RUPSIS INITIATIVE TO IMPROVE HOUSING AND SAFETY
One of the powers that City Councilpersons have, along with their vote, is to introduce Council Initiatives, “giving direction to staff to assist in formulating policies, work plans, etc. for future consideration of the City Council.” If they garner a majority agreement from fellow councilmembers, staff moves forward on the initiative directions.
This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about City Council Initiatives. Last October, we supported an initiative from Councilwoman Owen to investigate the creation of a Family Violence Investigation Unit within the Billings Police Department. And in May of 2022 we supported Councilpersons Owen, Choriki, and Rupsis’ initiative to direct staff to inventory city land that could be disposed of for the purpose of providing affordable housing.
Tonight, Councilman Rupsis will bring forward an initiative requesting consideration from fellow councilmembers for 10 zoning and other changes to increase safety and improve Billings’ built environment. Those potential changes are listed below:
- Eliminate regulations establishing minimum parking requirements,
- Consolidate the N1, N2, and N3 [residential] zones and allow at least duplexes in the new consolidated residential zoning district(s),
- Allow for streamlined zoning change to [neighborhood mixed- use/neighborhood office] for any residential zoned property on an arterial or collector street,
- Establish a narrower standard street profile for neighborhood residential streets where homes have garages and/or driveways,
- Allow for subdivision designs that incorporate alternative pedestrian transportation networks,
- Evaluate the impacts of permanent strip lighting and other commercial lighting on surrounding areas,
- Allow neighborhood pubs,
- Encourage more mixed-use zones in Planned Neighborhood Developments,
- Incentivize residential development that includes a mix of market rate and permanently affordable housing options, and
- Establish a moratorium on new surface parking lots downtown.
As with past Council Initiatives, we are very encouraged by the leadership and innovation our councilmembers display with these proposals. This latest one being no exception. With the aim of improving our built environment and creating a safer community (CPTED benefits are present in much of this initiative), we’re hopeful some of these changes will find favor with council and lead to a better Billings. Let’s look at a few proposed changes and why they’re important.
Business-friendly Neighborhoods (#3, #7, & #8)
There’s definitely something special about the neighborhood around Black Dog Coffee (the former Harper & Madison) on 10th Avenue that everyone loves. A busy small business nestled into a residential neighborhood that serves as a place for family, business, and community gatherings. But why don’t we have more neighborhood businesses like this throughout Billings? Because cities made them illegal.
Thanks to our zoning laws, no coffee shops, grocers, restaurants, pubs, or other ideal neighborhood businesses are allowed in a residential zone. That means there’s probably no cozy coffee shop coming to your neighborhood. A pub down the street where everyone knows your name—not gonna happen. It also means there is very little walkability in Billings. Need a gallon of milk or a pound of thawed beef? Unless you live next to the Poly Food Basket—another business within residential anomaly—you probably have to drive out of your residential zone to a grocer, located away from residences in a government-established commercial zone.
What about a zone change, editing the law to make a bodega or coffee shop a legal use in a residential area? Maybe. But even if you successfully navigated the government’s re-zoning process to allow for that use, you’d likely have to buy a neighboring house and tear it down to build all the surface parking required by local government regulations. As an example, if Black Dog Coffee weren’t grandfathered in and they tried to establish their business in a residential zone today, assuming they could get a zone change passed, they’d need to provide at least 13 off-street parking spaces (1 per 150 SF GFA per Billings Zoning Code).
Government Parking Requirements (#1 and #10)
For most people, talking about parking regulations is as appealing as having Jar Jar Binks written into another Star Wars film. Frankly, few people are even aware that local government enforces a very strict parking regime that is hugely impactful on how our cities look and feel. The example above, noting the inability to replicate the Black Dog Coffee model today, demonstrates the impact parking regulations have on potential business development and expansion. Perhaps more importantly, parking regulations have an incredibly detrimental impact on the ability to build the added housing we need.
All neighborhood residential districts require two off-street parking spaces per dwelling unit. For instance, a single-family house requires two off-street parking spaces while a duplex requires four off-street parking spaces. A triplex, six, and a four-plex, eight! The parking requirement effectively makes adding the housing we need impossible in existing residential areas. Unless neighboring housing is removed to create surface parking, which kinda defeats the purpose…
It’s understandable that an off-street requirement was created. Without any off-street parking, streets would be lined with cars. Good. Parked cars create friction, slowing down traffic. Traffic calming means fewer and less severe traffic accidents. And, a buffer of parked cars protects pedestrians using sidewalks. Why wouldn’t we want safer streets in residential areas?
Let’s assume that we really do need cars off the streets and look to government regulations to accomplish that end. If your neighborhood is anything like mine, it provides a great example of government regulation having very little impact on actual human behavior. The vast majority of neighbors are unable to park in their garages because they’re jam-packed with junk, pushing their vehicles onto the street.
In attempting to get cars off the streets with regulation, local government has simply ensured every home has on-site self-storage units, with cars parking on the street anyway. It’s time to let builders and property owners decide what is needed locally. Because the evidence suggests that when government removes its heavy hand, more housing is built while parking is still provided—a win-win for the community.
Regarding #10, the moratorium on surface parking downtown, check out our Council Bulletin from last August when County Commissioners decided to turn the land where the old Sheriff building was into new surface parking. To summarize, there are far better uses of that land (housing!) and there is already plenty of parking downtown.
A majority of Billings residential zoning requires large lot widths and is restricted to only single-family homes. Large lots mean a developer or property owner needs to build larger housing to cover costs of land. And the restriction of single-family only means a developer or property owner can only build the most expensive housing type. So, our local laws say that a majority of residential land can only have the most expensive housing. This is a local government policy prescription for unaffordability.
An article in the American Planning Association highlights exactly why local government shouldn’t enforce a single-family only restriction:
“[Single-family only zoning] is inequitable, inefficient, and environmentally unsustainable. It lets a small number of people amass disproportionate property wealth, excludes many others from high-opportunity neighborhoods, and forces others to pay more for housing than they should.”
One could argue that large lot single-family is the housing people prefer, so why not have government mandate it? Sure, single-family homes are likely the preferred housing type. But a preference doesn’t account for the tradeoffs that humans make everyday. Or over time, with changing demographic trends (fewer traditional/nuclear family households) and shifting cultural norms (marrying later and having fewer kids, requiring smaller housing). Government is a terrible predictor of these things and it should come as no surprise that we have serious housing problems when housing is dictated by 370 pages of zoning laws that enforce strict use and density restrictions. Eliminating single-family zoning restrictions and allowing the market and property owners to decide what to build will help to rectify our housing problem.
To borrow from U.S. Chamber of Commerce President & CEO, Suzanne Clark, in her recent State of American Business Address:
“The role of government is to foster the conditions that enable human potential and empower businesses to serve people, solve problems, and strengthen society.”
We’re hopeful that Council finds favor with a number of the proposals put forward by Councilman Rupsis to return development considerations to businesses and property owners. While it’s unlikely that everything can get accomplished, and some could use modifications, we think that collectively these are an important starting point that can move the needle on the important issues our community faces.
CITY ADMINISTRATOR WEEKLY REPORT
City Administrator Chris Kukulski began the routine of sending a weekly report every Friday to City Council and department heads with the intent to, “communicate the highlights of the past week and any critical issues coming up.” The most recent CA Report includes updates on:
- Fire Station 8 (on Lake Elmo Dr.) renovations
- Grant funding to connect Rose Park School with neighborhoods
- New City Hall construction update
- 2024 Council Meeting Schedule
And much more…
GET MORE INVOLVED IN YOUR COMMUNITY
Below are some additional public meetings being held this week, along with information about when and where to attend, and what’s on the agenda (if one is available).
Tuesday, January 23
ALL Task Force Meeting
6:00 – 7:30 pm @ Billings Public Library
Will be discussing public safety concerns and community solutions.
THE SQUEAKY WHEEL
(Your email will be publicly available, similar to those you can read by clicking the button above.)
BOARD & COMMISSION OPENINGS
“It takes a little time and commitment, but it’s incredibly rewarding to give back to our community which has given us so much.”Greg McCall, Zoning Commission and Owner, McCall Homes
The Mayor’s Office is accepting letters of interest to fill the vacancies listed on the city website. For more information on each specific board, visit the city website. City Boards and Commissions are appointed by the Mayor, confirmed by City Council, are advisory only, and members serve without compensation. Submit applications to: Mayor’s Office, PO Box 1178, Billings, MT 59103-1178 NO LATER THAN JANUARY 29, 2024.
BOARD OPENING (SEATS)
Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Cmte (1)
Billings BID (1)
Community Development Board (3)
Human Relations Board (1)
Police Board (1)
Must live in Billings
Must own land in BID District
Must live in Billings (Low-Mod)
Must live in Billings
Must live in Billings
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
The restrooms at North Park have been replaced and will be ready for use in the Spring. The replacement is part of a larger plan to increase safety in North Park, along with added lighting and new activation in the northeast and northwest corners thanks to the fundraising efforts of Michelle Harkins at the Billings Industrial Revitalization District (BIRD) to build a new dog park and disc golf course.