Missoula’s inward development key to slowing urban sprawl

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

As Costco hunts around for a new Missoula location, its final choice could hold implications for growth and development for years to come, with some suggesting that a move to a far-flung location could open the gates to urban sprawl.

Backed by recent statistics and the latest growth plans passed by local governments, presenters with the WGM Group said Monday that local residents must decide what kind of future they want to see, be it a compact city built around essential services, or a sprawling metropolis that gobbles up farms and distant communities.

The question is, is Missoula ready to grow up instead of out?

“Growth follows the path of least resistance,” said Jeremy Keene, a principal engineer with WGM Group. “While that may be easier, it’s harder to get to and serve. That results in inefficiencies with roads and other infrastructure, and the ability to provide basic services.”

Keene and Nick Kaufman, a land use planner with WGM, suggested Missoula’s quality of life, as indicated in an endless series of “best of” national listings, has placed the city on the map as a good place to live.

That has resulted in continued population growth that shows little sign of slowing down. It also has resulted in a tight housing market and climbing prices, which reached an all-time high of $265,600 in the first quarter of 2017.

“It used to be that people came to a place because of jobs,” said Kaufman. “Now they come to places where they want to live. Our advantage in Missoula is our great place.”

Yet accommodating the city’s growing population has presented challenges that are somewhat unique to Missoula due to its geographical constraints.

Unlike Bozeman, Helena and Kalispell, they said, the growth potential in Missoula is somewhat limited to what’s become the urban core. While most residents like it that way, as indicated in the city’s latest growth policy, city planners – and city residents – must resist the temptation to sprawl.

“Suburban sprawl is the path of least resistance, and the results in other cities haven’t been great,” said Keene. “It results in longer commute times, it’s land consumptive and it tends to lack character.”

Keene said new trends in Missoula present exciting opportunities as urban planners look to the future. The city has potential to accommodate urban infill and greater heights in some districts, and it has plenty of old buildings and properties that could be redeveloped for new uses.

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