By STEPHEN DOW (This story originally appeared in the Billings Outpost. It appears here by permission.)
Candi Millar, planning director for the city of Billings, last week discussed the future of a city that has experienced “exponential” growth and changes in the past five years.
“A statistic I always like to cite is that between 1990 and 2000, we grew one square mile,” Millar said Heights Community Development Task Force’s monthly meeting. “Between 2000 and 2010, we grew 10 square miles. That exponential growth rate has continued in the last five years. Our population and city limits have both grown substantially.”
Due to this rapid rate of growth, Millar and her team are redeveloping the city’s comprehensive growth plan.
The process started in October when Millar began attending 35 community meetings and asking local citizens to fill out comment cards explaining what they felt Billings needed in order to be a safe and successful community in the future.
By the time the process was over in February, Millar had received more than 1,200 comment cards.
Her staff spent the following months reading through the cards and condensing the responses into six key categories that represent what Billings residents desire to see as their city continues to grow.
The first of these six categories is what Millar calls “placemakers.”
“‘Placemakers’ in Billings are those places and buildings that are unique to our community,” Millar said. “There were lots of comments saying that we needed to preserve our historic heritage through protecting and enhancing the places that are most important to this community.”
Notable “placemakers” mentioned by respondents included the Rims, the Yellowstone River, Skypoint and the two universities in town.
Participants also mentioned the importance of protecting historic buildings. This is one of the reasons that Billings will be one of the first cities in Montana to have a historic neighborhood.
Related to “placemakers” is what Millar calls “community fabric.”
“When I look over the Rims, I see this wonderful canopy of green,” Millar said. “And I consider that landscaping and the green spaces in our community to be our fabric.”
Millar said that many respondents felt that it was incredibly important to make sure that Billings continued to be such a green city.
There are many ways to accomplish this goal, but one is through the continued planting of trees along roads.
Heights Task Force member Roy Neece also suggested that subdivision developers should be required to develop parks. Currently, developers are required to allocate space for parks, but rarely develop them. This results in many empty and unused parcels of lands.
Millar said that she has been working on ways to address Neece’s concern and affirmed that parks are some of the most important parts of our community.
“Things like parks may seem to just be amenities, but big companies want their employees to live in a nice place,” Millar said. “So by improving our city through small things like parks and trees, we improve our chances of getting some of these big companies and therefore improve our economy.”
The third key category is “strong neighborhoods”.
“We all want a clean and safe neighborhood and that came out so strongly in these responses,” Millar said.
During the next five years, Millar said that the city of Billings will work with the Billings Police Department to decrease the number of traffic accidents and crimes in residential neighborhoods. Through doing this, she hopes that property reinvestment in these neighborhoods will increase.
The fourth key category is what Millar calls “home base.” It involves making sure that many affordable housing options are available in the community.
Currently, only 5 percent of all total rentals in town are vacant. Those that are available are often unaffordable for the average Billings resident.
Millar also emphasized the importance of making sure that single-family homes continue to be available as more Millennials and their families come to town.
“A lot of them want what their parents had: a nice house on a large lot and a fenced yard,” Millar said “We need to make sure that we grow in such a way that we can continue to provide that type of housing.”
The fifth key category is “mobility and access,” which involves creating a safer and more efficient transportation system for all residents.
Millar was quick to point out that this category doesn’t solely apply to motor vehicle users.
“According to AARP, 30 percent of the general population does not drive – they are either too young, too old, handicapped or choose not to drive,” Millar said. “Roads are incredibly important, but we also heard that there are other modes of transportation people are gravitating to – not only for recreation, but also for daily use. … We need to decide how to accommodate not only the motorists, but also the people who walk, ride bikes and take the transit.”
The last of the six key categories is what Millar calls “essential investments.” This means that the city needs to “spend money wisely on things that will improve our quality of life.” Thus, when the city invests in any of the other five categories mentioned above, it can be considered an “essential investment.”
Millar says that focusing on improving in these six areas will help make Billings a better community and one that is more desirable to the Millennial generation.
“We want to make this community attractive to young people – not only because they are our work force, but because they are our innovators and future leaders,” Millar said. “The Millennials actually choose a place they want to live, move to it, and then find a job. … Through focusing on things like parks and safe neighborhoods, we hope to make Billings a place that this age group would choose as a home.”
Of course, if more people continue to move to Billings, we’ll have to find ways to accommodate them. Luckily, respondents had thoughts on this as well.
The vast majority of people mentioned infill – the process of redeveloping vacant lots - as the best way to accommodate newcomers.
“I think most of the people we talked to realized that it is less expensive to develop in an area where you already have infrastructure,” Millar said. “You already have a garbage truck rolling down the street in front of you. You already have police and fire departments nearby. Developing vacant lots is generally easier than expanding the city’s boundaries.”
Other respondents suggested developing in the Inner Belt Loop near Rehberg Ranch. Millar says that development in that area is possible, but would come with its share of difficulties.
“In the Inner Belt Loop, we have absolutely no services of any kind except for a small sewage treatment plant at Rehberg Ranch,” Millar said. “We have no water. We don’t even have a road yet. So there is going to be some real cost associated with expanding in that area.”
Respondents also suggested that the city continue to develop downtown and the West End.
Millar’s next step involves assessing these new places where the city could grow and seeing which ones best fit the criteria featured in the six key categories. She will have a detailed report explaining the costs and consequences of expanding in each area at the start of the new year.
However, Millar is currently speaking to various community groups such as the Heights Development Task Force about the six key categories and asking a simple question: “Did I get it right?”The consensus from the Heights Task Force was that she did – but only partially.
“You’ve done a wonderful job on this presentation, but I want to suggest that you’re missing half of the planning picture,” Task Force member Larry Seekins said at the end of Millar’s presentation. “There’s one thing missing up there: well-paying jobs. If you don’t have that, none of this will have an impact. So in addition to focusing on the residential part of the city, we also have to focus on the industrial section of our city. … If we ignore it, we do it at our peril.”
Millar agreed with Seekins’ assessment and affirmed that while jobs were not mentioned by any of the 1,200 respondents, they continue to be a priority of the city.
“Some of the value of this process is not just what people say, but what people don’t say,” Millar said. “Jobs, which used to be one of the bigger issues, was not brought up. But on the other hand, it is integral to have those jobs in this community. We can’t grow with just residential areas. We need to have both residential and commercial development in order to be a thriving community for years to come.”