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Urban infill: Missoula City Council weighs request to rezone downtown property

The Hip Strip in downtown Missoula. The Downtown Master Plan envisions changes to the area to boost housing and commercial opportunities and spark new economic growth. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

City planners on Wednesday said a developer’s request to rezone downtown property on Higgins Avenue would bring it in line with the rest of the Hip Strip, and do away with old zoning created specifically to accommodate a Missoula newspaper and its printing press.

The rezone, sought by Lee Enterprises, would free the parcel at 500 S. Higgins for other uses, including housing, commercial and office. The property is currently zoned for limited industrial, though the applicant is seeking neighborhood commercial zoning.

“The remainder of the Hip Strip is already zoned to match what’s being requested,” said city planner Cassie Tripard. “The rezone would bring the property in line with the rest of the Hip Strip.”

Lee Enterprises is listed only as the applicant requesting the rezone, and the property’s buyer hasn’t been publicly disclosed, nor has any proposed project.

But if the City Council approves the rezone next week, the applicant must file an amended plat and meet other terms within 180 days after approval. The city cannot by law place conditions upon the rezone request.

“We cannot condition zoning under state law,” council member Jordan Hess confirmed after Wednesday’s meeting. “The request has to be considered with a yes or no vote.”

Proposals envisioned in the Downtown Master Plan suggest higher density and taller construction along the Higgins Avenue corridor. The Missoulian redevelopment would be the first step in achieving the plan’s goals.

Whatever project is proposed upon approval of the zoning change would be subject to a number of existing regulations, including the “step back” of upper floors and the building’s placement along the street. The city’s new Design Excellence Standards would also apply, and parking would be determined based upon uses, along with other factors.

The requested rezone has already won the approval of the Planning Board and meets all city plans, including the Downtown Master Plan and the Our Missoula Growth Policy. Existing regulations would also prevent any project from encroaching on the river.

The greenbelt along the waterfront is classified as open space.

“That creates a buffer with that growth policy,” said Tripard.

While most members of the City Council have yet to weigh in on the rezone, some suggested the city’s regulations on parking and design could add costs to any future project, not just on the proposed parcel, but others as well.

Council member Heather Harp said city regulations already require parking based upon use, and the requirement of a “step back” in the city’s Design Excellence Standards may unintentionally reduce the amount of square feet a developer has to work with.

Step backs require a building to move back from the façade after four or five stories, meaning it’s thinner on top than it is at the bottom. Zoning along Higgins Avenue allows building heights of up to 175 feet.

“All of us are very much aware of today’s cost of constructing buildings,” said Harp. “There’s always going to be trade-offs we have to have an appreciation for. There’s a lot at risk here, and when we start adding on additional requirements like parking, it drives up the costs.”