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It's Election Season And The Future Of Bozeman Is At Stake

Tim Crawford Poses Tough Questions Aimed At Those Running For Office

Growth parade: As Bozeman deals with explosive growth and pushes controversial downtown illfill, Tim Crawford says local elected officials have no idea what they are giving away.
Growth parade: As Bozeman deals with explosive growth and pushes controversial downtown illfill, Tim Crawford says local elected officials have no idea what they are giving away.
In a little more than a month Montanans will go to the polls to elect local leadership.

The Bozeman City Commission elections are of immediate and serious local concern. My bona fides of love for this community are fairly sound, as a longtime downtown business owner and citizen of numerous other involvements, so I think my thoughts on the city commission race may be of interest despite my not being a voting resident.

I once ran and won a seat on the city commission in Ketchum, Idaho as it coped with a boom. I also, with pride, renovated a historic building in downtown Bozeman along Main Street. You could even say that I have a vested interest in maintaining the economic viability of downtown Bozeman.

But Main Street does not exist in isolation from the adjacent historic neighborhoods and for those who believe individual business interests should trump the sense of community that exists in the neighborhoods, I think it is wrong.
To date as I assess the city commission contenders, I find most of their qualifications for office to be fairly vague considering the hard questions facing them on the future viability of Bozeman.

I certainly agree that experience on citizen boards, a willingness to listen to the views of constituents, and familiarity with planning policy are valuable qualities.  However, there seems to be scant information in our media as to what the aspirants’ macro visions for the future of Bozeman are in terms of buildout and necessary infrastructure.

Where are we headed as a community? And is that the direction we want to go? Contemplating those issues requires courage and on that front, I see little.
Even amongst those who are seeking re-election and presently serving on the city commission, the tenor seems to be one of resignation to a fate that is beyond their control.

If the mayor and city commission aren’t laying out a community vision, then who is? What is their stand on current growth trends

What is the basis for their opinions?  Whose interests, on balance, do they represent? What other city do they want Bozeman to emulate? When they imagine Bozeman in 2037, what kind of place do they see?

As Bozeman goes, so will go the Gallatin Valley.

I think there are damn few Bozemanites who want even a pale replica of the urban discomfort from which most of the newbies have flown. Growth may be inevitable but bad growth that destroys the essence of communities is not. Managing growth involves a willingness to make difficult choices and it really comes down to values.

Values do not involve the mundane question of whether an intersection should have four-way traffic lights or a roundabout. Values speak to our sense of place. They involve who and what each of us is willing to defend. Values mean doing the right thing rather than treating decisions as a means to increase one's personal popularity among those swaggering with the biggest bank accounts. Values mean protecting citizens who often, in disputes with big money, feel as if they are the underdogs.
"I think there are damn few Bozemanites who really want even a pale replica of the urban discomfort from which most of the newbies have flown. Growth may be inevitable but bad growth that destroys the essence of communities is not. Managing growth involves a willingness to make difficult choices and it really comes down to values."  —Tim Crawford
One question which I think needs to be asked of the city commission and mayoral contestants (I can’t resist the term) is their perspective on the shibboleth of the necessity of growth in order to avoid entropy.

In other words, do they believe that if Bozeman's population isn’t racing forward at 4 percent annual growth then the community is dying?

Probably most of the current candidates pay lip service to “smart growth” or some similar iteration with precious little definition of its tenets. It’s a little like patriotically swearing allegiance to a flag without understanding the deeper values it emblemizes.

In my last column I asked this of the Bozeman School Board and I think it applies even more so to the city commission.

Who represents community values and who is teaching them?

Who is willing to accept responsibility for the city/county’s lack of strategy for confronting growth? The absence of an answer was evidenced most recently in the school board’s myopic decision to sell off the green space at the Emerson School.

Not one city commissioner has risen up to speak out on the value of this green space as an important asset to the citizens of Bozeman. Why? 
"Values do not involve the mundane question of whether an intersection should have four-way traffic lights or a roundabout. Values involve who and what you are willing to defend. They mean doing the right thing rather than treating decisions as a means to increase personal popularity among those swaggering with the biggest bank accounts."
Most of what I see from the present city commission and its mayor are attempts to please developers while trying to evade the rising general ire of our citizenry. In fact, to some it is coming across as arrogance and, oddly, being expressed in the hostile treatment of citizens who raise valid questions about growth.

Elected officials have spoken disparagingly about the hundreds of citizens concerned about the direction of downtown infill. Those city officials have tried to discredit them by labeling them NIMBYS but I have no doubt that not a single currently-serving city commissioner would be happy if Andy Halloran’s proposed characterless high-rise at Black and Olive were sited along their property line. I doubt that hardly any citizen would. Commissions past have denied development over protests from neighborhoods.

I know many of the people affiliated with Save Bozeman. Their movement has more community spirit than Andy Halloran could ever hope to buy.

The attitude from the city seems to be that anyone who lives close to downtown ought to accept their neighborhood character being eroded by infill to serve “a greater good” but what greater good would that be? 

If the city really did do an ethically-responsible job of informing the public—spelling out in clear terms— what the impacts of its radical changes to code would be, then why are so many citizens upset and feeling blindsided? Some of the founders of Save Bozeman have penned a compelling op-ed that casts doubts on the city's claims.

None of the people I know, who are affiliated with Save Bozeman, are "anti-growth" or naively "anti-change". Most are business people in their own right.  Most would reasonably accept a scaled-down version of Halloran's project suitable to the architecture and nature of their neighborhood.

Neighbors reached out to Halloran in good faith early on, and made those sentiments clear, but he rejected them. His projects have left other communities divided, including the razing of a historic structure in downtown Missoula.

Meanwhile, there is scant evidence, despite claims by the Downtown Bozeman Partnership, that said infill will appreciably slow the rapid suburbanization of the Gallatin Valley beyond the city limits. Nor will it result in greater housing affordability for young working class folks and families. Nor is there any evidence supporting the contention that unless projects like Mr. Halloran's are approved, downtown Bozeman will die. This is a myth that has been promoted but does not hold up to scrutiny. 

Infill’s only certainly is that it will leave our downtown core more congested, noisy, architecturally bland (if you use Mr. Halloran’s buildings as an example) and make it increasingly a place built for visitors.

Bozeman’s motto is “the most livable place.” How does this square with reality?

As has been pointed out by others, there seems to be more serious attention given by the city commission to the size and construction of signage than the buildings to which they are appurtenant. 

Angst over density is now a critically controversial issue and many feel their neighborhoods being steamrolled. Those who have lived for generations near downtown are paying the price for the city’s erratic approach to growth.

For instance, the lessening or abandonment of parking requirements to promote growth in different parts of town professed to be “underutilized”.  How and what determining factors are being considered? Do the city commissioners find their own neighborhoods to be underutilized?

The city planning staff, I’ve been told by many people, is in a state of disarray, and it has never articulated how the "build-out of infill” is likely to affect the character of downtown neighborhoods. Best I can tell, city officials seem to approach infill as an abstract “seat of the pants” exercise rather than listening to the people their decisions are affecting. They say “trust us” but their attitude gives us little reason.

Is this how cities that tout themselves as “the most livable place” plan for the future?

It isn't easy for me to write a piece that holds friends of mine, who serve on the commission, to account. Climate change was alluded to by Mayor Carson Taylor in consideration of changing parking restrictions to promote growth in the North 7th Avenue area without providing any real specifics. 

Climate change is important but not tangible for most people. Citizens having their neighborhoods transformed by poorly-considered decisions, however, is not abstract.

Relating to the mayor’s expressed concern for addressing climate change, has the basic idea of mandating solar orientation for new buildings been considered for both residential and commercial in light of his quest to be a carbon hawk?

One of the other commissioners who has demonstrated an inability to grasp planning issues, suggested vaguely that regulation changes are a “great thing”? What does “great thing” mean?

The school board’s decision to liquidate the Emerson lawn shows that the kind of growth inundating the city is not paying for itself. Another line of reasonable questioning for the current commission and candidates is asking them if rapid development is paying its own way?

If yes, then please help me find answers to the following:  why is the school board selling off critical green space and asking taxpayers to continuously pony up to pay for new schools? Why do taxes continue to rise in Bozeman? Why will the mayor make yet another ill-advised plea to convince us that we should spend tens of millions of dollars on a new law and justice center at the same time Gallatin County commissioners refused to put another open space bond, which could have saved the Emerson lawn, on the ballot?

When I ask “is development paying its own way?”, I mean asking who is footing the bill to pay for swelling additional urban costs? This includes infrastructure and its mammoth future maintenance that ought to be borne by the developers who are now profiting from growth but whose short-term profits are being subsidized by the already-strained citizen tax base.

You would think the city commission aspirants who claim to have some knowledge of planning would at least have a rudimentary ability to figure the future costs of development. At least it seems to this taxpayer that past expenses of development can reasonably predict the coming skyrocketing costs.  
Still another question for consideration is how finite resources will be applied to growing demands for public transportation? This is still another favored topic of the mayor and current commission who are allowing hundreds of apartments and new hotel rooms to be added downtown yet waiving logical parking requirements.

A serious cost of Bozeman’s growth to working class people is displacing those who will never be able to afford the apartments being built by the likes of Halloran downtown.

Do this and future city commissions intend to provide public transportation like bus service for workers to and from the outlying “bedroom communities”? Will it offer regular public transportation to the ski areas and trailheads that the new allegedly vehicle-less downtown residents will expect to receive?

Interestingly, the demand by developers and the city’s inclination to reduce parking requirements has not been connected to any plan for increased public transport or the cost of soon having to build new parking garages, let alone resolving the question of who will be asked to pay for it?  

Planning for growth without sound fiscal bases and corresponding regulation insures a future of unexpected and very likely unwelcomed outcomes. They will come replete with plausible denial of responsibility from elected officials who will claim they didn’t know better when seeking re-election.  We who love Bozeman, who live here, work here, pay taxes here and who really do put a premium on its livability are owed answers.

Some readers rightfully will say it is not enough to only point out problems. That it is the job of an opinion columnist like me to suggest solutions. Okay, here are two.

First, I am suggesting that community forums be held, and quickly, so that those city commission candidates hoping to represent the citizens of Bozeman be seriously queried, if not grilled, as to the specifics of their vision for the future. They ought to state whatever their commitments are to accomplishing their stated goals.

If such forums are promptly held and correctly reported by the daily newspaper, it would give everyone a clear idea of the candidates’ values so that citizens can keep them in mind as they head to the voting booth.

This kind of forum would reveal who is willing to treat citizens who have legitimate questions with the respect they deserve.  Second, the city should commit to assembling a comprehensive report, available to all citizens, that takes a hard look at the costs of growth—who wins, who loses and who pays?

In the meantime, let us see who the candidates of substance are. By electing people who speak with vision and not with meaningless clichés into office, Bozeman can prevent this current operetta of meek leadership from turning into a fully-fledged tragic opera.
Tim Crawford
About Tim Crawford

Tim Crawford once served as a city commissioner in the resort town of Ketchum, Idaho as it contended with growth. Today, he is a downtown Bozeman businessman, a Gallatin Valley farmer, professional photographer and lifelong conservationist who loves to hunt and fish.
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