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As you’re reading this, try a quick thought experiment: Picture your home and its surroundings, but subtract the car.

Consider your day-to-day life, and how much of it would be possible without a vehicle. Could you walk to a restaurant or coffee shop? Bike to pick up groceries? Get yourself (or your kids) to work or school?

As Bozeman grows, forcing the Gallatin Valley to find ways to accommodate thousands of new residents a year, those aren’t idle questions.

Cars, after all, are the single biggest challenge that comes with density, a primary bugaboo in the notion that building up instead of sprawling out provides a way for the Bozeman area to handle its swelling population.

Smart growth types wax poetic about the virtues of dense, walkable neighborhoods, full of fit, healthy residents greeting their neighbors as they go about their daily business — their smog-producing cars relegated to occasional use. But the Bozeman of 2016 is still a community very much built around motor transportation, a place where it’s difficult, to say the least, to get around as a working adult without a personal vehicle.

As a result, parking capacity and its twin gremlin, traffic congestion, have emerged as primary concerns around development proposals that aim to provide a large amount of housing in multi-story buildings.

An apartment building proposed by developer Andy Holloran at the corner of Black Avenue and Olive Street in downtown Bozeman, for instance, has met fierce opposition from neighbors worried, among other things, about parking. The 62 units proposed in an initial design would produce 124 cars at two vehicles per household, neighbors argue, spilling out of on-site parking into the on-street stalls they rely on themselves.

Holloran, meeting neighbors about the project last month, tried to argue downtown apartments would support a fewer-car lifestyle, and also suggested an on-site car-sharing program could help manage the parking impact. The idea didn’t exactly meet with enthusiastic support.

Infrastructure, destinations

What exactly would it take to see Bozeman become a broadly walkable and bikeable community — not just in the downtown core but throughout its newer subdivisions? And what are the chances we’ll be able to pull that vision off in the coming years?

The answers to that first question, at least, sort themselves into two categories: infrastructure and destinations.

On an infrastructure front, walkability comes down to sidewalks, bike lanes and shared-use paths, which make it safe and convenient to get from one part of town to another without burning gas.

In that sense, Bozeman is probably in OK shape — under city policy adopted in 2010, most new subdivisions have been built with sidewalks and bike lanes.


Bozeman sidewalk gaps on major streets


Data from the city of Bozeman's 2016 Transportation Master Plan existing conditions memo, provided by Robert Peccia and Associates. Data represents only gaps along major streets.


A few of the city’s key arterials are still missing pedestrian accommodations — Baxter Lane between Davis Lane and 19th Avenue, for example, or Kagy Boulevard between 19th and 11th Avenue — but many of those gaps are on the city’s radar, with projects to patch them up scheduled in the coming years.

The destination front ends up being a harder nut to crack, however. While Bozeman’s aggressive parkland dedication requirements mean newer neighborhoods tend to be well-stocked with parks and trails, the city is left at the mercy of economics when it comes to encouraging neighborhood businesses.

Bozeman’s older south side neighborhoods, many platted before post-World War II development shifted American cities to car-centric land use patterns, tend to be conveniently located near commercial establishments, both clusters of restaurants around the Montana State campus and the city’s primary commercial district, downtown.

As walkability becomes an increasingly sought amenity for home buyers, that’s making homes in downtown-area neighborhoods hot real estate commodities. While homes in the city’s fast-growing northwest quadrant aren’t necessarily cheap, with typical list prices ranging from north of $300,000 to the mid-$400,000s, according to real estate website Zillow, typical listings in the south side historic districts are downright out of reach for buyers with modest incomes, more like $700,000 or $800,000.

And, with the city’s commercial life focused on downtown and strip-style development along 19th, whole swaths of comparatively affordable west Bozeman remain something of a commercial desert — devoid of the corner stores, coffee shops and neighborhood cafes that could be the difference between a Sunday drive and a Sunday stroll.

Commercial nodes

The comparative dearth of westside businesses isn’t for a lack of trying on the part of city planners. As far back as the early 2000s, Bozeman’s formal growth plans have called for pockets of land specifically zoned to provide space for neighborhood businesses.

The city’s current growth plan, for instance, adopted in 2009, calls for seeing “high density community scale service centers” spaced every mile, with “neighborhood service centers” every half-mile.

While auto-oriented development has tended to result in “neighborhood isolation, traffic congestion, declining air quality, and uninviting visual impacts,” it concludes — a modern version of the city’s earlier foot- and trolly-oriented development patterns “can promote a city where residents have balanced transportation options.”

“Neighborhoods can once again be centers of social activity and interaction,” the plan reads. “Traffic congestion and air quality impacts can be reduced. Other aspects of this new paradigm include increased acceptance of mixed-use projects, higher residential densities, and pedestrian-friendly site development.”

But then there’s reality.

With some exceptions, much of the land set aside for those neighborhood commercial nodes remains undeveloped, waiting for a land owner or developer who sees a business case for bringing the growth plan to life.

In west Bozeman, for example, at the northwest corner of Baxter and Davis, a single restaurant, La Tinga, stands as sort of a neighborhood oasis, alongside an orthodontist, Montessori school and product design firm’s office.

While the surrounding area is booming from a home construction standpoint, it’s a full mile to the next establishment offering food and drink, Outlaw Brewing off 19th Avenue. Red Chair Cafe & Bar, just north of Huffine Lane, is nearly two miles south.

Private sector skepticism

At the moment, though, developers seem more interested in using the land for residential development than helping the city achieve its goals for neighborhood commerce.

One, Steve Broadbent of Highland, Utah, has a application pending with the city planning department asking for permission to build multi-story apartments on a portion of the Baxter and Davis business district. It follows a similar request granted in 2012, which saw some some of the area surrendered to residential-only development.

Commercial development doesn’t make sense for the site right now, Broadbent said this week, adding that his proposal would leave plenty of space for a grocery store shopping center like the Smith’s development on 19th.

While the site’s zoning is configured to encourage mixed-use development — generally buildings with ground-floor retail space and residences on upper levels — he’s skeptical that sort of project would work out at that location.

It comes down, Broadbent said, to traffic patterns and rooftops, the number of cars driving past a site and the number of potential customers living nearby. And, at the Baxter and Davis property, he just doesn’t think there are enough people yet.

“It’s going to take some time for the population to fill in,” he said.

Broadbent’s argument represents the conventional planning wisdom on commercial nodes — that development on them is a matter of waiting on rooftop counts, sitting tight until growth stocks the area with enough potential customers.

In the meantime, he and other developers say, creating space for boutique restaurants, coffee shops and corner stores ends up being a risky business outside of proven commercial districts like downtown Bozeman or major transportation corridors like North 19th. Just because the storefronts are built doesn’t mean the customers will come.

Broadbent pointed to another one of his company’s projects in Provo, Utah, saying its commercial units are struggling even though it’s located on higher traffic streets than Baxter or Davis in a larger city than Bozeman.

“We can’t get the rent to justify the cost of the project, and we can’t keep tenants in them,” he said. “When you’re talking that type of mixed use, the density you need in the area is pretty significant, to fill it all.”

‘You need some vision’

On the flip side, though, La Tinga owner Curt Jeffries, who runs the Mexican restaurant with his wife Alba, says he has no regrets about their 2013 decision to move from a downtown storefront to their pioneer location on the west side.

“The price was right, and the view was just spectacular,” he said this week. “There’s nothing but potential for growth.”

Even so, Jeffries said, they lost many of their downtown customers in the transition and don’t benefit from nearly as much walk-in traffic. But they have developed a following, including people who will come in from Manhattan or Three Forks.

“Our banker, and a lot of our clients downtown thought we were crazy, because there was nothing out here at the time,” he said. “We proved them wrong.”

Back on Bozeman’s south side, a successful commercial node, anchored by the Sola Cafe, sits along Kagy Boulevard at its intersection with Willson Avenue and South Third Avenue. In addition to Sola, which has thrived despite opening during the recession in 2008, the complex currently includes Blacksmith Italian, Feast Raw Bar and a handful of storefronts and offices.

The Sola’s owner, Tiffany Lach, said this week that opening a business on the site — outside the proven downtown commercial district — seemed like a risk even though she was confident about the neighborhood, living nearby and regularly biking past the location as she ran errands.

“It’s a really big commitment,” she said. “You have to make sure you’re making a good real estate decision.”

Like Jeffries, Lach is bullish on the west side’s future, saying she’s actually looking at a possible expansion in that part of town.

Neighborhoods are beginning to fill in enough that there’s the population base to support businesses like Sola, she said.

A new high school north of Meadowlark Elementary and a possible new hospital on land off Valley Center Drive, purchased by Billings Clinic last winter for a yet-to-be-announced purpose, could also boost the area’s traffic, and by extension its commercial potential.

“Anyone with vision, if they’re able to see a couple years down the road, I think they would definitely consider moving here,” Jeffries said. “But you need some vision.”

Lach echoed the sentiment.

“The next 10 years,” she said, “is going to be very big on this side of town.”

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Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

Locations

Eric Dietrich covers city government and health for the Chronicle.

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