Planners to explore riverfront park system, amenities through downtown Missoula

Reconstruction of the Higgins Avenue bridge is scheduled to begin early next year, giving Missoula a chance to redevelop Caras Park and the ribbon of parks and trails running north of the Clark Fork River while dong away with unsightly blacktop. (Missoula Current file photo)

The planning firm tasked with updating the city’s downtown master plan will take a deeper look at Missoula parks and trails along the Clark Fork River this year, including the need for structured parking, year-round use and river access.

Dover, Kohl and Partners will begin planning the vision in September with community input, and those behind the effort want the makings of a plan in place by early next year as work begins on the Higgins Avenue Bridge.

“The Higgins bridge is undergoing decking reconstruction that will start in January,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership. “We want to know if it’s viable for us to be doing some park renovations and construction during the Higgins bridge project.”

The bridge work will have “significant impacts” on Caras and Bess Reed parks in downtown Missoula, according to Ellen Buchanan, the executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

The Montana Department of Transportation will replace the existing bridge deck and add better lighting and wider lanes for non-motorized transportation. The project will also result in a plaza south of the bridge at Third Street in the Hip Strip.

But it’s the project’s impacts north of the river that will present the greatest opportunity to redevelop the city’s riverfront system of parks and trails, something the community envisioned in recent planning sessions.

“If substantial changes to either or both of the parks are the result of this planning, trying to do that while the parks are somewhat out of service would be ideal,” Buchanan wrote in a city memo regarding the bridge project.

Dover, Kohl and Partners revealed a draft of the city’s downtown master plan earlier this year, including a community vision for Caras Park and the riverfront trail system stretching from California Street to Missoula College.

In a challenge to “dream big” and look to the future, it included an ice-skating rink and splash park, an indoor market and structured parking on what now serves as a parking lot.

Such a project could be achieved by what planners see as a private-public partnership similar to the agreement in place at the Riverfront Triangle, where Hotel Fox Partners plans to build a conference center on city-owned land in conjunction with a hotel.

Replacing surface parking with structured parking would enable the city to make better use of Missoula’s riverfront property while converting unsightly blacktop to greenspace.

“We’ll be looking at how we fund these improvements,” said McCarthy. “Most of what we do isn’t single source. It’s usually lots of different sources and leveraging investment. It’s one of the things we need to figure out.”

While the process will undergo public workshops this September, an early vision is already taking shape as a result of downtown master planning. It includes new public restrooms and a seamless trail system from the California Street pedestrian bridge to Missoula Collage.

It also calls for a “ribbon” of parks along the water’s edge and hardened river access to prevent further bank erosion. It could also create year-round market space for artists and vendors, giving the park use beyond the summer months. An ice-skating rink or “ribbon” would also extend the park’s seasonal uses.

“What we really want to do is rethink Caras Park and how we can make it a better facility that can be used year round and not for just festival and events, and how we can accommodate the large number of tourist coming to downtown annually,” said McCarthy. “We want to have a more formalized venue for the Clark Fork Market.”