By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
In the seven years that have passed since the city adopted its Downtown Master Plan, it has implemented a new parking strategy, added to the district’s housing stock and marked success in recruiting new businesses to the city’s core.
Several large private and public development projects are either under construction or in the works, and Mountain Line has launched zero fare service, boosting ridership to record levels. Add it all up and city leaders believe downtown is moving in the right direction.
“I think it has been somewhat remarkable progress in a short period of time,” said Linda McCarthy, director of the Missoula Downtown Association. “A lot of that has to do with folks looking to invest in downtown. They see the vision in downtown because we have a master plan, and it has helped create predictability and bring some long-term goals to the table.”
McCarthy and Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, provided an annual update to the City Council this week on the progress made in implementing the downtown master plan.
While several goals have been met – including completion of the 2009 parking plan – others remain in the works, such as the conversion of Front and Main streets to two-way traffic, upgraded traffic signals, and implementation of a city-wide broadband effort to connect businesses to high-speed service.
But as the city grows and post-recession interest among investors returns, city leaders are also looking to write the next chapter, and they believe the time has come to update the master plan. With more than $200 million in development slated for the downtown district over the next few years, issues with parking, retail and housing may need fine tuning.
“We’ve got a housing component, and we’ve got a retail strategy we may want to revisit,” said Buchanan. “Some parts of the plan are fine, but there are other parts that need to be freshened up. We’re in a different post-recession world than when the plan was being written.”
The original Downtown Master Plan was written in 2008 and released the following year under the purview of the Business Improvement District. The organization raised $450,000 to complete the plan, creating a strategy to help strengthen and develop the district.
The plan envisioned commercial “hot spots,” complete streets, transit and parks. It called for 220,000 square feet of additional retail space, 280 new hotel rooms and 2,840 units of housing. The goals sought to transform the district into a thriving, vibrant hub, and backers see progress on nearly all fronts.
Over the past year, 35 new businesses have opened downtown, with twice as many opening than have closed, McCarthy said. Across the district, several new housing projects are either under construction or slated for development, including condos and affordable housing in the Sawmill District and student housing on Front Street.
“There’s more interest in living in the urban core among a couple different population sets – the young professionals and seniors,” McCarthy said. “The long-term, 25-year goal was 3,000 new housing units. We’re making good progress there, but we need to be thoughtful about providing a variety of housing options.”
McCarthy said the downtown district will continue to pursue several short-term goals, including the broadband effort, occupying the federal building, converting Front and Main, and completing a citywide wayfinding project.
Improvements to the Caras Park corridor are being discusses, and city leaders are lobbying the University of Montana to consider placing a future Montana Museum of Art and Culture in the downtown district as opposed to the main campus.
They’ve also announced plans to create a retail market analysis to help strengthen business recruitment. As startups mature at the MonTech business incubator on East Broadway, they hope to place them in the downtown district, helping bolster the city’s economic front.
“When you think about what kind of businesses are appropriate for downtown, and what they want in their own employment situation, we see downtown as a great place for them to be,” said McCarthy. “Those high-tech companies, those IT companies – they’re a good fit for downtown.”
With the budgeting season approaching, downtown leaders have presented the City Council with a request to fund several downtown needs, including a second dedicated police officer at $90,000 and completion of new design guidelines at $100,000.
They’re also looking to update the downtown master plan and have pledged to “cobble together” the funding to pay for it.
“When this committee comes to the council on an annual basis and lets them know what’s happening, they appreciate the work that takes place outside of council chambers,” McCarthy said. “We’re hopeful the council will consider seriously the items we’ve put forward as priorities.”