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Helena City Commission gives initial approval to downtown zoning overhaul

Posted: 11:11 AM, Jun 11, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-11 13:11:28-04

HELENA – The Helena City Commission has given preliminary approval to a proposal to update zoning in the downtown area.

During their Monday meeting, commissioners approved a set of seven ordinances that would create and set up two new zoning districts: Downtown and Transitional Residential.

The Downtown district would include most of the historic downtown core and would be intended to encourage sustainable development and attract residents and businesses. The Transitional Residential district, which would include several adjacent areas, would serve as a buffer between the downtown and nearby residential areas.

City leaders say the change will simplify the area’s zoning from about ten different categories to just two.

These proposed ordinances are the latest step in implementing the recommendations of the city’s downtown master plan. The new zoning districts are intended to encourage things like higher-density, mixed-use development.

“To make it become more lively, to make it a great place to live, to work and to play,” said Sharon Haugen, Helena’s community development director. “Hopefully we’ll see more restaurants, more people living downtown, and then more interaction with some of the newer buildings that are being built.”

The zoning districts would include design standards for developers. In the Downtown district, they would call for commercial uses on buildings’ ground floors, with residential and office space on upper levels. In the Transitional Residential area, residences would be allowed on the lower floor.

The design standards call for buildings to have more windows on their lower levels, to make the area feel more inviting. They also set out requirements for landscaping and parking spaces.

Existing buildings would be exempted from the new rules, unless the owners make significant renovations in the future.

The Helena Zoning Commission and city staff spent more than a year developing these proposed districts. Several current and former members of the commission spoke at Monday’s meeting, urging the city commission to move the ordinances forward.

“The downtown needs to be vibrant because of residents, because of people, because of activity – and it can’t do it on business alone,” said Mike McCabe. “We’ve really tried to do that with our mixed-use here.”

The city also heard some concerns about the proposals. Many came from residents of a neighborhood north of the Helena Civic Center, between Benton Avenue and Kessler Street. They objected to being included in the Transitional Residential district because it could allow more business uses in a long-established residential area.

“We are in favor of developing the downtown core – it’s desperately needed – but not at the expense of hurting an established, quiet, great neighborhood,” said Dan O’Leary.

City staff said, in light of the complaints from neighbors, they would plan to exclude the area from the new districts.

There were also concerns from the managers of God’s Love shelter and five “casinos” – defined as businesses that operate at least six gaming machines –  about how the proposed rules would affect them. The Zoning Commission eventually recommended allowing emergency shelters and casinos within the Downtown district, but not in the Transitional Residential area.

The ordinances will come up for a final vote in several weeks. Commissioners suggested they may make several more adjustments to the proposals in that time.

“We would welcome more feedback,” said Commissioner Kali Wicks. “We would welcome more continued discussion on this.”

Commissioner Andres Haladay said, while there are still issues to be ironed out, staff members and the Zoning Commission have done a good job of addressing the most serious ones.

“I think it’s a testament to the work of the Zoning Commission over this period of time that tonight we’re talking about some incredibly narrow questions within this otherwise pretty ambitious process,” he said.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the commission approved a proposal to offer up Helena’s former downtown bus depot for redevelopment.

They voted to declare the parcel at 630 North Last Chance Gulch “surplus property.” They will begin taking requests for proposals on how the land can be reused.

Leaders say this process will allow them to find the redevelopment proposal that most benefits the community and best fits with the goals of the downtown master plan. One possibility is that the property could be used for multi-use development, including mixed-income housing.

The city purchased the property, which was formerly a gas station, in the 1980s. It eventually served as the offices for the city’s bus system. Today, it houses the local 24/7 Sobriety Program.

Commissioners held a public hearing tonight (Monday) on creating Downtown and Transitional Residential zoning districts.

Leaders say the change will simplify the area’s zoning from 12 different categories to just two.

It is the latest step to implement the recommendations of the city’s downtown master plan.

Commissioners said they want to take their time in choosing what to do with the property, so that developers will have a chance to put together the best plans possible.

-Reported by Jonathon Ambarian/MTN News