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Report: Missoula is meeting housing goals, but projects are moving outward

Missoula Views
Posted at 10:34 AM, Dec 09, 2021

MISSOULA — As Missoula works to meet its housing needs, one city department is quietly tracking the pace and placement of development while city leaders look to rewrite dated zoning codes to help achieve Missoula’s philosophy of inward growth.

A report presented this week found the majority of recent development in Missoula is occurring in places identified as poorly or minimally suitable for growth. While that may be a function of the subdivision process and population trends, it has city officials looking for ways to encourage growth in areas identified as more suitable.

That will come through code reform and new development ordinances, something the city is currently working on.

“There are national post-war suburban development patterns, and there’s are existing zoning codes. There’s so many factors that push us away from our focus inward model,” said City Council member Jordan Hess. “But I feel like we have a huge opportunity to start fresh with the unified development ordinance and to really incentivize development in those areas that are more suitable.”

According to the report, Missoula’s population now stands at roughly 97,000 people with an annual rate of growth of 1.3%. The city claims roughly 45,000 housing units at a net density of just 1.1 unit per acre.

The city’s growth policy calls for a goal of between 510 and 700 new dwelling units built each year. Over the last three years, that goal has been minimally met.

“If we calculate that out for the three-year period, we’d expect to see between 1,500 and 2,100 new dwelling units,” said city planner Ben Brewer. “Where we ended up is at around 1,600. It’s within the range, but a bit on the low side.”

While the city is meeting its housing needs, the report looked at the placement of those housing units and revealed some surprises. Over the three-year period, Missoula saw 846 new houses, 46 duplexes and 744 multi-dwelling units averaging about 14 units per project.

However, only 4% of that construction took place in areas identified by the city as very suitable for growth while 38% fell in areas identified as minimally suitable. Another 12% took place in areas identified as not suitable at all.

“This is really meant to be a tracking tool,” Brewer said of the report. “It provides us a chance to get an accurate picture of what’s been happening as the city grows.”

The city’s focus-inward policy hinges on placing development in areas where infrastructure already exists. It also looks to incentivize mixed-use development with a blend of housing and services to make areas more walkable.

Placing high-density projects near transit lines, key travel corridors and trails is also a target. The new growth report could further strengthen the city’s goals of sustainable and inward growth.

“Part of the intent of this report is to make this a resource that guides planning within the city,” said Brewer. “Not just related to the growth policy and land use, but also transportation, infrastructure and housing.”

The report, prepared by the city’s development and permitting department, also looked at entitled lots, or properties where development has been permitted or pledged. More than 4,300 such lots exist across the city, ranging from downtown to Brooks Street to the Mullan area.

Over the next three years, more than 2,000 lots could see projects.

“This gives us our best sense of what to anticipate happening in the future,” Brewer said. “It sets up the expectation that that pattern of growth would likely continue for quite a while.”

Some members of the Missoula City Council expressed dismay over the number of projects occurring in areas identified as unsuitable for development when compared to the number of units placed in areas more appropriate for housing.

However, Brewer suggested the city is on the right track and that many projects taking place now were proposed before the city adopted its growth policy in 2015. It was then that the city pledged its inward focus model.

“You're on the right track already by supporting the comprehensive code reform project. It’s something really meant to address this,” said Brewer. “One of the main objectives of that project is to look at our regulations and how they are or not implementing or aligned with our policies. The growth policy is a big one of those. There are ways our current regulations aren’t adequately meeting what our policy and vision is for the city.”