Citing housing needs, Missoula City Council approves downtown condo project

Not approving a mixed-income housing project in downtown Missoula would cost the city its chance to gain affordable housing, and it would likely lead to the complete loss of several historic homes, members of the Missoula City Council said Monday night.

On an 9-0 vote, the City Council approved a request to rezone the property and vacate a small portion of right of way to accommodate a new condominium project, which must dedicate 20% of its units to affordable housing under conditions of the agreement.

The city’s need for housing across all incomes weighed heavy in the council’s decision. Council member Jesse Ramos and newly elected council member John Cantos were both absent. Julie Merritt abstained from the vote, citing a conflict of interest.

“The priority here is having new affordable housing units,” said council member Gwen Jones. “We want every neighborhood to make a contribution. To have housing units that are permanently affordable in this neighborhood, which is one of the highest priced districts in this city, is a real win.”

The project, proposed at four stories for a commercial area in what’s designated as the urban center, first went before the City Council in December, when it was returned to committee for further discussion.

Several conditions emerged from that discussion, each intended to strike a balance between the concerns of critics and project backers. After reaching the agreement, the committee approved the project, setting it up for Monday’s final vote, where it passed.

“Montana is a property rights state – landowners have wide latitude to develop their property in the state of Montana,” said council member Jordan Hess. “Our decision space is a lot narrower than a lot of the members of the public would like it to be.”

However, the city does have leverage when granting the vacation of right of way to accommodate the project, and it’s there where Hess said the city has applied its “lever” to gain concessions from the developers.

Among the conditions approved Monday, no commercial applications are allowed and the developers must contribute up to $12,000 to the cost of relocating each home on the property.

They must also dedicate 20% of the units to affordable housing, even though developers suggested that number may be unobtainable, causing the project to fail. Most council members were unmoved by that concern, even though it would drive up the cost of the other units by thousands of dollars each.

Rather, they opted to keep the conditions intact while approving the project.

“If we deny this request, I can almost guarantee the developer will tear down all the units on the site and build the maximum units allowed under current zoning,” Hess said. “That will spread the cost of the site over less units, and the cost of each unit will most certainly be out of reach for even more Missoulians.”

In drafting the conditions, the council applied several city plans adopted over the past decade, including the growth policy, the housing policy and the downtown master plan. Each of them look toward infill and denser urban development as a tool to limit sprawl and drive down development costs.

“As we face climate change, the projection of the increase in population in our area is possibly going to be higher than what we’re predicting,” said council member Amber Sherill. “We’re going to have to make some hard choices if we want to continue to not sprawl. Sprawling into the surrounding valleys eats up our agricultural land and increases our reliance on single occupancy vehicles.”

Despite such arguments, several members of the public continued their opposition to the project. Among the concerns, some said the project was too tall, wasn’t in the right location, lacked solar panels, failed to provide affordable living, would block the sun, or would result in “economic exploitation.”

Others opposed development in general. “If you want to address climate change, then stop this cancerous growth,” one critic insisted. Another referred to “Faust and his pact with Mephistopheles” while another defended the right to spread fake information, that being a rendering distributed by project opponents last week on social media inflating the building’s height.

Rita Hanson also continued her opposition, saying she was “disenchanted” with the process.

“Inevitably, we end up with a building that could be all commercial, and could be 65 feet high,” she said. “The conditions are still full of what I think are holes. I would rather see it in writing than in trust.”

Several project supporters sat quietly in the audience but offered no comment, though a few did.

“It’s like poker, you play the hand your dealt,” said supporter Christine Littig. “I do want to express positivity about the 20% affordable housing. I encourage you to hold the developer accountable to that number.”