MISSOULA — After trying for more than two years, a developer’s request to rezone a lower Grant Creek property for a housing project was approved on Monday night by the Missoula City Council, and it received the super-majority needed to override a neighborhood petition.
KJA Development plans to construct Grant Creek Village on 44 acres that served as a former gravel quarry off Interstate 90. The finished product is expected to deliver 700 housing units along with various amenities, pending the outcome of a development agreement.
Five of the seven council members who opposed the zoning change two years ago supported it on Monday, saying their concerns had been addressed and the city’s housing situation has become dire.
Even then, the decision wasn’t easy, and many offered lengthy explanations to rationalize their position. In some cases, it included apologies to Grant Creek residents – something many neighborhoods haven’t received upon rezoning in recent years.
“We all know we’re in desperate need for housing in our community, and all neighborhoods need to take part in that,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “The market is gridlocked because of painfully low vacancy rates, which continue to push housing prices up. This will provide housing stock, which is an important piece of supply, demand and prices.”
Council members Sherill, Heidi West, Stacie Anderson, Gwen Jones and Jordan Hess changed their votes on Monday from two years ago. For some, it appeared to be an uncomfortable vote in support of the zoning change.
But all new members of council supported the rezone on Monday, punctuating how perspectives on the city’s housing challenge has changed since September 2020.
“We’re in a housing crisis. Every day there are Missoulians that are facing the prospect of losing where they live,” said council member Mike Nugent. “Inventory matters. It makes a difference in raising vacancy rates. We can’t disregard the need for housing across the spectrum.”
Council member Mirtha Becerra, who lives in Grant Creek, joined John Contos as the two opposing votes. Becerra said Grant Creek Village would do nothing to provide affordable housing and would deviate from the city’s climate goals by increasing single-vehicle occupancy trips.
She said there was no funding in the city’s long-range transportation plan to fund infrastructure upgrades in the area, and it was unlikely that public transit would reach the area any time soon. Growth should take place in the urban core, she added.
Others suggest the area now lies in the urban core or will in the coming years as the city grows.
“I don’t believe the rezoning criteria has been fully met,” Becerra said. “This rezone would add to the housing stock in Missoula, that’s true. However, this development would not meet the definition of Missoula’s affordable housing.”
Becerra based her reasoning on a long list of items while Contos based his opposition on what he said he’s witnessed in other places. Contos called the city’s housing crisis a huge issue that won’t be solved by one development.
“We’re not going to build our way out of it. It’s not going to happen,” he said in opposition. “All of us were here first. The people coming in, they need to wait their turn or do what they need to do to be able to stay here. The people that are here, there’s a lot of pressure to stay here. A lot of people have paid the price to live here. People coming in, they need to wait their turn.”
The final debate pitted those who live in the neighborhood against renters and those struggling to find housing across the city. Both sides agreed that Missoula was facing a housing shortage and prices have responded as a result.
Grant Creek residents repeated that they weren’t against some form of development on the vacant parcel. However, they remained opposed to the project, both for its density and the lack of access into and out of Grant Creek.
The project, they also said, would permanently change the character of their neighborhood.
“A conversion of a low-density neighborhood to high density is permanent,” said RT Cox, president of Friends of Grant Creek. “Don’t create a high-density island where it doesn’t belong.”
Many housing advocates eased up on their complaints of Grant Creek’s perceived “not in my back yard” label after learning that most residents didn’t meet the definition of wealth.
While some pushed for the development simply to make an economic point, others suggested Grant Creek Village was truly needed to ease Missoula’s housing pinch.
“Missoula is a thriving and growing city. The best thing we can do with that growth is embrace it and better yet, plan for it,” said Liam Seymour. “This zoning will allow for more housing to be built. The city has seen many rezones in the last few years. To my knowledge, Grant Creek is the only neighborhood that hasn’t changed in this way.”
Up until Monday night’s approval of the rezone, Grant Creek had been the only neighborhood to successfully defeat a zoning change. A number of other neighborhoods have absorbed high-density projects in recent years and had wondered why Grant Creek had been spared.
It played a small part in those voting to support the project, yet it did earn mention.
“This general area we’re talking about was slated as medium density, multi-family, general commercial and light industrial back in 1980,” said council member Heidi West. “I feel like a lot of the concerns I had beck in 2020 have been addressed. In line with our growth policy and the requirement that all of our neighborhoods share an equal burden of the growth we’re seeing in providing housing for our community, I’ll be supporting it.”