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An affordable housing project and a large-scale subdivision development both got verbal support and official approval to move a few steps farther along from the Missoula City Council last week, despite some opposition from neighbors.

First, the Skyview housing project, a 36-unit affordable housing project for those 55 and older, won the votes necessary for rezoning from the council's Land Use and Planning Committee. The motion passed with only council member Michelle Cares voting against it.

Neighbors had expressed concerns about a lack of sidewalks in the area and too much traffic, but several City Council members said the project fulfills the city's growth plan by adding much-needed low-income housing and density in an area already served by infrastructure.

Council member Heidi West teared up a little as she spoke in support of the project. West attended several hearings in Helena over the past two years as the developer, Alex Burkhalter, was denied and then ultimately won federal housing tax credits for the project.

"I think people need to be aware of how arduous the process is, how anxiety-filled it is, how people who are developing affordable housing in our community go back year after year," she said. "It often takes three years for a project to be funded."

Malcolm Lowe, a neighbor, wrote a letter to the council strongly criticizing the project, saying the council needed to find a way to pay to have sidewalks built in the area.

West said she understands concerns that the new project will have sidewalks but won't pay for sidewalks in the surrounding neighborhood.

"There is a changing landscape around my neighborhood," she said. "Concerns about density and bigger, taller buildings are not unique. There is no perfect site. There is no place in Missoula that doesn't have neighbors."

But, she said, it fills a community need and will give renters on a fixed income a much-needed option. She also said she doesn't think the area has higher pedestrian/vehicle traffic than other areas of Missoula that lack sidewalks, such as the northern portion of Scott Street.

"I don't think it's necessarily appropriate to prioritize one over the other," she said, responding to suggestions the city should pay to have sidewalks installed around Skyview.

"All of us, in all neighborhoods, need to be a part of the solution," she said, noting that infill development is taking place everywhere in Missoula. 

The project is to be built at 2400 Ninth St. W., one block east of Reserve Street on a vacant plot of land. Rents will range from $525 to $815 per month with all utilities included.

Cares voted against the project, saying the city's "inability to provide infrastructure" makes the project untenable for her.

Council member John DiBari, despite voting for the rezone, was also critical.

"There's nothing wrong with rezoning," he said. "The issue is we're not prepared for it and we better get prepared if this is what we're going to encourage."

DiBari said he saw a study that shows Missoula can support much higher impact fees, which are charged to developers and used for infrastructure improvements, than the city currently charges.

"We need to levy the kinds of actual costs that are associated with impacts associated with projects," he said.

Council members Julie Merritt and Heather Harp both noted that Missoula needs to add 852 housing units a year to keep up with population growth, and it's the council's responsibility to implement incremental change, which they said sometimes has a big impact.

Another development with which the council has wrestled for more than a month moved a step closer to approval at the Wednesday meeting.

The proposed 57.5 acre development on a hay field bounded by Mullan Road, Flynn Lane and the Hellgate Meadows neighborhood has drawn continued ire from neighbors even as developers have scaled back and incorporated community suggestions.

Nick Kauffman, a project developer at WGM Group, said his firm had incorporated a 3- to 4-acre park and was willing to sign an agreement limiting development on the property to less than half of what the zoning requested would technically allow.

The majority of the property would have single-family townhouses or small detached homes, with higher-density apartments concentrated in the middle of the development, save one outlier bordering another condo building already in place.

“We’ve worked hard with the city of Missoula to come to an agreement, and worked very hard with the owners of the property and the two different development groups to come to this agreement,” Kauffman said. “It’s taken us some time. We’ve listened to the neighbors, we’ve listened to your concerns. And I would really strongly encourage you to look at the agreement and ratify it as proposed.”

While residents of the 4100 Condos on Mullan Road directly neighboring the lot were still dissatisfied with the housing density proposed, the changes satisfied at least one local neighborhood council member, Kathie Snodgrass.

“We have come a long, long way, and Nick (Kauffman) has done a masterful job of taking into account the concerns of the neighborhood,” Snodgrass said. “He gave us some park land that we needed desperately, and did a great job of moving some of the higher density away from the neighborhoods that are already established.”

Jeremy Keene, the interim Development Services director, said that while the Ninth Street senior housing project the committee had just approved had challenges stemming from insufficient infrastructure surrounding it, this particular development could be built to meet the city’s standards.

“As the city we’re working to be proactive in our housing policy and the way we plan for infrastructure, and we’re doing that by working on freeing up land, trying to address gaps in the housing market — the ‘missing middle’ of workforce housing,” Keene said.

“We’re trying to facilitate projects that promote the kinds of things that will allow us to grow with transit, mixed-use, and walkability in the neighborhoods. And we’re trying to lead as the city with infrastructure, transportation and utilities that supports that kind of development. This is our opportunity to do that.”

While discussing the traffic patterns and how they will change once some of the area’s major collector roads are extended to connect Mullan and Broadway with the help of a pending $23 million federal BUILD grant, news broke that it had been awarded, though for less money than anticipated.

Midway through deliberating, council member Mirtha Becerra brought up that news reports were coming out saying the award was $13 million — $10 million less than requested.

“We need to know how much money we are counting on for infrastructure development before we can actually approve anything. And it’s now public knowledge, apparently, that we are receiving $13 million from the BUILD grant, not the $23 million we applied for,” Becerra said. “So I ask that we make sure our agreement and our decision is based on this new number.”

Committee chairman Jordan Hess initially advocated holding off on a decision for a week to account for the new information, but city staff dissuaded him from putting it off, saying the size of the BUILD grant would have little impact on the development other than how much the city will contribute to building one of the new roads, most of which are the developers' responsibility.

The committee approved the developer agreement, voting to send it on to the mayor to sign. There will still be more discussion before a vote is taken on the zoning change on which the development hinge.

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