Housing, growth and economics at center of downtown Missoula planning update

While progress is evident across downtown Missoula and each of its major corridors, city leaders have raised $400,000 to fund a new round of planning, one intended to guide the district up, and into the future. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Little more than a decade ago, downtown Missoula was at a crossroads. Retail anchors sat empty and large parking lots consumed city blocks. Investment was lacking and pedestrian circulation was questionable.

The time had come to craft a cohesive plan guiding the district’s future.

“We had almost 3,000 people participate in that planning project,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership. “It was approved by a number of organizations and agencies, which got us all on the same page and helped guide all the decision making that has happened downtown over the past 10 years.”

While progress is evident across the district and each of its major corridors, city leaders have raised $400,000 to fund a new round of planning, one intended to guide downtown Missoula into the future.

After receiving a national response from planning consultants, the implementation team settled on Dover, Kohl and Partners, which will begin public outreach this fall. But in reality, the outreach began Monday afternoon before several hundred community leaders at City Club Missoula.

“We’ve had this master plan for 10 years, and I don’t think any of the decisions we’ve made downtown haven’t happened without somebody asking what the master plan says,” said Ellen Buchanan, executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “We’ve accomplished about 70 percent of what was in there.”

That includes modern office space, retail, lodging, housing, public transportation and structured parking. A new public library is in the works, and the Riverfront Triangle is slated for redevelopment.

But as that future unfolds, community leaders will keep an eye on what some see as unmet needs. More parking, better traffic circulation and workforce housing stand among them.

“The issue of affordability and obtainability is dominant, and we’ll be looking at this team of consultants to help strike that balance, and we do need a balance,” said Buchanan. “We have a lot of income-qualified housing in the downtown already. What we don’t have is a lot of workforce housing in the downtown.”

The new plan will look to issues like housing, economic development and transportation. But it will also look to character and quality of life. Missoulians indulge outside the Mo Club on a Saturday night in late August. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

As it stands, roughly $850 million in development is taking place across the downtown district, and housing has been a part of it. More than 1,200 units have been built since the original plan was adopted, though that same plan called for 3,000 units of downtown housing.

“Housing is one of the most important components we have to grapple with here,” Buchanan said. “We haven’t really cracked that nut for the downtown core. We need to understand what needs to happen to get more housing in the downtown core.”

At least on Monday, many questions also looked toward parking and its place in the district. While changing transportation habits and new technology could alter future needs, parking still remains what McCarthy dubbed “the first and last experience” one has in the district.

“I don’t think you can always build your way out of parking demands, which is why you have to manage with other programs, like walk-bus programming and transportation demand management,” McCarthy said. “But parking development is an important component of planning, as is parking maintenance and parking management. It’s a three-pronged approach.”

Unlike past parking projects, such as Central Park, the new plan would likely discourage stand-alone parking structures. Rather, it would look to see parking incorporated with future development and new design standards.

Buchanan said the new plan would also look to convert Front and Main streets into two-way traffic. That goal was identified in the original master plan, and a feasibility study gave the project a green light. But given the estimated $6 million cost, funding remains a barrier.

“The most obvious source of funding for that would be through our transportation funds that come from the feds to the state,” Buchanan said. “Those are tied up pretty substantially with the Russell Street project. Unless we can find other sources of revenue, it’ll be a while before those other funds are available to apply for funding.”

Tax increment financing has helped fuel a number of large projects in downtown Missoula, and will continue to do so under the new plan, city leaders said. The new student housing center, far right, and Marriott, center, are both under construction in the district. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

One source of potential funding could be tax increment financing, which comes from revenue produced in the city’s urban renewal districts. But the districts took a hit this year when taxable values released by the Montana Department of Revenue came in low, prompting the city to take $2.7 million from the districts to cover its fiscal budget.

But as some noted Monday, that funding is key to incentivizing private development. Buchanan has shared those concerns, though she expects the system to restore itself once the state’s new appraisal cycle runs its course and the districts’ development coffers refill.

In past years, those dollars have helped fuel several major projects in the downtown district, including the Marriott Hotel, the Roam student housing project and First Interstate and Stockman banks. It also boosted the Old Sawmill District, which has since attracted tens of millions of dollars in private investment.

“We’ve got revenue still in all the districts, and I haven’t heard anyone indicate anything other than concern that it had to be done this way, or a desire to not have this done again,” Buchanan said. “There will be money for redevelopment. The hope is that everything is going to even out right now, and we’ll see the increases that we anticipated this year come next year.”

McCarthy added that other economic tools can also be used to add public incentive to development that benefits the city as a whole.

“Tax increment dollars is just one of the tools in the economic tool box, and much of the income of the $850 million in investment that has taken place is leveraged by TIF dollars,” she said. “The private sector is investing in our downtown, and we’re getting transportation dollars invested in our downtown. It’s really a lot of private-sector investment and dollars from other government agencies.”