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Construction workers prepare to rake and level the grounds of the Cellular Plus building located at the intersection of Broadway and Madison Street.

LOREN BENOIT, Missoulian

When the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s board of directors asked what was replacing the old market on East Broadway, the reply came with a cautionary “you don’t want to know.”

The 95-year-old building on the prominent downtown corner that once housed the Broadway Market is giving way to a small Cellular Plus outlet store, painted brightly in company colors.

Some believe the Cellular Plus project is more suited for the strip on North Reserve Street, not the city’s downtown business district, where design elements, street access and sensible use of limited space have long been guiding tenets.

“Ultimately, I don’t think that’s a wise use of our land base to do single-story, single-purpose commercial buildings with a surface parking lot all over the place,” said Ward 1 council member Jason Wiener. “A lot of stuff is going to be built in the very near future and we’re going to have to live with it for decades.”

Wiener didn’t mention Cellular Plus by name, but the company’s project on the northeast corner of Broadway and Madison Street – along with two other recent projects elsewhere in the city – has prompted officials to consider design standards for new commercial construction.

The City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee took up the conversation last week, and it directed Development Services to draft an update to existing city code so that it addresses commercial buildings of less than 30,000 square feet.

“We do already have design standards for enterprise-commercial uses greater than 30,000 square feet, and for multifamily projects,” said Mike Haynes, director of Development Services. “They (the committee) have expressed interest in similar standards for commercial buildings that don’t meet that size threshold.”

Members of the committee agreed that a simple update to city code was a good starting point, and something that could take effect by the end of this year.

However, members of the committee didn’t agree on how stringent future standards should be, including facades, roof lines and materials used in construction. Some feared that wider standards could create sameness and make Missoula bland.

“We should make every effort to keep Missoula weird and not dictate materials very much, but focus instead on orientation to the street and things like doors and windows and the pedestrian experience,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. “Bozeman is beautiful, but I don’t want Missoula to be Bozeman. It’s pretty sterile in my opinion.”

Others feared that wider standards could drive up the cost of building in the city. Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins believes the city needs some guiding standards to help ensure neighborhood conformity, but said the emphasis should be placed on pedestrian orientation.

“Once you start applying standards, you’re raising the cost of development, which is raising the cost of doing business in Missoula,” Wilkins said. “I do worry about that. If we do something, I hope we keep that in the back of our mind.”

***

Missoula is awash in a building boom. The value of construction permits filed this year to date has approached nearly $123 million, up from just $74 million this time last year.

That figure includes more than $7.7 million in business construction, and $18 million in single-family homes. Multifamily permits are also outpacing those filed last year, with a value in access of $12 million.

While city leaders don’t want to quash development, they also don’t want Missoula to look like “Anywhere, USA,” with corporate box stores and corporate branding lining the city streets.

Considering the development trend, some believe the city could afford to implement new standards, which haven’t slowed progress in other cities, including Bozeman.

“When they (Cellular Plus) met with the city to talk through the particulars of this project, we asked that the project include some of the features they did in another town (Bozeman),” Wiener said. “Their answer, basically, was that they did it in Bozeman because it’s the law, and they’re not going to do it here.”

Agreement on what standards to apply and where to apply them will likely require lengthy discussion in the coming months. But members of the committee agree that pedestrian access should stand foremost among the requirements.

Committee members cited issues with past projects, including The Source athletic club on Russell Street, and the new Autozone on South Third Street West. Ward 3 council member Alex Taft also had concerns over the trend the new $23 million Consumer Direct project will set in the business park taking shape off North Reserve Street.

As designed, the four-story building sits well off Howard Raser Drive and is surrounded by a parking lot. Taft would like to see standards that require new projects to front the street, making them easier for pedestrians to access.

“My primary concern is auto-oriented design,” said Taft. “The new office building off Reserve is basically suburban, where you’re supposed to drive to the front door. I would like to see that changed, and give priority to pedestrians.”

Ward 5 council member Mike O’Herren said he also favored pedestrian-oriented projects, along with architectural design standards.

“I’m not in favor of leaving it as it is, when we know we can do so much better with urban design than we have been,” he said. “I’m in favor of doing this. I hope we can do something before the end of December.”

Development Services will present a draft of its ordinance to the committee in September.

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