About three months ago, Smart Growth Missoula hosted a visit from nationally acclaimed planner Dan Burden, who led a walking tour of Missoula’s streets, followed by a workshop on how to reverse the dysfunctional national trend of suburban sprawl and “auto-centric” community planning. Tuesday afternoon, as Mayor Mike Kadas delivered his State of the City address, it was readily apparent that Burden had won himself a convert.
Kadas’ speech, which placed less emphasis on specific projects underway than on broader trends he would like to encourage, focused almost exclusively on growth management and making Missoula a more livable city. While pushing many of the hot buttons near and dear to smart growth advocates, Kadas simultaneously kept one eye on pleasing Missoula’s business sector, with talk of new growth opportunities, maintaining the vitality of the downtown retail sector, revitalizing commercial areas south of Mount Avenue and Missoula’s “can do” mentality, which has helped create such projects as the Carousel of Missoula, Missoula Children’s Theatre and the Glacier Ice Rink. It was a delicate tight-rope walk but Kadas, who defines his mayoral responsibility as more of a guide than a general, pulled it off flawlessly as only he can do.
In the late 1990s, Missoula saw a dramatic improvement over the depressed 1980s, when downtown storefronts experienced 30-50 percent vacancy rates and an economy heavily dependent on the wood products industry. Missoula’s shift in the 1990s to a more diversified economy helped make Missoula a regional retail and medical hub for the region.
At the same time, Kadas points out, that growth led to “a number of positive developments with negative aspects;” notably, 18 percent population growth between 1990 and 1999 that fueled a 23 percent increase in the number of dwelling units, much of which was in the form of half-acre (or more) lots and commercial strip malls. Kadas predicts that if such patterns of development continue, in the next 10 years Missoula will add another 6,000 dwelling units that will consume about 3,000 acres of land sprawling over five square miles.
“To put that in perspective, that means we will have carpeted everything from Reserve Street to El-Mar Estates and from the river to the airport with houses,” Kadas predicts. “If that space gets eaten up in the next 10 years, where will we go from there?”
Moreover, as Missoula’s population ages and family sizes shrink—the fastest growing sector of the population is elderly women—Missoula will require more dwelling units per family, though those homes will require smaller yards. Kadas sees this trend as a golden opportunity for developers to not only build higher density housing, but join in the nationwide trend of encouraging mixed use development.
“Look across the country. What cities are trying to do and what is helping to regenerate downtowns across America is the encouragement of housing in the urban area, in the downtown core,” he says. “What that does is it puts people on the street 24 hours a day. Having people on the streets makes the streets safer.”
And what keeps people on the streets is not just good design, adds Kadas, but retail space that makes it desirable for people to walk those streets. Kadas sees the maintenance of first-floor retail space as so vital to the health of downtown that “even if it means taking somewhat less rent, in the long term I believe it will help the overall viability and vitality of the downtown.”
Kadas further cites the difference between communities north and south of Mount Avenue as an example of what works and what doesn’t in Missoula.
“There is a phenomenal transformation that happens when you cross Mount Avenue. That is the line between how we used to grow and plat and develop and subdivide ourselves prior to World War II and how we do it after World War II,” says Kadas. “I don’t know how you feel, but I much prefer to be north of Mount Avenue. It is a much nicer place to be.”
Nevertheless, Kadas says that those areas south of Mount can still enjoy the same economic vitality as Higgins Avenue and downtown by reconfiguring the streets, widening the sidewalks and increasing walkability. Already, the city has plans on Brooks Street to swap additional right-of-way with business owners and install wider sidewalks.
“Look at the quality of construction between the downtown and what you see just south of Mount Avenue,” says Kadas. “We’re lucky. Most of those buildings are going to get torn down in the next 15 years. That is an immense opportunity for our community. When we rebuild those buildings, when we look at street configuration in that area, we need to think about what kind of business area we want to create.”
But much of Kadas’ vision—like that of other smart growth advocates in Missoula—looks beyond the goals of grocery stores and restaurants in residential neighborhoods, improved traffic flows, safer streets and a higher aesthetic.
“It develops the civic and cultural fabric of our community,” says Kadas. “One of the problems I have with large lot subdivisions is that to get in or out you always do everything in your car… It’s critical if we’re going to be able to survive and learn how to talk to and respect each other in the future, we have to know each other. We have to have that feeling of connection. You don’t get that behind two windshields.”
“Unless,” he adds, “they run into each other.”