Eight years ago, Ward 1 Councilman Jason Weiner ran for office talking about the “moral quality of the built environment.” While Weiner is not seeking reelection this year, he kept his pledge by bringing new design standards before the Missoula City Council last week.
Weiner’s proposal passed on a 9-2 vote after lively discussion between several council members, most of whom believe the built environment reflects mightily on the people who call this city home.
“The commercial corridors that discourage people from interacting with the environment by getting around in an automobile and putting up buildings that leave no room for inspiration – no desire to do anything that looks like it didn’t come straight out of a box – is us failing at our job,” Weiner said.
The new ordinance won’t bring sweeping changes to Missoula’s urban landscape, and it won’t turn box stores like the Cellular Plus building on West Broadway into inspiring works of architectural wonder.
Rather, the ordinance simply ensures that commercial buildings are oriented toward public streets, and that the visual impacts of parking lots are minimized. Building facades must also have “some level of architectural detail.”
The ordinance does not mention the Guggenheim in New York or the Tribune Tower in Chicago as inspirational models.
“The intent is not to dictate design or limit architectural expression, but to establish some minimum standards for commercial development and encourage large chain stores and restaurants to design buildings that respect and reflect the unique character of Missoula,” the ordinance reads.
Despite the modesty of the standards and the general lack of guidance, Ward 4 council member Annelise Hedahl and Ward 2 council member Adam Hertz voted against the measure. Hedahl never said why, but Hertz offered his concerns before casting his dissenting vote.
“Commercial design standards are a matter of taste,” he argued. “It’s not a legitimate thing for the government to be involved with. It will decrease the level of development in the city.”
That latter statement drew a response from several council members, including Ward 5 council member Mike O’Herron, who pressed Hertz to cite an example where simple design standards led to a reduction in development in any growing U.S. city.
No examples were given, but Hertz took issue with O’Herron’s tone, calling it “snarky.”
“It doesn’t warrant an in-depth study to know that when you increase architectural design, when you require façade changes, when you require windows, when you require a lot of the changes in these design standards, the cost of building goes up,” Hertz said.
Ward 2 council member Jordan Hess did cite studies suggesting that design standards can serve a community well. Those reports noted that the elements of a thriving community don’t come together randomly.
Great cities, the studies said, start with great streets, smart use of space, good planning and diverse buildings.
“Design modulations have a positive impact,” Hess said. “The barrier between mediocre architecture and really good architecture is not a huge hill to climb. I think it causes us to invest in our community in a way that we want it to be.”
Council members are reluctant to mention Cellular Plus by name, but I will. The project is unsuited for downtown Missoula and is a waste of the lot it was built on. The project fails to inspire, fails to blend into the urban landscape, and fails to set a suitable trend to guide Missoula’s growth.
Hertz is correct in that architectural standards shouldn’t be dictated down to the finest detail. Like art, beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder. But asking national chains for something more than the status quo won’t break the project.
McDonald's and AutoZone aren’t going to pass Missoula by because they have to forgo their cookie-cutter plans for a more aesthetic alternative. They have such plans, and are required to implement them other communities, including Bozeman.
Missoula deserves better, and the City Council is correct in taking the appropriate steps since the chains haven’t shown the ability to do it on their own.
“This is a community that can certainly benefit from standards – standards that reflect community values and community interests,” said Mayor John Engen. “I think they can be done in a way that’s relatively painless, in a way that’s relatively inexpensive, and in way that actually adds value to the end product.”