Efforts to shape the next iteration of Missoula's built environment took a step forward on Tuesday with the unveiling of new design standards intended to add incentives to better urban architecture and make wiser use of land within the city's core.

Two years in the making, the so-called Design Excellence Overlay presents a vision for several downtown districts and Midtown Missoula, along with the Brooks, Russell, Broadway and Reserve Street corridors.

“It was a City Council-initiated process, based on the feedback and reactions to some development around town,” said city planner Ben Brewer. “It was intended to provide added flexibility and greater creativity for design.”

Back in 2016, several projects around Missoula sparked debate over corporate architecture and poor use of land along key commercial corridors. That prompted the City Council to direct Development Services to come up with new design standards to prevent such projects from taking place in the future.

In the absence of those design guidelines, some developers have continued using prized parcels for single uses, such as car washes and cellphone stores. Brewer said the design overlay seeks to change that by adding incentives to smart development.

“As these areas develop more, it's meant to encourage vertical mixed-use with commercial on the street level and residential above,” said Brewer. “It's intended to draw uses to these areas, which are already well served and have the facilities and infrastructure in place.”

The overlay is just that – standards superimposed upon existing zoning, which itself varies by district. It offers guidelines for the inner core of downtown, the downtown outer core, and downtown north.

It also sets standards for the city's main commercial corridors, including Reserve, Brooks and portions of Russell. The Hip Strip is covered in its own district, as are various urban gateways.

“It updates and really takes more of a comprehensive approach to design in the city, and it's a place-based approach to design,” Brewer said. “It's looking at the neighborhood context and character. It looks at how development interacts along those corridors and subdistricts.”

Depending on the district, the overlay sets guidelines for a number of features, such as placement of a building on the street, vertical scale, facade and window treatments, and building articulation, or the amount a structure is required to “step back” based upon its height.

The standards also reduce certain barriers to better land use, such as parking and landscaping requirements.

“We need some standards so things aren't so haphazard on Brooks Street,” said Debbie Williams, a member of the Tremper family, which owns the Tremper Shopping Center. “It would be nice to make it easier for people to get across the street and use the whole area.”

Williams, who studied the recommendations on Tuesday, liked what she saw. Some areas of Missoula are booming, she said, and the guidelines are needed to ensure development takes place in a sensible, organized manner.

“The fact that we have the fairgrounds and the mall and all that's happening there is a huge part of Midtown and the Brooks Street area,” Williams said. “We want it to continue down the corridor where it's user friendly, pedestrian friendly and something Missoula would be proud of.”

The new design overlay breaks downtown Missoula into three regions, including inner core, outer core and the northern district. (Missoula Current file photo)
The new design overlay breaks downtown Missoula into three regions, including inner core, outer core and the northern district. (Missoula Current file photo)

As Missoula grows and land becomes increasingly scarce, developers may soon find it beneficial to build up, not out, and maximize use of their property. The new design standards encourage that approach to development.

Tom Zavitz, a senior planner with Development Services, said over the past two decades, developers haven't maximized their property's potential. But as Missoula becomes more urbanized, he expects that to change.

“I think we're going to see that because, naturally, land is limited so you start going up instead of out,” Zavitz said. “We want to have the neighborhoods maintain a character, but for some places, we'd like to see more mixed-use development. It makes for better community places, and people don't have to drive as much.”

Combined with the city's “focus inward” philosophy, Zavitz believes the design overlay will begin to move the dial, resulting in stronger, more connected neighborhoods and corridors.

“This tries to take the context of the place into consideration when we're reviewing a building permit, where our standard commercial zoning never did that,” Zavitz said. “It was one size fits all. This allows us a chance to look at the surroundings and take that into consideration.”