MISSOULA — Supporters and opponents of a rezone request for 44 acres off Interstate 90 at the base of Grant Creek made their case before the Missoula City Council on Wednesday, detailing the pros and cons of the proposal.
Members of the City Council will be asked to weigh the intent of the city’s growth policy and the city’s need for housing against neighborhood concerns over traffic and character when they vote on the issue in the weeks ahead.
State law doesn’t permit the city to place conditions on zoning. The request has the backing of the city’s Office on Housing and Community Development, along with the recommended approval of Development Services. However, the Consolidated Planning Board voted against it two weeks ago.
“You’re using a gravel pit, essentially, for what could be multi-family housing,” said city planner David DeGrandpre, who recommended the project for approval. “Your growth policy says this site is suited for high-density residential development. That’s a statement of public policy that was adopted over time. We need housing big-time in the city of Missoula.”
The property formerly served as a gravel pit and is surrounded by hotels and businesses, along with a stretch of single family homes located just north of the lot.
Current zoning would permit around 494 housing units to be built on the parcel. But the developers are seeking a zoning change to permit up to 1,100 units, roughly doubling what’s currently allowed.
DeGrandpre called that a ballpark figure, saying the projection is higher than what can be realistically built once landscaping, parking, streets and other factors are included.
“It’s an elevated number,” he said. “It’s higher than what can be built there today. But what we’re looking at is roughly doubling the development capacity of the parcel.”
The bulk of the property is designated as high residential in the city’s growth policy while a smaller segment is slated for commercial services, including hotels and restaurants, which separate the property from the freeway.
DeGrandpre said the request complies with the city’s growth policy and its focus on inward development. It could also help meet the city’s housing goals and boost what’s currently a lackluster supply, he said.
But on the downside, DeGrandpre said a number of services don’t currently exist. They include city parks, proper trails and a lack of transit, among others. Opponents, who have launched an organized campaign to block the rezone, said the challenges run deeper than that.
Their concerns primarily fall upon traffic congestion, density and neighborhood compatibility.
“The density of the current zoning, while almost doubling Grant Creek’s population, takes into account the site and the transportation limitations,” said one opponent, representing Friends of Grant Creek. “The existing zoning went through rigorous public policy and enjoys strong community support. Any change in zoning deserves the same.”
While the opponents say they welcome development under existing zoning, they’ve lined up firmly against a change in zoning and the project that could follow. The proposed rezone would cause more traffic than current infrastructure allows, they believe.
The rezone would allow a density of 43 units per acre while surrounding residential densities range from 8 to 17 units per acre. The proposed rezone would result in a density up to 5 times greater than what currently exists, opponents said.
“We agree a gravel pit is ideal for the current zoning, and we support it,” she said. “But we believe the rezone doesn’t substantially adhere to the growth plan, nor the most important considerations of safety and livability.”
But developers contend that current zoning would limit the property’s value and potential, and force them to complete a project that’s incompatible with the area, something they said they wanted to avoid. The rezone would enable them to do more with less and offer amenities lacking in many Missoula apartment projects.
Those include a pool, a gym, a community center, a dog park, more green space and a better overall layout, they claim.
Project architect Mike Morgan said the city’s land use plan, growth policy and zoning map led them to design the proposed project under high-density residential. All it needs is a rezone.
“All the utilities are in place and ready for this property,” said Morgan. “It was what was planned for this property. It’s ready for development. It’s really a perfect place for multi-family housing.”
While opponents cited a recent report by the Missoula Organization of Realtors suggesting that vacancy rates were on the rise in the city, the developers cited contradicting reports suggesting the city had a vacancy rate of less than 1%.
“That’s a serious crisis and we need to address it,” Morgan said. “Where we have land available for this type of multi-family housing, we need to use it as best we can. This isn’t in anyone’s back yard or anyone’s front yard. It’s on Expo Parkway that fronts the freeway.”