MISSOULA — The Missoula City Council on Monday night approved a rezone request for a downtown property, clearing the way for a sales transaction to close and a redevelopment process to begin.
Supporters of the project said approval of the rezone brings continuity to the Hip Strip, given that the rest of the district already carries the same zoning. Real estate on the ground is expensive, but that in the air is more reasonable.
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It’s free, one council member noted.
“This potential project has the potential to do remarkable things with design,” said council member Heather Harp. “Real estate in Missoula is really expensive. The only free real estate in Missoula is in the air.”
The rezone passed on a 9-1 vote.
City planners have maintained that rezoning the downtown property, located at 500. S Higgins, would bring it in line with the rest of the district and do away with old zoning created specifically to accommodate a local newspaper and its printing press.
Sought by Lee Enterprises, the rezone frees the parcel for other uses including housing, commercial, and office space. No plans for the property have been publicly disclosed, nor has the property’s buyer and developer been publicly revealed.
However, the Missoulian has said it plans to relocate its business operations once the property closes. Approving the rezone allows the buyer to redevelop the property without the parcel’s current and limited constraints.
“It’s currently zoned so narrowly that basically nothing but a newspaper office with a printing press could ever be here,” said council member Heidi West. “We never envisioned how the Internet would go, or news in general. This rezoning is in line with the rest of the Hip Strip. Most of this area has this commercial zoning.”
Proposals envisioned in the Downtown Master Plan suggest higher density and taller construction along the Higgins Avenue corridor. The Missoulian redevelopment will be the first step in achieving the plan’s goals.
Whatever project is proposed now that the rezone has been granted is subject to a number of regulations, including the “step back” of upper floors and the building’s placement along the street.
The city’s new Design Excellence Standards will also apply, and parking will be determined based upon uses, along with other factors.
“Parking ultimately will be determined based upon what uses go in with the plan on this project. That will be decided down the road based on use,” said council member Gwen Jones.
She added, “Missoula is growing, and our downtown and commercial areas are expanding. Either we build a lot of strip malls out on the perimeter of town, or we build more densely and upwards in our downtown area.”
The rezone and its permitted uses are supported by the Downtown Master Plan and the Our Missoula Growth Policy. Existing regulations will also prevent any project from encroaching on the river.
The greenbelt along the waterfront is classified as open space and protected from development. State law doesn’t permit local governments from placing additional conditions upon a zoning change.
“It’s a great property right there,” said council member Sandra Vasecka. “I think the property owner should be able to do what they want with their property. I support this.”