Developer seeks funding to cover portion of new downtown parking garage

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A student housing project slated to break ground this July on Front Street in downtown Missoula would include two levels of parking, with half of it reserved for public use. Front Street Partners is seeking roughly $4 million from MRA to help pay for the parking portion of the project.

By Martin Kidston

A Missoula developer looking to construct a student housing project in the downtown district is seeking roughly $4 million in tax increment financing from the city’s redevelopment arm to help construct two levels of parking, half of which would be reserved for public use.

The request, made by Front Street Partners on Thursday, represents a small portion of a larger $34 million student housing project, which is scheduled to undergo construction this July.

If approved, the city would bond $4 million and pay it back in increments using some or all of the taxes generated by the new development. The Board of Directors for MRA made no decision Thursday regarding the request.

“Do we as a board, as a matter of policy, expect our investment in this project to produce more increment than has to be devoted to the project itself?” asked board member Daniel Kemmis. “When you look at the impacts of this project on Front and Main (streets), I don’t believe we’d support this unless the outcome was such that we had additional resources to address Front and Main.”

The city has already completed a study that found it beneficial to restore two-way traffic to Front and Main streets. While funding to complete the project is scarce, increment generated by several large buildings currently in the planning phase could help move the conversion forward by providing additional taxes.

Yet those projects remain a ways off and the board must decide whether to apply all or some of the added tax revenue generated from the immediate housing project back to the $4 million bond needed to create parking.

“I would feel better if not all the increment went to paying the debt, but in fact, leaving other income streams to achieve these other goals,” said board member Ruth Reineking. “That doesn’t mean we couldn’t still do something there. Or maybe it’s best to have all the tax increment pay back the debt.”

Parking in the area is currently scarce and with other projects in the works, the board expressed value in embarking on a public-private partnership to build more parking. It could also entice future development to the area.

The district’s urban renewal plan mentions parking 48 times and describes it as a pressing need. The plan envisions the need for an additional 600 parking places. Providing a portion of them in the housing project marks a step in that direction.

“It’s listed as one of the greatest challenges for efficient and appropriate development of the area,” said Chris Behan, assistant director of MRA. “Adding to the total parking inventory in that area would allow other smaller projects to go ahead.”

As proposed, the parking structure would include 308 stalls on two levels, with half of them reserved for public use. The ratio could change, though the developers plan to offer incentives to student residents that discourage automotive ownership.

“We understand there’s an obligation on our part to minimize the number of students who have cars in our facility,” said Pat Corrick, the project’s developer. “The reason you haven’t seen a lot residential development downtown is because of costs, and parking is one of the pieces of that that’s a challenge.”

While the board will work to resolve other questions regarding funding, it expressed general support for the project as a whole.

“We are certainly doing redevelopment, and we’re providing a public resource (paring) as part of that,” said board member Karl Englund. “The district as a whole benefits when part of it is redeveloped. If this is a significant enough project to spruce up that area, we’re generating a lot of economic activity in an area that needs it.”