MISSOULA — The denial of a requested rezone and housing development at the base of Grant Creek last month marked a win for a neighborhood concerned over traffic and greater density.
But it also marked a setback for housing advocates who say Missoula can’t slow the rising cost of housing if it doesn’t change its views around development. With 850 new housing units needed each year to keep pace with population growth, and with land limited, developers will need to build near services at greater density.
Councilmember Heather Harp was one of five who voted for the rezone. It would have permitted up to 1,200 housing units rather than the 500 under current zoning. Harp said nearly every housing proposal is “contentious,” though some meet greater opposition than others in certain neighborhoods.
Opposition to the zoning proposal from residents in the Grant Creek neighborhood was strong and organized, and the City Council ultimately voted against it.
“Sometimes the opposition is better organized and so they get more people to write in or attend meetings, but at the end of the day, what I keep looking at is that we have a community that continues to grow, and that comes with its own set of challenges,” Harp said.
Harp, executive director of Habitat for Humanity, said those challenges can be addressed through a mixture of housing developments that range from affordable housing to the market-rate projects, like that proposed in Grant Creek at Expo Parkway.
“We’ve not been able to have these neighborhood discussions on what our neighborhoods can do. Are we going to use only single-family housing? Or are we going to look at multi-family?” Harp said. “That’s the part of this that has been missing – how we can actually problem solve. Instead, we just get opposition, and I really think people don’t want to be problem makers, they want to be problem solvers.”
With the Expo Parkway rezone, the 44-acre parcel presented challenges for development, according to council member Jordan Hess, who voted against the rezone.
Hess said he would have accepted several other zoning options, but due to the steep slopes on a portion of the Grant Creek parcel, the zoning was too broad for what could have been accomplished in the area.
“It was too big of a parcel to adequately address the suitability of that zoning and it was too much of a constrained parcel to say that the zoning would have been adequate,” Hess, the chair of the Land Use and Planning Committee, said. “We have to make sure the zoning is appropriate, and that has to include all the possibilities of what could be done within the zoning district.”
Hess also expressed concerns over issues of ingress and egress. It’s what mainly held him back.
“I think everyone (on the Missoula City Council) weighs all the materials available, whether it’s neighborhood feedback or whether it’s findings of fact from the staff,” Hess said. “All of those come together in making a decision. The council is generally willing to just make the best decision given all of the information available.”
The denial went against recommendations offered by Development Services and the Office on Housing and Community Development.
Eran Pehan, director of the housing office, said the rezone brought up legitimate concerns. But she added that “quality development” would have addressed those concerns.
“We are working with an incredibly small area to develop homes,” Pehan said. “Land available to us is getting scarce, and I think we need to get creative in order to mitigate concerns that are present on that land.”
According to Pehan, the proposed zoning would have matched the creativity needed to meet development demands. Looking ahead, she said they’ll need more discussions to work through some of the issues raised by high-density development across Missoula.
“Every community and every neighborhood should develop in a way that mirrors and supports their quality, but we do need some neighborhoods to change,” Pehan said.
“Some of that is going to be addressed through conversations about increases in traffic and changes in the character of neighborhoods by adding different housing types. We’re not asking folks to do something communities across the nation aren’t doing exceptionally well with already.”
Harp said that with each development project the City Council considers includes trade-offs that could be “uncomfortable” for some. After the Grant Creek denial, Harp realized that not everyone is as “willing to embrace high-density” as she hoped.
“If we are serious about trying to make housing more affordable in our communities, we have to consider safety, health and well-being. All of those things matter,” Harp said. “But we also have to be very cautious and think ultimately what the final price is going to be to our future homeowners.”