Missoula explores past and present as code reform begins
(Missoula Current) Citing a disconnected between Missoula's growth policy and zoning, and changes in urban design over the last 140 years, the city this week kicked off a project to reform its codes to streamline development and set a “predictable and desired” path for future growth.
More than 200 people on Tuesday night attended the first public forum on code reform and the City Council followed on Wednesday with its own dive into the process and what will result when the work concludes in 2025.
“The primary goal of this project is to update our codes and development codes to better align with our policies,” said city planner Ben Brewer. “There are two main issues we're trying to solve for, one is that our current code is confusing. Rules and regulations are spread across too many sections, some rules conflict with other rules which causes confusion, and other sections aren't well organized, making it difficult to find information.”
Brewer added that current code fails to regulate development in a way that advances Missoula's current goals around growth, housing, equity, climate change and the environment.
The City Council adopted Missoula's growth policy in 2015, setting a vision for what the city should and could become. While the growth policy was hailed as visionary, city codes were never amended to match it.
“The city and residents have observed that code often gets in the way of development that would achieve these shared goals,” Brewer said. “Often, policy and the connection between that and the zoning development codes we use currently are broken.”
Peter Park, a consultant leading the reform process, cited a Monday night City Council meeting over a subdivision proposal that went on for six hours and left many people frustrated.
Such lengthy debates around zoning and development have become common, sometimes lasting for months on end as city officials grapple with the current disconnect between zoning and Missoula's vision for growth.
Park said it's essential to understand Missoula's history in order to make meaningful headway toward reform.
“The code is not singularly responsible for many of the challenges you face today, and it's not singularly going to be the solution,” Park said. “The better we can bring awareness and understanding of what the relationship is between policy and code, and what policies are most meaningful for improvements, we'll have a much better product.”
Missoula was incorporated long before the arrival of the automobile. As a result, Park said, development was dense, blocks were smaller, uses were mixed and connectivity was key. When the streetcar made its appearance, it enabled the city to expand, but it did so while maintaining similar values around scale and connectivity, with development remaining dense and key amenities close.
But that changed after the 1930s when the automobile became the primary mode of transpiration. The city began to spread, blocks became larger, single uses ruled and connectivity all but disappeared.
“The pattern we've observed has been expanding out. We'd characterize it as more auto-oriented roads and sprawling outward,” Park said. “The way the buildings and blocks relate to each other informs the character of Missoula's different neighborhoods, and it's very distinct. But your code doesn't make those distinctions.”
A new chapter in development patterns occurred again at the turn of the 21st century when multi-model transportation became popular. That led to the creation of trails and bike paths, and new development began to include “multi-nodel” designs.
In most cases, newer neighborhoods again became walkable, similar to the city's older neighborhoods, and mixed uses reappeared.
“Once you're in these developments, it's walkable. But to get there is still auto oriented,” Park said. “It's very helpful to understand these different patterns, because there might be different regulations that can help, not just land use and zoning, but also the street standards and the infrastructure. These are components that come together that make a city for the future.”
On Tuesday night, as in past instances, residents expressed a desire to return to older development patterns where districts are walkable and amenities are close and don't require the use of a car.
Park said public feedback gathered as the reform process plays out will help set new standards. Many of those goals have already been expressed and are already written, they're just spread across many volumes of plans and documents.
“For us, it's a process of distillation. We need to distill the essential aspects of these (guiding) documents as a collective and distill them into a few memorable, understandable and meaningful guiding principles for code update,” Park said.
Agreement and hurdles
As in most cases, there may not be a “one size fits all” vision for how the city should develop, and state law could be a limiting factor on introducing novel solutions right for Missoula.
Council member Stacie Anderson said that as it stands, zoning doesn't allow for certain uses in some areas, and the city can't mandate things like corner grocery stores and other commercial amenities. As reform plays out, agreement may be difficult at times.
“There are some who think we should totally do away with single-family zoning and there's some who wouldn't be okay with that. There's going to be tension as in any public process,” Anderson said. “There are some in our community who think there should never be a development in our community that doesn't include mandated, deed-restricted affordable housing. That can be debated, but legally we can't do that because we also have to follow the state Legislature.”
The Legislature is set to convene next month, just as Missoula's efforts for code reform gain momentum. Gov. Greg Gianforte and his housing task force is expected to bring proposals to the Legislature to address the state's housing shortage.
The results could help or hinder Missoula's ability to guide or regulate growth, and how far codes can reach when managing development. Parker said it's about managing expectations.
“If we can create an environment for constructive conversation, we can get much farther. It's the isolation of ideas and the inability to exchange ideas in a civil and constructive way that opinions get informed and solidified,” he said. “There are limitations to what a code can do, and this is our opportunity to explain that. The more we can create a code that folks see themselves in, it makes the city's role more clear.”