I flew to Montana to help relatives move house from Polson to Butte. In between I spent a week exploring Missoula which is geographically between those two towns. The entire state of Montana is one long gorgeous series of post card views in every direction.
Missoula is the kind of small rural college town that appeals to me. It has the advantage of a compact walkable downtown while providing a generous supply of nearby single family homes. Missoula demonstrates that a town doesn’t need to exceed a few stories in height to deliver excellent urbanism. The whole “density” argument that fires people up can be defused by seeing how our great-great grandparents built humane, beautiful, profitable, and financially self supporting towns incrementally on a tight budget. Missoula also shows that if you get the urban form right you hardly need elaborate transit systems or massive highways. Unfortunately this kind of development pattern is now illegal almost everywhere in the country.
As soon as you wander out to the parts of town that were build after World War II everything changes. The roads widen, the buildings scatter, the surface parking lots multiply, and small mom and pop shops are replaced by drive thru chains and national big box stores. You don’t need to go to Montana to experience this kind of environment. New Jersey would do just fine instead.
Attempts are being made to build what I call Density Without Urbanism in the aging suburbs of Missoula. This is the new Summit View Square complex which boasts sixty three apartments. The building itself is comfortable and attractive enough. But it’s been plopped down in a sea of suburban traffic, strip malls, and gas stations. The developer and city planners may have had good intentions, but it fails on two important levels.
First, these kinds of apartment complexes offer none of the traditional benefits of suburbia. The units either look out at parking lots or have a view of the arterial roads lined with car washes and drive thru banks. If you live on the ground floor the “personal” outdoor space is completely exposed and devoid of the qualities that people look for in a quiet leafy suburb.
Second, it has none of the urban amenities found in the old downtown. Where are the cafes, charming shops, and pleasant human scaled thoroughfares? People often choose a small apartment with no yard if there’s culture and vitality outside their front door. That just don’t exist in this context.
There’s retail space at the front corner of the new building, but future shopkeepers are going to face an uphill battle in this location. There isn’t enough foot traffic to support commerce in this dispersed auto-oriented environment, but drivers stuck in traffic may not be inclined to stop here since there’s already a glut of half empty strip malls around the neighborhood.
Minimum parking requirements create a huge asphalt lagoon around the building. The fire marshal insists that a giant fire engine be able to drive completely around the entire complex at all times. Zoning and building codes stipulate set back requirements that prevent buildings from ever touching each other or coming right up to the road. The road will keep being widened to accommodate increased car traffic rather than calmed to serve humans. And environmental activists insist on little green Band-Aids being applied in thin strips so there’s “nature” in the city.
Two additional complexes are scheduled to be built nearby, but the collective effect will still be too thick to be jam and too thin to be jelly. Creating a new old style downtown is illegal and socially unacceptable. But this new stuff is a platypus that’s hard to love.
At the other end of the spectrum the hillsides above town are sprouting new homes in prosperous subdivisions. These are comfortable places to live and I understand why people enjoy this kind of atmosphere. But I’m aware of how these exclusive subdivisions impact the larger town – particularly public infrastructure and municipal finances.
The ranch land that’s being carved up to accommodate luxury subdivisions used to have gravel county roads. Taxes on agricultural land are very low and so is the level of county services. They’re in balance.
Now the territory has been annexed by the city and has been fitted with paved roads, city water, sewers, and underground cables. Miles of pipes and asphalt are required to serve a sprinkling of homes on difficult terrain. Initially these things are paid for by the developer. Those costs are immediately rolled over to the buyers of the homes when they take on mortgages. But for the next century it’s the obligation of the municipal government to maintain and eventually replace all the aging infrastructure at tremendous cost to the public. These homes will never pay enough tax to cover those long term obligations. And we keep building more of it. We can’t have that conversation now because the consequences are too far away. But this form of development is a fiscal time bomb.
And here’s public transit! How many of the folks who paid $1,600,000 for their dream mountain home in Montana are likely to walk to the end of the cul-de-sac in the snow and take a free city bus downtown? If transit in this location is de facto for the cleaning ladies we need to acknowledge there are far more cost effective and convenient ways to provide that service. Transit should only connect one compact, vibrant, walkable, productive place with another. Running empty buses up and down every hillside subdivision is monumentally wasteful on every level.
If we go back to the older part of Missoula just outside the downtown core there are examples of infill developments that blend the apartment complex concept with the single family home subdivision in a compromise I think works well. Here a corner lot has been fitted with six fully detached homes that exist within a condominium ownership structure. Individual families buy these homes and belong to a home owners association that manages common maintenance. None of these homes is more than two stories tall so the scale of the neighborhood is preserved. People can and do own cars, but the location works very well for pedestrians and bicyclists in connection with modest bus service in the nearby commercial core as needed. And the city has multiplied the amount of homes and tax revenue that’s served by exactly the same amount of public infrastructure.
This isn’t a perfect arrangement. The people across the street and next door may not love their new neighbors pressing up against them compared to the less intensive land use pattern that used to exist on this lot. But if this sort of thing is made illegal the development will go somewhere else. Are big apartment complexes and remote subdivisions better? For the immediate neighbors… probably yes. For the city as a whole? Absolutely not. If you squeeze a balloon in the middle the ends bulge. If you squeeze it on both ends the middle bulges. If you squeeze everything at the same time the balloon pops.