Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) After three years of work, the Midtown Master Plan became an official piece of the city's growth policy on Monday night, laying the groundwork for future development, transportation improvements and grant applications.

The plan, which saw wide community input, looks to increase residential and commercial development within the district, and it recommends a range of transportation improvements needed to increase connectivity and transit.

“Plans are good things. The consistency this provides is important,” said council member Mike Nugent. “Having the Midtown Master Plan as part of our official growth policy really lays the groundwork for us to do great things. It's how we get to go out and apply for some of the big things you see happening in Missoula right now.”

The Missoula Midtown Association hired EcoNorthwest several years ago to lead the planning process. Consultant Tyler Bump said the plan places its focus on various areas, with Midtown Junction being central to the district.

Midtown Junction was formerly known as “malfunction junction.”

“This isn't a plan just focused on Brooks Street. This is a plan that's focused on knitting parts of Midtown together,” said Bump. “Thinking about South Avenue, not just at Brooks. Thinking about Russell Street. Thinking about the connections across some of the major intersections and corridors in Midtown.”

Brooks Street serves as the spine that spans the Midtown district, and the city is working on a separate plan for the corridor that would convert it to a bus rapid-transit system. The Midtown plan begins that vision, recommending mixed-use residential development near proposed transit stops.

A bus rapid transit system is planned along the Brooks Street corridor.
A bus rapid transit system is planned along the Brooks Street corridor.

Bump said density bonuses and height bonuses could be offered to incentivize the right development at the right locations. The plan is also consistent with recent legislative changes around housing, and any needed zoning changes could be adopted as part of the city's code reform efforts.

“There are some zoning changes that will be required. But it's not full-scale remapping. It's about thinking about development standards like setback requirements, building coverage requirements and parking standards,” said Bump. “We've done some development feasibility testing with some of our recommendations and found they'll be helpful in increasing the housing options and availability for folks in town.”

Designing the future

The plan also considers urban design including indigenous history and culture, active ground floor uses, a place-making theme and a festival street on South Avenue.

“It's been a recommendation for a couple of years now,” Bump said of place making. “And there's this bigger idea of implementing the activation of a festival street concept on South Avenue at Brooks.”

On the land-use side, Midtown currently includes seven different land-use designations and 19 different zoning designations. He described it as a complex system, which the plan looks to simplify.

Doing so will make it easier for developers to fit a project into the district and give current residents more comfort in knowing what may land next door. The land-use recommendations are consistent with the growth policy, Bump added.

“A lot of our land-use recommendations are really focused on creating a clear regulatory process, removing barriers and having a little more simplicity,” he said.

An early rendering of the proposed project.
An early rendering of the proposed Casa Loma project.

The plan also looks to increase housing opportunities and density. A number of housing projects, such as Casa Loma, are either planned or proposed in the area, with many of them focused around Midtown Junction.

Bump said Midtown home prices have gone up more than 74% since the planning project began three years ago, and rent prices have increased 50% over the last 10 years. Housing remains a major issue across the city, and Midtown could help provide more supply with multi-story development.

“The affordability challenge is frankly one of the biggest community points that have come up during our engagement work,” he said. “That core Midtown Junction area is where we're trying to intentionally focus more on the density of residential units as well as more ground floor retail and commercial. It's also the area where the city needs to think about investing in transportation and mobility infrastructure.”

Along with housing and economic development, the plan also considers mobility. Throughout the planning process, crossing Brooks Street emerged as a constant theme, along with the district's lack of east-west connectivity.

To address it, the plan details a vision for trails and new non-motorized corridors, ways to soften Brooks Street with more pedestrian access, and converting the corridor into a rapid-transit system.

The plan received unanimous support from City Council.

“It sets a structure of future development in the area and helps position us well for any future funding to make these visions a reality,” said council member Mirtha Becerra.