As cities, how do we grow?

Although more apropos to Bozeman and Missoula, every Montana city should be asking these growing questions:

Does making your city “livable” discourage working class families? Does a city change its zoning and permitting to allow for more affordable housing? Does “maintaining neighborhood character” exclude lower income families by prohibiting multi-family housing, or more than one home or one family per lot?

The New York Times took a look at Boulder, Colo.; a city that has for decades witnessed growing pains. Median house prices are now $648,200.

Bozeman and Missoula aren’t Boulder, yet, but they have most of the ingredients: “(Boulder is) surrounded by postcard views of the Rockies. The list of yuppie-friendly amenities includes streets full of bike lanes and a walkable downtown full of bars, restaurants and marijuana shops.” Again, we don’t have the pot shops, yet, but like Boulder we have a university, one of the grandest calling cards of all for businesses, the educated and the affluent.

Other Montana cities in general aren’t going to become any less popular, either, am I right Helena, Billings and Kalispell? The subject came up in Missoula, recently, on Missoula’s government list serve and this comment suggests why folks are coming to Montana:

” … many of the people in-migrating to places like Boulder (and Missoula, I suppose) are coming from cities that, at one time, were great places to live.  Rather than fight to protect that which made those communities desirable places to live, those who can, flee.  It is the downside of our ability to live the mobile lifestyle we have.  Instead of staying and fixing the communities which no longer meet their needs, those who can, move.  Why put up with traffic, crime, pollution, crowds, etc.?  Why do the work to fix what is broken?  Just move some place very nice like Missoula where a welcoming community can be found.  In time, that which drew people here will be gone, replaced by a community that had to change to meet the needs of its newcomers, and, in so doing, diminished its own quality of life. Or, we make living here so costly that Missoula becomes more of a place that is hard for lower and middle class neighbors to make a life here.”

Another comment asks what sort of a city would ever shy away from growth:

When I was on the Planning Board I casually brought up Boulder, CO in a conversation and was immediately chastised by Mayor John Engen and Roger Millar (former head of Missoula’s planning dept.). The fact that Boulder took a stance on growth is just unfathomable. Growth is the dirty word that no one wants to address because there aren’t any good examples of a no-growth policy, let alone it’s perceived legality of such. But until ‘growth’ becomes an inner development concept rather than an outward expansion, we are all headed toward the urban frustrations that have been delineated above. Growth is a world issue that is hardly ever addressed.

And from the last paragraph in the Times story (can you imagine leadership in any Montana city saying this?):

“We don’t need one more job in Boulder,” Mr. Pomerance said. “We don’t need to grow anymore. Go somewhere else where they need you.”

It’s a cunundrum. We want vibrant, economically diverse cities. I guess the worker bees could live outside the city limits in the outposts that have no building codes or zoning (or curbs and gutters and sidewalks and parks and bike trails and … ). They can commute to the gentrified city. Or you can provide housing for the working class families, but that gets tricky, too, especially when profit motives are part of the equation. From Bob Oaks, North Missoula Community Development Corporation:

A local Missoula example of infill in a vernacular working-class historic-district neighborhood can be seen directly across N. 1st St. from the pedestrian overpass. Now nearing completion there, are three modernist townhomes. They are, I believe, currently pre-sold at $287,000 each. They make a pretty good point that the higher density townhouse exemption developments can actually do more to produce gentrification than to produce workforce affordability (as has been argued). I continue to believe that an adequate supply of workforce housing cannot rely solely on supply side models (with or without neighborhood design standards) that are presumed to induce “filter-down” affordability. Permanent affordability has to be created and preserved in other than entirely free market ways.

Neither the Times nor I have answers to the question on how to grow, or to even grow at all.

One thing that most Montana cities have going for them is some sort of decrepit industrial area close to the urban center that is in need of redevelopment: former lumber mills, railroad yards, warehouses and industrial parks. These are rife for mixed use, with an emphasis on low-and-moderate income housing.

Since growth is America’s economic model, this would be a temporary fix. I await a bigger one.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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