(HELENA) By next year, there could be new guidelines for building in downtown Helena.

City leaders have been working for months on a comprehensive update to zoning codes in the downtown area. Now, they’ve released their draft proposal.

The zoning changes are the latest step in implementing Helena’s Downtown Neighborhood Plan, approved last year.

Sharon Haugen, Helena’s community development director, said the city wants to have a single, consistent set of rules for all of downtown Helena, from the Walking Mall to the Great Northern area. Currently, downtown is broken into a number of commercial and residential zoning districts.

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Haugen said the new zoning will be more focused on design elements, rather than allowed uses.

“The uses are going to be more general and more broad,” she said.

The draft code encourages more businesses like retail stores and restaurants in buildings’ main floors. It calls for more windows along main streetfronts, and for parking lots to be behind buildings instead of in front of them.

The goal is to create more “active spaces” in downtown.

“The concept is people want to go in and out, and to have design elements such as glass, entryways, little landscaping, to make them more inviting,” said Haugen.

The code will not apply immediately to existing buildings, unless the owners make substantial modifications. Listed historic structures will also be exempted from any modifications that could threaten their status. But Haugen said the city expects some downtown properties will be redeveloped in the next few years, so the code update will be important then.

Haugen said there has already been strong public interest in the zoning process. This spring, leaders met with downtown stakeholders and the public to get input on what changes they wanted to see.

On Thursday, the city will hold a public presentation on the draft code update. It will run from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Placer Building lobby.

“We recognize zoning isn’t the funnest thing to talk about, and a lot of people just aren’t into that discussion,” Haugen said. “They like to see the results of the zoning but not get involved in the details of it. But here’s an opportunity to just articulate your vision.”

Haugen said the city will take any suggestions into consideration as they work out the final code update.

The Helena Zoning Commission will likely make recommendations on the zoning code later this year. The Helena City Commission could make a final decision by next spring.

If you’d like to see the full draft zoning code proposal, you can find it on the city’s website.