Clash over “Big Houses” in U District leads to wider debate

Unable to find agreement, members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday sent a proposed zoning ordinance for the University Neighborhood out to the Planning Board and a “wider audience” for further study.

The discussion, which saw varying views on social equality, historic preservation and private property rights, resulted in little consensus, prompting several members of the Land Use and Planning Committee to pan the effort to draft “light zoning” for the university area.

“This is a complicated, sophisticated issue, and it’s not easy to write this kind of ordinance and hit the sweet spot,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones, who drafted the ordinance. “But if this starts the larger conversation in Missoula for how we write larger policy toward our historic districts, I think that’s constructive.”

The effort to write “compatibility standards” for the University Neighborhood began last year to stave off what some residents see as the district’s deterioration resulting from large, modern homes that don’t blend in.

And while the council typically leans toward neighborhood rights, several members suggested that low-income areas don’t enjoy the same ability to organize for change as the University Neighborhood, and therefore aren’t afforded the same protections.

That prompted several to hedge on supporting the district’s request for zoning protections.

“We have other historic districts in our community, most notably downtown and along the railroad, that are disappearing at an incredibly fast rate,” said Ward 1 council member Heidi West. “But there isn’t that organization for anyone to stand up for those parts of town.”

West’s view on the issue stemmed from a brief overview of the University Neighborhood’s history, one that saw early residents unite to establish a “park-like” vision for the area peppered with historic charm.

That character has remained throughout the years, though some residents feel it’s vanishing as new, large homes take the place of existing residences. Supporters of subtle zoning changes believe those newer homes don’t fit the district’s character, both in size and architecture.

While the new zoning overlay is an attempt to address those concerns, West said the University Neighborhood’s affluent past and present gives its residents the power to do what others living elsewhere in the city cannot, primarily organize for change.

“Even today, it’s still an area of town that has a lot of owner-occupied homes and is capable of organizing,” said West. “I feel like we should be creating policy that protects the groups who are most disadvantaged, or parts of town that are the most disadvantaged, and work our way out.”

Ward 2 council member Jordan Hess said that while certain challenges may preclude residents of low-income neighborhoods from organizing, there’s nothing stopping their elected representatives from doing the heavy lifting and taking policy requests to the City Council for consideration.

Drafting zoning tools to preserve the historic qualities of the University Neighborhood could be applied to other parts of town facing similar challenges, he said, adding he supported the direction the zoning attempts were going.

“I don’t take issue with the neighborhood approach,” Hess said. “There’s nothing that precludes any of us from bringing forward anything for the betterment of another neighborhood. We’re developing something here that can be the framework for future implementation in other neighborhoods.”

Members of the City Council directed planning staff in October to prepare an ordinance intended to preserve the University Neighborhood’s character by placing subtle guidelines on home remodels and new home construction.

Development Services on Wednesday presented its latest draft, one that included four standards to address the neighborhood’s concerns. Among them, it would require large homes built on large corner lots to maintain a certain setback from the street – an effort to retain a sense of open space.

The proposal also calls for no net loss of dwelling units when a new home is constructed, and it addresses street-facing facades for corner parcels to avoid high vertical walls set close to the street.

“I think it’s a good product at this point and I see a lot of potential for possibly applying it to other areas of town,” said Jones.

“We’re going to be talking about a lot of affordable housing, density and infill, and we could talk about a lot of tenement housing like they built in the Soviet Union back in the 1980s – that’s very dense infill. But we’re going to try to create a beautiful built environment that people like living in.”

While the ordinance is well-meaning and was drafted with the support of a working group representing the neighborhood’s diversity, placing restrictions on property owners didn’t sit well with some.

Ward 6 council member Michelle Cares said the proposal was flawed from its inception, given that the homes at the source of the neighborhood’s aggravation aren’t any larger than many others already standing.

“Impacts from nearby private property owners after significant investment in your own home is simply a part of public life,” Cares said. “I have concerns of telling a private property owner what they can and cannot do with their property, other than community safety, and I don’t think this reaches that.”

Cares said attempts at a zoning overlay for the University Neighborhood shouldn’t be used as a template for other neighborhoods. She also questioned the need to regulate the razing of older homes to build new ones.

“I believe the idea of loss of housing units is being used simply because it’s compelling and may garner votes,” said Cares. “I don’t believe the phenomenon of razing two homes to make one is so widespread that it requires such action in one neighborhood.”

John Snively, a University District resident, said he and others believe several houses built recently in the district are larger than the lots can support. The impact of those homes on the public realm has generated “bad feelings” and “broken down neighborhood civility.”

At the same time, Snively added, the proposed zoning remedy would do nothing to address his concerns. It would not stop “new massive houses” from “ruining the neighborhood.”

“While it prevents even more massive buildings on already large lots, it does nothing to protect most of our neighborhood residents who live on much smaller lots,” Snively said. “This overlay would have little effect on the mass of the house, which instigated this process in the first place.”