Growing pains: Some Missoula neighborhoods struggle with infill

Missoula’s growth to the west has seen a crop of new homes in the past few years. (Missoula Current)

Standing in the entryway to the South Fifth Street West upholstery shop he’s owned for 25 years, Dave Nordby turned in a circle. In each direction, multi-family housing is under construction or newly built. From the windows in his shop, Nordby can see four of those projects.

“I used to be able to see Pattee Canyon and see if it would be a decent ski day,” he said, pointing southeast out the door. Now, Painless Steel Tattoo & Body Piercing blocks his view of Pattee Canyon, and the Midtown Apartments block Snowbowl’s mountainside runs. Nordby worries that one day, Missoulians will no longer be able to use Mount Sentinel’s “M” as a point of reference. The city’s buildings will be too tall.

“It’s going to be harder and harder to have spots where you can see our hills,” he said.

The Missoula’s City Council’s 2015 adoption of the Our Missoula Growth Policy means apartment buildings and other infill projects will accommodate population growth in neighborhoods throughout the city. But some residents worry that the city’s quality of life may suffer as the valley bottom grows more crowded.

Nordby said he doesn’t think all of the growth is bad. The tattoo parlor down the street and the Good Food Store drive a lot of potential customers past his upholstery business, which relies on word-of-mouth and repeat customers. The multiplexes kitty-corner from his shop have grown on him. They’re solidly built with off-street parking and nice landscaping, he said.

However, that housing is in stark contrast to the three-story apartment building less than a block down Fifth Street. Still under construction, the new building already dwarfs its one-story neighbor to the north.

Nordby said he’s worried about the precedent this towering structure sets for other developments in the neighborhood.

“If it’s done with some space and taste, cool. If it’s done with parking, cool,” he said. “But a lot of the growth I see are glaring examples of it done poorly.”

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Another resident of the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood, Kevin Pierce, is also frustrated with infill in the area.

Even in Missoula’s current seller’s market, Pierce’s Fifth Street home between Reserve and Russell streets has been on the market for months, without any serious bites. He thinks it’s because of that new three-story building going up near his house.

“There’s no way I’ll ever be able to gain privacy in that backyard,” Pierce said. “They’ll just be staring down into the backyard.”

The more apartments, the more traffic, he said, wondering how many Missoula City Council members live in neighborhoods with this “free-for-all” level of development.

Pierce said his neighbors are frustrated, too.

“Every single neighbor is just baffled at how this is happening,” he said.

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According to the 2015 growth policy, the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood between Third and 14th streets is recommended as nearly 100 percent residential high-density development in the future. In high-density zones, landowners can build more than 24 units per acre. On small lots, that means taller buildings.

Much of the neighborhood is already zoned for residential medium-high and high-density development. Those landowners won’t have to request rezoning to build 12 or more dwelling units per acre. While nearby residents have the opportunity for public input during a rezoning consideration, there isn’t much they can do if the land is already zoned for dense residential development.

The affordable housing crisis in Missoula is part of the reason for the infill push, Ward 6 City Council member Marilyn Marler said. Low rental vacancies and high housing prices indicate that the housing situation is unhealthy and needs changes like those envisioned in the 2015 growth policy.

According to a June 2017 report by Missoula Invest Health, the estimated median income of homeowners in Franklin to the Fort, representing 59 percent of the neighborhood’s residents, is $46,536. For renters, the median income is $30,670. The median income for all households in Missoula is $41,421, according to the report.

“How close is too close?” business owner Dave Nordby asked. “How commercial is too commercial?” (Nordby Upholstery via Facebook)

Of homeowners in Franklin to the Fort, more than 40 percent reported owning their homes for more than 11 years, while more than half of renters have lived in the neighborhood between one and five years.

According to the report, homeowners in the neighborhood can expect to see 23 percent of their income go toward housing costs, while renters can expect to pay a full third of their income for housing. Marler said this disparity between housing costs and income is part of the problem.

“You have to try different things to get it going, if nothing changes,” Marler said. “If nothing changes, it gets worse.”

Marler said the growth policy is being implemented well, and positive growth means higher property values, lower cost of living and an influx of services like restaurants and small grocery stores.

“From a big perspective, talking about Ward 6 as a whole, there are a fair number of buildable sites,” she said. “People are starting to do that, and I think it’s a good thing.”

Building permits and many other aspects of projects are public information, the councilwoman said. At any time, residents can call their City Council members to find out what is going on in their neighborhoods.

There’s a lot of housing being built near Marler’s own house near Franklin School, she said, and she hasn’t heard about anyone who’s unhappy about it.

But she does hear a lot of complaints about parking and noise in both neighborhoods in her ward, Franklin to the Fort and River Road.

Within the past month, River Road has seen two controversial residential rezonings. Residents at City Council meetings and in the neighborhood, as well as City Council members, expressed concern about the area’s infrastructure. There are only two through streets running north and south in the River Road neighborhood. Cul-de-sacs and dead ends make navigation a nightmare for newcomers and emergency vehicles.

Marler said River Road is a special case because of these challenges, but its central location and access to a major bike path are benefits.

The Missoula Invest Health report also cited infrastructure concerns among Franklin to the Fort residents. They also expressed concerns about zoning and the high number of renters in the neighborhood, which can dilute effective communication about community concerns. Residents wanted more commercial development to increase the neighborhood’s tax base, according to the report.

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For Dave Nordby, however, it’s all just a matter of balance.

Each morning, Nordby leaves his little pink house to work in the upholstery shop his father owned. It’s a block away. On his way out the door, Nordby can see the empty lot across the street. It’s a neglected plot with tangled, overgrown grass gathering in bunches on uneven ground. Now it’s slated for development.

Nordby said he dreads what might replace the weed patch. Will it be a tall apartment building, blocking his view of the western sky and mountains? Or will it be multi-plexes, built within feet of a neighbor’s house?

“How close is too close?” Nordby asked. “How commercial is too commercial?”

Nordby said he hasn’t attended many City Council meetings to express his concerns because calm discussions are hard to come by these days. But he would rather see affordable housing for seniors within the city limits rather than towering apartment buildings in small neighborhoods like his.

“You can build them,” he said. “Just don’t put them in our backyard.”