Downtown Missoula: New plan to guide future growth of city’s urban core

Several hundred people gathered in downtown Missoula on Monday night to help design the district’s future. The input will help a team of national consultants write a new master plan guiding growth and development, traffic and transit, for the next 20 years. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In the 10 years that have passed since Missoula adopted its last Downtown Master Plan, the district has attracted more than $800 million in investment.

New parking structures have been added, along with lodging, student housing and a handful of growing businesses with precious jobs. The parking district added new meters driven by modern technology, and several downtown streets were altered to accommodate bikes and pedestrians.

So what’s next?

“We’ve had pretty good success over the last 10 years implementing the original master plan, but I’m told the second plan is harder to do,” said Linda McCarthy. “A downtown plan is only as good as the people who participate in building that plan.”

McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Partnership, opened a design session Monday night as the district crafts its new 20-year plan. The process began in October and is scheduled to finish this fall.

To get there, a team of engineers, planners and national experts in “new urbanism” have set out to gather input on what the future of downtown should look and feel like in the coming years. More than 200 people attended the opening session on Monday, offering 200 different opinions.

It will be up to Dover, Kohl & Partners to distill the information and look for common themes.

“Cities only do this once every 20 years, so it’s an historic event,” said Jason King, the project’s senior director with Dover, Kohl & Partners. “This is just our first conversation.”

Ninety-eight percent of those surveyed in an earlier poll believe the new plan should prioritize housing. In the same survey, 88 percent said it was important to encourage green building opportunities while 84 percent said jobs were important.

Visions of sustainability, connectivity, density and walkability will likely emerge as fundamental goals as the district grows. Missoula will continue its city evolution and the plan will help guide that growth and development over the coming decades.

“If downtown became the growth engine for the region, it’s possible that housing costs could decrease,” said Alex Steinberger, a member of the planning team with Cascadia Partners. “At the same time, because development would happen in areas where you already have good sidewalk coverage, good walkability, that can improve walkable access and transit access for everyone.”

The planning team has already developed three scenarios for growth in Missoula, including the status quo. Changing nothing would likely drive housing further west and continue the region’s high housing costs and transportation headaches.

Placing new development near existing services and boosting public transit, trails and walkability remains a city priority.

“We looked at what would happen if we were to achieve the Missoula growth policy,” said Steinberger. “We also looked at a scenario where we mapped out what would happen if downtown really became the growth engine of the region.”

City Council President Bryan von Lossberg listens to Monday night’s presentation by Dover, Kohl & Partners. Several members of the City Council attended the workshop. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

During Monday night’s design session, residents brought their own vision for the downtown district. Nearly all had an eye on parking, including structured parking off the Hip Strip.

Some sought improved pedestrian access, an allowance for taller downtown buildings, or better play off the Clark Fork River. Residential development, public transit, public art, and improved circulation were also mentioned.

“What we really work on in downtown is access and circulation – that’s what matters in downtown,” said Jim Charlier, a member of the consulting team. “A lot of downtowns like yours are also beginning to think about the asset that the university represents to the downtown, and how to link them better.”

Charlier also questioned the future of the vacant federal building and how it might be redeployed for another use. Vacant parking lots will likely fill with new development, and housing will remain a key priority.

On Monday night, as residents gathered around tables and detailed their visions for downtown, the Seattle City Council also began its own plan allowing for denser buildings and housing. The Seattle plan would place affordable housing requirements on developers building in certain neighborhoods.

Missoula’s new downtown master plan is pacing alongside the city’s new affordable housing policy. Many will be watching to see how the two marry up in the end.

The consulting team will hold open design studios all week at the Public House in downtown Missoula from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“The value of planning helps everyone give input,” said McCarthy. “It gets all the agencies and organizations on the same page, which we know in this town is really valuable and important.”