Urban Growth: Maintaining A Vibrant Downtown Bozeman

My wife and I, and our three sons, have lived in Bozeman for over five years.  When we “found” this incredibly special place (just like you did), we immediately looked for a house close to downtown. Why?  Because we are big fans of walkable, dense, urban cores, which we believe offer the best chance of mitigating sprawl, decreasing traffic, slowing growth on open land, and perhaps most important, ensuring the survival and vibrancy of downtowns.  Turns out, we’re not the only ones who feel this way.  As Bozeman grows, there has been more and more discussion about how we grow, and in what direction… up?  Out?  How? Where? What’s the path forward, given that recent studies show that population growth here is inevitable, and shows no signs of slowing?

In our view, the path is fairly straightforward. 1) We value following a process and abiding by rules set out by governments which reflect citizen input. 2) We believe because saving farmland and protecting open space is a high priority for people in this valley, the more dense we can make the urban core, the fewer fields we plow up. 3) We know reduced carbon emissions make for a healthier planet and person, and if people are able to live in a place that is more walkable, they will use their cars less often. 4)  We know that market research shows millennials, in particular, as well as others, want to live in downtowns. They’re looking for walkable, healthy, vibrant, attractive places to both live and work.  5)  We understand a key to maintaining vibrancy in downtowns is allowing taller buildings and not instituting unreasonable height restrictions.  

Some may disagree with the last point.  But a recent article in High Country News, titled “How to Fix Exclusive Resort Towns” notes that  “… opposing density and height under the guise of historical preservation and environmentalism is what created Aspen’s West End, where empty single-family mansions surround empty parks. It’s literally a museum of an old mining town. Has this neighborhood been “saved”?  Bozeman has numerous historic districts within and near downtown and we believe these districts should be protected.  However, areas outside these historic districts in the core are and should continue to be zoned for the highest density.

With these goals and current market conditions in mind, our development group, HomeBase, has developed numerous projects in Bozeman’s core, including Block M, the Element by Westin Hotel and 5 West, a mixed use office and residential complex.  In addition, we recently submitted plans for a five story, well-appointed residential building in the core.  The building is not adjacent to a zoning boundary, does not lie within a historic district, and meets or exceeds all existing codes and guidelines.  Having listened to neighbors in the area who were concerned about the height of the building, the project will be 40% smaller than what is allowed, and will include a neighborhood coffee shop, as well as a fitness center for residents.  To address potential concerns about parking, as well as increased traffic, and in the spirit of working to reduce emissions, we’re also pioneering the concept of car sharing.  Our residents will have the option of renting cars garaged on the property by the hour, and if available, we’ll open the car sharing program to neighbors as well.

One of the joys of living in a community like Bozeman is that we, as part of the community, have input into city and county affairs.  There has always been an opportunity for citizens to weigh in at any time.  No resident needs to wait for a meeting or a formal process to be announced.  Our city and county governments have been judicious in providing avenues for public participation in process.  The 2009 Downtown Plan is in the process of being updated (contact the Downtown Business Partnership for more information).  Additionally, the City is just now finishing an update of the Universal Development Codes as well as a Strategic Plan reflecting “what we want to be when we grow up.”  So if you’re inclined, it’s easy to get involved as our City and County Commissioners are accessible and available.  

Most of us who live here choose to do so. We love this town, and are understandably concerned when rapid change makes us feel as if we have no control over what takes place in our environment. But we do have, and have had, opportunities to voice our interests and concerns. That’s why our codes, our tax districts, our zoning and our growth plans exist at all.  Developers and real estate professionals don’t make stuff up on the fly, or operate outside of what citizens have already decided upon.  We all live under rules that someone or some group or some government has, at some point, created, developed and passed. We, like most developers, are big fans of process, consistency and predictability

No developer of infrastructure is a hero, nor are they necessarily visionaries.  Every building and project in every community is simply the result of someone who has seen a need, studied the market, understood the rules and codes, considered the context and then - taken a risk.  Every restaurant we enjoy, every bank we use, every grocery store we patronize, all are the result of someone who has taken a risk.  Some projects succeed, others fail.  There’s no guarantee, even here, where we see businesses and housing projects fail at times.  And yes, of course, builders and developers hope for profit.  Just like each and every one of us who operates a business or earns a paycheck.

We won’t be able to stop people from moving here, nor should we.  And whether or not you arrived 20 years ago, 10 years ago or last week, you have to be glad no one stopped you (and to be sure, no or slow growth conversations and a “shut the door behind us” mentality have existed here for decades!)  But we can steer more people off of farmland and into the urban core, for as long as possible, by providing ample opportunities for them to live in.  We know this is a particularly attractive option for empty nesters, older retirees and young millennials alike.  

We love this town, we live where we build, and we look forward to further participation in the city’s future deliberations in relation to growth. Our door at 20 North Tracy is always open. Please stop by.    
Andy Holloran owns HomeBase, a Bozeman based development firm.  He lives with his family in Block M, a HomeBase project, which recently received one of Bozeman’s City Beautification awards.