and the taxpayer, he said.
“That focus inward is oversimplified in ways,” Zavitz said. “What we see it as is focusing development, so in the end it increases walkability and people don’t have to use their automobile as much, so we have to spend less on infrastructure. It means focusing toward neighborhood centers.”
While the map identifies some areas as suitable for infill, including the Mullan area, several members of the council questioned the “suitable” ranking, given the area’s lack of a transportation grid.
How that plays out could boil down to future choices made by the City Council and public demand. The subdivisions planned on Mullan Road are market driven, suggesting consumers are still seeking that product.
“Absent of having that road network built out, it’s a question of whether we want to keep adding to what may not have been the smartest idea 20 or 30 years ago when those subdivisions were created and now are a part of the city,” DiBari said. “The argument that we have to do it because we need supply is false on its face. This analysis shows us there’s a lot of opportunities, but it doesn’t come without challenges.”
Given the need for additional housing, several council members have asked for more pinpointed information on what areas are not only suited for development, but are currently available for building.
“It would be helpful for us to have more knowledge about what we have and where the opportunities are to build,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “There is the need for inventory, and the (land) inventory is there, but we need more information when we guide people where to look for that inventory.”