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Missoula planning board approves zoning change for multi-residential project near mall

The zoning change applies to the property outlined blue, where a developer has proposed three buildings containing multiple housing units.

A developer seeking a zoning change near Southgate Mall for a multi-residential project cleared the first hurdle this week by winning the unanimous support of the Consolidated Planning Board.

Still, the planning board expressed ongoing frustrations with the city’s dated zoning tools and what some have described as their incompatibility with the Our Missoula Growth Policy.

“This (rezone) is an elegant way to incorporate this parcel that’s on the edge of two different districts,” said board member Micah Sewell. “But every time we do small parcel rezoning, our job would be easier if the city would rezone all these parcels to align more closely with the growth policy.”

The rezone request includes three parcels on the corner of Schilling Street and Dearborn Avenue. Southgate mall sits one-half mile away and the Dearborn condominiums sit across the street.

The developer, Dennis Lower and his wife, have owned the property since 1999, and Lower continues to run his construction company from the site. While plans remain in the works, he intends to clear the property and build three buildings, each containing multiple units.

The rezone would allow around 21 housing units and a building height of 35 feet, along with additional height for certain design standards. While the neighborhood has voiced support for the project, some remain concerned about the freedoms that come with rezoning, particularly around height.

But Lower said his project wouldn’t use the full height permitted by zoning, primarily due to the city’s parking requirements.

“I don’t think four stories is going to work on that site, given that we’re going to have to have a lot of off-street parking,” Lower said. “We see three-story buildings with garages and maybe an additional parking spot for each unit. We are going to live in one of the units.”

The city’s planning office recommended approving the rezone request, saying it better aligns with the city’s new growth policy and its vision of inward growth. The property sits off the Bitterroot Branch trail and in an area eyed for additional density and city infrastructure improvements.

“I think the city should come in and do large swaths of up-zoning. It might ultimately be more fair than the current process we’re charged with,” said project representative Paul Forsting with Territorial Landworks. “We think it’s a good project and it complies with the growth policy.”

Members of the planning board agreed and approved the zoning change on a unanimous vote. But they also voiced frustration with city zoning and its conflicts with the growth policy.

“This is a constant struggle we’re always going to have, where we have these lots that are in unique situations,” said board member Tung Pham. “But this meets the growth policy. The hard work on this was done with the growth policy, and the growth policy has identified this for higher density.”