Nearly two years have passed since Gwen Jones, freshly elected to her first term on City Council, began fielding phone calls and emails from frustrated Ward 3 constituents. The construction of a 6,800-square-foot home on one and a half lots near Bonner Park had neighbors not only incensed, but fearful for the integrity of their neighborhood's historic character. Now, 22 months later, Jones thinks she's come close to translating intangible character into a tangible solution.
"It's a feeling that we're trying to articulate, so you have to get down to what creates this wonderful feeling of environment when you walk through this neighborhood," Jones tells the Indy. "It's a really sophisticated topic, frankly, as I've delved into it."
On Oct. 4, Jones floated her idea in a meeting with the city's Land Use and Planning Committee: a zoning overlay for the University District that would establish compatibility guidelines for residential buildings. Jones says the approach developed slowly in consultation with Missoula Development Services and three lengthy meetings with a neighborhood working group whose members included Laura Timblo, owner of the Bonner Park home that largely sparked the issue. A survey conducted by the University Area Homeowners Association in late 2016 and early 2017 drew 115 responses—100 in support of new compatibility standards, 15 against.
The suggestions presented by Development Services senior planner Tom Zavitz include increased setbacks for corner lots and a reduction of maximum structure height. At that meeting, Housing and Community Development Director Eran Pehan summed up the proposal as preserving the "negative space" that makes the University neighborhood so distinctive, and briefly spoke to how a "no loss of dwelling units" requirement in Jones' proposal would help stem a net loss in Missoula's housing stock. A majority of the Council voted to direct city staff to start drafting ordinance language for the overlay.
Jones recognizes that any zoning change specific to the University District already has strong opposition. The Missoula Organization of Realtors and the Missoula Building Industry Association both attended last week's meeting to oppose Jones' proposal, and councilmember Michelle Cares took exception to Pehan's assertion that the proposal would help preserve housing stocks. Even so, Jones sees a "flexible" plan as a "next logical step" for the city. Historic neighborhoods in larger cities are already facing similar issues, she says, and utilizing similar methods to address them. Jones considers the debate's continued vibrancy a byproduct of other controversial projects, like the Verizon store on Broadway.
"The fact that we're discussing this is, I think, a huge accomplishment," Jones says. "Ten years ago, any kind of an aesthetic zoning overlay would not have had any traction in Missoula."
The University District Neighborhood Council's David Chrismon notes a change in the tenor of neighborhood conversations since buzz about the Timblo house first flared last year. Though he's unsure how Jones' proposal will be received by University area residents, he believes the issue of uncharacteristic new houses is still a concern. The difference now, he says, is "people have a direction."
"They're not, I don't feel, as angry," Chrismon continues. "They've gotten past the point of thinking that any of the past houses or any of the past building projects are worthy targets. ... Now people know what the rules are, some people know more about how we got here, and now they know more about how we might be able to come up with some solutions working within the system."
For now, such solutions are still far from set in stone, and Jones is happy to discuss alternatives to her zoning overlay. The afternoon before last week's Council meeting, she received an email from several Missoula architects offering feedback on another, potentially less restrictive tool: floor-area ratio requirements. Jones explains such an approach would dictate what percentage of a residential lot would be allowed for interior floor space, not including basements. She intends to meet with MMW Architects in coming weeks to further discuss their ideas. Ordinance language could be available for public review next spring, Jones says.
"Especially given the emotional ramifications of this, I think it's good to just move it slowly," she says. "But we're getting there."
This story was updated Oct. 16 to correct how many lots the Timblo house occupies.