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Looking south: Development and the shifting face of south Bozeman

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South Bozeman Development

South 27th Avenue will curve to the west to avoid hitting Luzann and Marshall Bennett's property, pictured on Sept. 9, 2021, in South Bozeman.

The Bridgers and Spanish Peaks are still visible from Luzann and Marshall Bennett’s low-slung white house in southwest Bozeman, as are the nearly 40 acres they own stretching from Stucky Road to Graf Street.

But, rather than the expansive fields that once stretched in all directions, they are now met by a construction site to the west, subdivisions to the south, and office buildings and condos to the east.

It’s not quite the quiet country home they moved into almost 53 years ago.

Luzann and Marshall Bennett

Marshall and Luzann Bennett are pictured on their 40-acre property in South Bozeman on Sept. 9, 2021. The Bennetts have lived on this property for 52 years.

“We’re surrounded. It is what it is,” said Marshall, who grew up in Bozeman.

Growth isn’t new to the Bennetts or to Bozeman. Large subdivisions have been going in across the city for decades.

In most of south Bozeman, development has been comparatively slower in recent years. A few multi-family buildings off South 19th and Stucky are newer, and student-focused housing complexes now extend south of the Montana State University campus. Larger subdivisions like Alder Creek and Meadow Creek are well established.

But now, a slew of developers have set their sights squarely on that part of Bozeman.

“South Bozeman was quiet for a really long time,” Community Development Manager Chris Saunders said. “It’s taken off now.”

South Bozeman Development

Blackwood Road divides a subdivision and farm land, pictured on Sept. 9, 2021, in South Bozeman.

The landscape

The city thought the south side would not develop as quickly as other parts of town, Saunders said. Issues with connecting the area to the city’s sewer system long hampered development in some areas.

Now, with sewer access secured and land around Bozeman becoming ever more precious, it’s hard to keep track of the projects sprouting south of Kagy Boulevard.

There’s a lot to see. So let’s take a trip.

Start at the intersection of South 19th Avenue and Kagy Boulevard, where there’s more development in the pipeline at the intersection’s southeast corner. Then follow Kagy east toward Bobcat Stadium to the traffic signal at South 11th Avenue.

Head south from there and you’ll pass off-campus apartments for MSU students on the right. Farther down, at the corner of 11th and Opportunity Way, there’s 50 acres that’s set to become a mix of single and multi-family homes, another phase of the Allison subdivision.

Keep going along 11th and you’ll pass a traffic circle that only has two spokes — the east-west lanes exit into empty fields, for now. Farther down, you hit a dead end with houses on three sides and an empty field to the south.

That 120 acres, just west of Sacajawea Middle School, is on track to become Blackwood Groves, which is proposing single-family homes, smaller “cottage” detached homes, mulit-family buildings and commercial spaces.

Someday, you’ll be able to drive through that development to reach South 19th Avenue. For now, though, head to South Third Avenue and take that south past the other side of Sacajawea and a bunch of houses, all the way to a three-way intersection with Goldenstein Lane, which will get you to 19th.

Head north on 19th and then take a left on Graf Street. Apartments are planned at that corner. Keep going west along Graf, past South 27th Avenue, and you’ll see the work continuing on the Gran Cielo development.

From the corner of Gran Cielo, a 20-acre, mostly empty field can be seen bordering part of the Meadow Creek development. That parcel is set to become the Buffalo Run development, which is still in the planning stages but was fairly controversial during annexation votes in front of the city commission earlier this year.

Altogether, the developments mean the south Bozeman of today, where open fields dot much of the landscape, will not look the same in a few years. The signs are already there: construction traffic, mounds of dirt piled in fields and streets that abruptly dead end with sidewalks extending to the edge of open fields.

And while many agree that housing in south Bozeman is desperately needed to address the city’s housing crisis, worries about impacts to open lands persist, as do concerns from people who live nearby.

South Bozeman Development

A fire hydrant stands in front of buildings under construction in south Bozeman on Sept. 9, 2021.

The plans

Developers came to south Bozeman in a variety of ways.

Will Ralph, developer of some apartments on Graf Street, was looking for land along the 19th Avenue corridor and figured south Bozeman could use more multifamily development.

The development has been in the works for about two years and the goal is to break ground in 2022, Ralph said.

Other developers have waited much longer — Eugene Graf, developer of the Allison subdivision, said his family has had the land along 11th Avenue for decades.

His company was planning to commit to development years ago but then was stymied by the Great Recession. The final plat for the development is now under city review, Graf said.

Sacajawea Middle School alum Grant Syth grew up on the south side of Bozeman and jokes that he will defend it against just about anything, except for the relative dearth of commercial services.

Syth said it feels like the south part of town hasn’t changed too much in recent years.

“I would say south Bozeman has been partly overlooked,” Syth said. “It’s just that all the activity has been elsewhere.”

With Syth’s help, that is changing. Blackwood Groves is 120 acres. City commissioners approved the subdivision earlier this year, but individual site plans still have to get city approval.

The development is planned to have a mix of units, moving from single-family homes on the northern edge of the development bordering the Alder Creek subdivision to more dense, multi-family units farther south.

Syth, with Bridger Builders, said they’d been looking for land on the south side.

“To me, I think south Bozeman is like the epitome and kind of true essence of what Bozeman really is,” Syth said, noting how close places like Leverich Canyon and Hyalite are. “So, to me, that’s what people come to Bozeman (for) … is for the outdoors right, and the outdoors is so accessible on the south side, it’s so close and readily available.”

Neighborhood-type commercial services are planned for the middle of the development. Developers don’t have the specifics lined out, but Syth said he would hope to have things like a coffee shop or brewery in the development.

Syth’s mixed-use development will be new for the area. Office buildings coexist with apartment buildings west of 19th Avenue, but much of the area is dominated by single-family homes.

That is set to change. The majority of development plans for south Bozeman are still heavily residential, but most are planned to feature at least some multi-family housing.

The city’s future land use map — a feature of the growth plan that lays out which uses the city would like to see land became if it is developed — paints the south side as largely the “urban neighborhood” designation, with some patches of residential mixed use and community-commercial mixed use.

In the city’s growth plan, the urban neighborhood designation specifically discourages “large areas of any single type of housing.”

Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham noted the city commission has been clear that it wants development plans to recognize the “preciousness of land” and to use it efficiently.

“Preservation of natural features, diverse, vibrant neighborhoods, a variety of housing stock, neighborhood-scale retail, we believe, is the Bozeman of the future,” Cunningham said. “The good news about the south side development is that developers who are looking at those properties are adhering to those goals.”

Developer Greg Allen, who is working on the Gran Cielo subdivision, said the comparatively slower growth of south Bozeman is now a benefit.

Rather than follow the patterns of development in other parts of the city, they get to plan more walkable, “inwardly focused” neighborhoods, Allen said.

“I think there’s a lot of disjointed neighborhoods on the west side of town. I think the south side, with most of this development happening now ... we’re able to create more cohesive, interesting neighborhoods in and of themselves,” Allen said. “That’s the direction Bozeman is going.”

Though some celebrate the mix of housing expected to come to the area, neighbors have expressed concerns about how denser developments will fit in with the existing homes.

When the Buffalo Run development was going through an annexation and zoning vote, neighbors consistently questioned whether the proposed zoning — R-4, which would allow for high-density development with a mix of housing types — made sense to abut their neighborhood of mostly single-family homes.

Commissioner Jennifer Madgic, who has a planning background, said the city has to be careful to make sure development proposals are compatible with the existing developments.

“While we want to promote a mixture of variety of housing types next to one another, it needs to be done in a sensitive manner, and that’s of course not always easy,” Madgic said.

South Bozeman Development

A crosswalk on South 27th Avenue is under construction on Sept. 9, 2021, in South Bozeman.

The questions

Some are watching the growth in south Bozeman with a wary eye.

When the city commission was considering the growth policy in fall 2020, there were questions about how growth in that area would affect wildlife that travel through the area. Elk like the fields there in the winter.

Clint Nagel, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, said he’s concerned about development encroaching on wildlife habitat along the front of the Gallatin Range.

Worries about wildfire risk as development marches south also persist.

“I would not want to see wall-to-wall growth between here and the Hyalites, the Gallatin Range,” Madgic said. “We need to leave some of the area between town and the mountains open for wildlife and wildlife habitat.”

Several people noted that any proposals for further development south of Goldenstein Lane would give them pause.

Saunders, with the city, noted there hasn’t been much interest in any development south of Goldenstein recently.

Though conserving land is a goal, the question of how to do so remains.

South Bozeman Development

South 21st Avenue dead ends in a subdivision, pictured on Sept. 9, 2021, in south Bozeman.

Nagel said he supports the idea of the city doing a sensitive lands study, which is included in the commission’s strategic plan. Cunningham said the city is working to gather partners, like Gallatin County, the Custer Gallatin National Forest and advocacy groups, to collaborate on the plan.

Cunningham said he expects movement on the sensitive lands study — which will look at land throughout the area, not just in south Bozeman — to happen in 2022.

To Nagel, the analysis needs to happen sooner rather than later.

“The way I see it, there’s a lot of land that could be used for development. But what I’m afraid of is it seems like and this is just not the city but probably the county as well, that anytime a development is proposed everybody jumps on it and says ‘This is a good idea,’” Nagel said. “I would like to see some type of master plan, development plan, get basically structured and in place before we just allow any development to come into being.”

South Bozeman Development

A vehicle turns at the dead end of South 27th Avenue on Sept. 9, 2021, in South Bozeman.

The future

For Syth, the natural features of south Bozeman are part of the draw, and something they are factoring into their site plans.

They plan to keep a stand of trees on the property in place, and worked with the city to adjust the alignment of 11th Avenue to keep more wetland intact.

“We’re trying to take everything that’s the best about the south side — playgrounds and trails — and trying to expand and complement those as much as possible,” Syth said.

Even with carefully planned developments, Cunningham, who lives within spitting distance of Blackwood Groves, said the changes are upsetting to some in the area.

“When the construction machines move in, it can be a shock to the system,” Cunningham said. “I think (it’s) only natural that when folks see the landscape changing around them, they recognize those changes, and recognize that it’s going to be a different experience from the past decade or so.”

Commissioner Christopher Coburn, who also lives in south Bozeman in an apartment complex west of South 19th Avenue, is surrounded by development on all sides. He admits that sometimes he is disappointed that the open land he has views of will soon be developed.

But as a city commissioner, Coburn knows what projects are in the works. So, rather than just seeing construction sites, he sees future parks he’ll get to enjoy and the potential for more of a community to grow around the south part of town.

“More people are going to be moving to this part of town, which I think is exciting because this is a good part of town that has a lot of potential for growth,” Coburn said. “It makes sense to me that we would be having higher-density development to meet our housing need and bring about those sort of pieces that will make this area of town feel more like a part of Bozeman.”

The Bennetts, whose home is near Coburn’s apartment complex, are thinking about their future in a rapidly changing part of town. Both 82, downsizing is on their minds.

They don’t have hard feelings about their predicament — they know the growth in many ways was inevitable.

“This place has been a good place for us,” Luzann said.

“It was an incredible place to raise kids,” Marshall said.

Luzann and Marshall Bennett

Marshall and Luzann Bennett are pictured on their 40-acre property in South Bozeman on Sept. 9, 2021. The Bennetts have lived on this property for 52 years.

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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