What Makes a Vibrant Atmosphere in Downtown Missoula?

by William Skink

Yesterday the Public Works Committee gave initial clearance for the Meagher Bar to nab parking spots for an outdoor patio.  It’s what I’ll eloquently call a bullshit move by City Council to give away public space to a private business interest.  And why would City Council do this? I’ll let Dan Brooks put in perspective with this piece he wrote last fall:

As I understand it, the city would give a substantial swath of public property to a privately owned bar, which seems like questionable stewardship of the public interest. But it sounds a lot better if you put the word “vibrant” in there. I quote the Missoulian:

“The Thomas Meagher Bar unveiled plans last month to build an outdoor dining patio on West Pine Street, a move the city supports in concept as it works to build a vibrant downtown atmosphere. But the promise of outdoor dining and a hip evening atmosphere would eliminate six on-street parking spaces, and that has members of the City Council and the Missoula Parking Commission concerned.”

What we have here is a conflict between abstract and concrete. On the abstract side, there’s the atmosphere, which could be at once vibrant and hip if the sidewalk and street were not bogged down with pedestrians and cars. On the concrete side, there are those six parking spots, which happen to be next door to council chambers.

While slightly over-intellectualizing this, Brooks’ assessment of the concrete consequences of this move helped put the breaks on this effort moving forward last fall. But now, as the weather warms, that conflict has been recast a bit with a new, scaled-back bid that would “temporarily” remove two spaces from revenue-generating use:

The owners of the Irish-themed pub first approached the committee last year with a request to construct a larger outdoor cafe. The initial concept would have permanently eliminated six parking spots – an issue that concerned the Missoula Parking Commission.

The committee tabled the request until last week, when the pub owners returned with a new request to install a temporary patio. The revised concept would eliminate two parking spaces on a temporary basis.

Downtown sidewalk space can be a surprisingly controversial subject. Beneath the umbrella abstraction of a vibrant atmosphere lurks past efforts by the City Council to make sitting on sidewalks illegal because unsightly homeless people don’t really add to the kind of vibrancy the business community wants to see downtown.

But the council effort to criminalize benign behavior wasn’t something the ACLU was going to allow without threat of a court battle, so when that enhancement was passed in December of 2013 (which I wrote about at 4&20) the City Council had to scramble to avoid getting sued.

During that marathon council meeting that lasted over 5 hours there was also a plea from off-Higgins businesses to be allowed an urgency ordinance giving them the ability to circumvent a restriction on the placement of sandwich board signs. Instead of only putting a sign in front of their business, they got the opportunity to cluster their signs at strategic traffic confluences, like Higgins and Broadway.

Thus our supposedly progressive little college town banned human beings from being able to sit on downtown sidewalks while simultaneously increasing the sidewalk space that businesses could place their non-human sandwich board signs.

And they did all this a week before Christmas.

I think this is helpful context in understanding the abstraction of vibrancy. Vibrancy, in this context, means attracting the right kind of people (with laden pockets) to financially support downtown business. The Meagher Bar will attract some of those people, so the Council will bend over backward to accommodate them. I’m not sure The Ox would get the same kind of support because, let’s face it, they’re just not as vibrant as Irish Bar patrons or Plonk wine quaffers.

Another issue being resurrected from last year is the effort to “fix” the gun show loophole within city limits, and only within city limits. I wrote about the futility of this effort last September, and nothing in my opinion from then has changed.

As Missoula’s City Council busies itself with handing public spaces to private alcohol peddlers and driving gun show consumers to seek locations outside city limits to conduct their business, I hope more important problems, like the jail overcrowding crisis, don’t get back-burnered.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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8 Responses to What Makes a Vibrant Atmosphere in Downtown Missoula?

  1. Greg Strandberg says:

    It’s important to remember that those pushing for the sidewalk ban, well…most are now gone. When half the City Council was up for reelection this year, none ran again. Many go off to other places to live, such as Caitlin Copple who’s now back in Idaho, or another fellow who’s name I can’t remember that went off for a year-long jaunt in Europe.

    Nice for them. The rest of us have to live with the consequences of their actions. We see those consequences firsthand this week with the mall expansion’s gobbling up all available land, driving out businesses. Big rubber-stamp project by Engen’s in-the-pocket Council. I also noticed that Mary Avenue residents are complaining again. Clearly they haven’t gotten the message to shut up, bend over and take it.

    This is Missoula. Unless you’re rich and at the hip with our political machine, screw you.

  2. djinn&tonic says:

    Best knows best, she’s from Seattle!

  3. Missoula City government is a self-congratulatory, cronied-up $hit show. That is all.

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