After public input, planning firm unveils Missoula’s growing downtown vision

Jason King of Dover, Kohl & Partners unveils a vision for downtown Missoula using information gathered from a robust public outreach effort. The presentation, offered Friday night at the Wilma, is part of writing a new Downtown Master Plan. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Nearly 70 percent of those polled on Friday night favored a public-private partnership to create more parking and shops in Caras Park, an agreement that could generate the funding needed to transform the locale into a world-class attraction.

While slightly less favored a lane reduction on Higgins Avenue, a more diversified transportation grid in the downtown district is most certainly in the future. So are taller buildings, “big” public art, more jobs and more housing.

Members of Dover, Kohl & Partners on Friday night summarized the results of their public outreach campaign, one that saw residents attend workshops and offer input on the future of downtown Missoula.

Roughly 80 percent of those in attendance felt the planning team was “on the right track” and most felt satisfied that their input had been heard, if not included in Friday night’s presentation.

“We’ve done our best to summarize the conversations we’ve had with you,” project manager Jason King told the crowd. “In like five days, we talked to over 1,000 people, one-on-one in some form of interaction. Usually when you have a Friday night meeting about urban planning, you don’t have 250 people show up.”

The interest in the district’s future is admittedly high and it comes as the old Downtown Master Plan prepares to sunset. More than 80 percent of the items envisioned in the 2009 plan have come to fruition, including public parking, more downtown lodging and $850 million worth of investment.

With Missoula poised for growth, a new plan is needed to continue guiding the district’s evolution. As presented, it includes a focus on housing and retail, better connectivity, parking, urban infill, jobs and public transit.

“You were asking for safety, police substations, more places to eat, restaurants, pharmacies, more grocery stores – Trader Joe’s if we can swing it – bike facilities and indoor markets,” said King. “We can fit a whole lot just in the Hip Strip, but we need to take care of the parking.”

Based on input, the public’s vision for the Hip Strip would see the district grow as an extension to downtown with senior housing, workforce housing, a parking structure and a transformation of Higgins Avenue into a pedestrian friendly and welcoming street. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Parking played a common theme throughout the evening presentation, and parking garages, though costly, were part of the equation. They don’t have to be mundane in design but could rise to the level of public art while providing public uses on the ground floor.

Parking structures in whatever form were envisioned on the Hip Strip, near the historic rail depot and in Caras Park.

That latter vision includes a confident nod toward a public-private venture. It would see the city trade a portion of the parking lot near Clark Fork Riverside for a privately built structure with ground floor shops, a rooftop deck with a view of the river, stacked parking and housing above.

The revenue from such a project could be reinvested in Caras Park, including “big art” and the addition of an ice-skating rink, not unlike those in Denver or New York. Most expressed support for the concept.

“If you put together all the ideas people have for that spot (Caras) and price-tag it, it’s $20 million, easily,” said King. “You don’t want to pay for that with your property taxes. So we have to find a way to pay for this thing we’ve been talking about for a long time. By virtue of this (building and parking garage), you have the funding to do a bunch of other things.”

The plan also envisions greater downtown density and height, an avoidance of “starchitecture,” and placing workforce housing on empty parking lots. For every one spot of surface parking lost to construction, King suggested, two additional spots must be created somewhere else in the district.

That begs questions over the fate of the automobile, and the plan begins to envision a future where the car could play a diminished role. Front Street could be considered for a public plaza, and Higgins Avenue could be reduced to two lanes of traffic with a center turn lane and room for cyclists.

“Four lanes for cars work just as well as three lanes,” he said. “But we’re still designing for the automobile, and we absolutely have to. The downtown is a place where people come from all over in Montana, and chances are they come in a Yukon.”

The plan also maintains a vision for dedicated public transit, including a return of the streetcar. That was included in the last master plan, and it will likely hold its place as the new plan is considered for adoption.

Federal funding is available for such projects, King said.

“You used to be a street-car community, and these rails in some places are still below the asphalt,” he said. “If you’ve been to Tucson, Albany, Los Angeles or El Paso, there are street cars on the street again. So why not consider it long range? Northside, University, the hospital, east side, west side and Midtown.”

The vision also includes extending downtown beyond Higgins Avenue, and connecting the district to the University of Montana. Transforming mundane urban features into public art won support, as did making use of the defunct roundabout in the railyard.

That vision was also included in the 2009 plan.

“Railroads are in a different position than they used to be,” King said. “It feels to us, talking to them, that there’s some bargaining power. If feels like if we keep this in the plan, it could happen.”

The plan suggests converting certain downtown streets into two-way traffic. One concept could see a small stretch of Main Street (pictured)  transformed into a public plaza, something that’s lacking in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Aside from new buildings, partnerships, public art and housing, the future of the downtown district will be one where people and cars are treated equally.

As it stands, King said, “you still have downtown roads intended to move cars as fast as possible.” He suggested that must change, and public polling taken Friday showed support for the concept.

“As you become a city, what if the traffic on that road (Front Street) could be calmed, pedestrians could feel comfortable, and there was still parking for cars and bikes?” he said. “If you take it a little further, you’re trying to turn it from a street to a plaza.”

That could be tested on weekends and special events, drawing pedestrian traffic off the well-worn path that is Higgins Avenue. If the effort showed success, he said, the city could consider closing a small stretch of Front Street completely for a permanent plaza with outdoor dining and entertainment.

The stretch in consideration runs one block outside the Top Hat Lounge.

“It’s one thing this town doesn’t have yet,” King said. “The best downtowns have urban plazas, and Front Street is the first place we’d look to do that.”

The Missoula Current has posted a video of Friday night’s full presentation on its Facebook page.