City of Helena Growth Policy Update

Bill Grimes with SCJ Alliance speaks in Helena Saturday about updates to the city's growth policy. City officials and consultants are drafting a new growth policy expected to drive growth in the city for the next 20 years.

The city of Helena is updating its growth plan for the next two decades.

The city last updated its growth policy in 2011, and city officials and consultants heard feedback from community members Saturday on issues ranging from housing to transportation to accessing downtown.

“As we’ve begun this process and moved forward, enough has changed in the state that we really needed to update the growth policy,” said Michael McConnell, a planner with the city.

While the current policy does offer some guidance, McConnell and those consulting on the new plan felt it was redundant and vague in places and fell short on implementation strategy.

Bill Grimes, the lead consultant with SCJ Alliance in Spokane, Washington, described a growth policy by first explaining what it is not. The policy is not subdivision regulations, zoning or public work plans, but rather the “umbrella” of values and visions held by the city that those policies are based on.

The city and consultants developed three potential policies over the past week.

The first embraces the 2011 growth policy and simply calls for an update.

The second would emphasize so-called “activity centers,” looking at areas that are rich with development, unique in character and serve the needs of residents at neighborhood, community or regional levels.

The third calls for emphasizing downtown as the primary area to emphasize growth.

“What seems to have come up in virtually every conversation is that the status quo is not really what we want to do,” Grimes said.

The activity center policy emerged as the top choice following comments from residents. A neighborhood center could be as simple as a business such as a gas station with housing adjacent to it, while a regional center would be on the scale of downtown or the old Capital Hill Mall site once it sees development. In each case, city projects and infrastructure would promote housing so that residents can “live, work and play,” in proximity to businesses and other amenities.

“How can we sow the seeds for the development types that will optimize these centers?” Grimes asked, acknowledging that a center on the Westside will naturally develop differently than a city-center corridor such as Rodney Street.

Focus groups gave the city high marks for things such as promoting a sense of history and access to open space. Mixed and affordable housing and transportation stood out as some of the biggest areas of desired improvement.

Affordable housing is one of the biggest concerns that architect Bob Bengford, another consultant, heard from Helena residents.

“So many people I’ve been talking with about housing say we do not want to be Bozeman with the housing and costs they’re seeing there,” he said. Looking at areas from a pedestrian level, examining how art or plantings integrate into neighborhoods, gives residents a feeling of ownership and makes people want to come to those places, he said.

Bengford sees potential in areas such as the Westside near Joslyn Street for more, higher density housing developed with a mind toward an activity center, as well as areas north of Custer Avenue. For the latter, he recommends the city look at more east to west roadways to diminish traffic on Custer and better integrate fractured subdivisions.

The growth policy would come with some specific tools for implementation. Those include future decisions on zoning and building city infrastructure in ways that promote the type of developments that fit the needs and character of each activity center.

City officials and consultants said they would be taking the information gathered and developing a draft plan. Grimes planned to return to Helena in July to commence neighborhood meetings, with the goal of a final plan in October. Adoption of a final plan will include additional opportunities for public participation and passage by the city commission.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin


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