The letter was typed and unsigned. Laura Timblo found it earlier this year attached to the front door of the unfinished house her family is building on Ronald Avenue across from Bonner Park. The writer derided the structure as a "mutation" and an "extreme eyesore," words Timblo sums up as "really, really hurtful." Reaction to their residential project from folks in the surrounding University District neighborhood has been on "both ends of the spectrum," Timblo says. The note represents the worst of one end.
"It was an anonymous letter," she continues. "I didn't have a chance to connect with that person and have a conversation. It really saddened me. I was very surprised to get that on my door. But it felt good, literally the next day, to have a [neighboring] couple stop by and say, 'Shake it off. This looks great. There's a lot of people excited about it.'"
Timblo, who grew up in Missoula and coauthored the children's book Goodnight Missoula with her mother, purchased the corner property with her husband last year. Shortly after, she says, one of their new neighbors approached them and asked if they'd be interested in splitting the lot between them as well. The Timblos considered it a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," a chance to both move into a desirable neighborhood after an exhaustive search of others around town and secure additional space for a backyard. They took down two houses and commenced construction on one. When the house's size, layout and style started to take shape is when Timblo first noted the negative feedback.
- image courtesy of Laura Timblo
- This rendering depicts what the exterior of the Timblo’s University District house will ultimately look like, though Laura Timblo says the details are “not finalized.”
"It's been really hard to see, I guess, a side of Missoulians that I've never really experienced, because this is my home and I'm really excited about it," she says. "I know it's different. It's not the typical home in that neighborhood. But I'm excited and we have heard that from neighbors as well. It hasn't been all bad."
The Timblos haven't been the only ones fielding queries and criticism over their new house. After being sworn into office in January, Missoula City Councilwoman Gwen Jones began getting phone calls and emails from constituents. Jones, who grew up in Ward 3 at the foot of Mount Sentinel, prefers to avoid talking about specific projects. Instead, she says simply that "there's been some new construction lately in the university neighborhood and people were concerned about the size and magnitude of the houses going in."
"The bottom line is everything being built over there currently is all within zoning," Jones adds, "so at that point we discussed maybe we need to look into this a little bit further."
To that end, Jones and Missoula Development Services have circulated a questionnaire aimed at gauging support for additional zoning regulations for houses in the University District. The eight-question document is available both online and in hard copy, and Jones says measures have been put in place to ensure only University District residents are able to respond with one questionnaire per address. The participation period closes June 21.
Depending on the results of the questionnaire, Jones' next step could be to have a discussion at the University District Neighborhood Council's general meeting this fall about a zoning overlay to preserve "the context and character of the neighborhood." The questionnaire is merely a preliminary step in a process Jones is "trying to make as transparent as possible."
"Frankly, if we come up with a good solution to this, I wouldn't be surprised if other adjacent neighborhoods also want to go in this direction," she says. "It could be a good template in some ways. We'll see."
- photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Laura Timblo acknowledges her new house across from Bonner Park has drawn mixed feedback, including a “hurtful” note on the door. City Councilwoman Gwen Jones is now circulating a questionnaire to gauge the neighborhood’s interest in new zoning regulations.
Dave Chrismon with the University District Leadership Team doesn't recall any concerns about specific residential projects coming up during the neighborhood council's meetings. "Seems like Gwen took the calls on that one," he says, though he adds locals have spoken up on zoning and land use proposals like the city's Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance in 2013. Chrismon is heartened by the "proactive approach" Jones and others are taking in response to feedback.
"I like the idea of going to the neighborhood and gauging their interest in a topic," he says. "I think it's a great start to come to the neighborhood and say, 'Is this an issue for you?'"
Timblo has tried to be visible and available to answer any questions her future neighbors might have. There's "probably a lot of curiosity and obviously a lot of opinions on it," she says. She had heard about a survey in the neighborhood but was unclear on the details. If a neighborhood council discussion does materialize, she adds, she views it as another opportunity to field any queries about her family's new home.
"Being part of the community is important, especially when there is an organized way for people to voice their concerns," Timblo says. "I'd rather do that than get hurtful letters on my front door."