MRA approves bond to help build structured parking with student housing project

Site preparation has begun on East Front Street as construction gears up on a $38 million student housing project, which includes 488 beds, two levels of structured parking and ground-floor retail.

By Martin Kidston

A $38 million student housing project planned for East Front Street could help the city address a shortage of structured parking within the downtown district, so long as the Missoula City Council approves the $3.2 million revenue bond to help cover the cost.

Front Street Partners, represented by Farran Realty, is building a 488-bed student housing complex at 300 E. Front Street. Plans include a six-story building with ground-floor retail and two levels of structured parking.

By contributing to the cost of building the parking facility, the city is essentially purchasing one level for public use. That, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency believes, could have a trickle-down effect and trigger other projects throughout the downtown district.

“The key to that district is parking, and the key to that is partnerships,” said Chris Behan, assistant director at MRA. “This is a chance to create that partnership with the Missoula Parking Commission, tax increment financing and a private entity.”

Because tax increment from past projects is currently obligated to several other downtown projects, the city must issue a revenue bond to help construct parking at the student housing facility. The $3.2 million bond is capped at that level, ensuring new tax revenues generated by the student housing project – estimated at $320,000 annually – cover the debt.

MRA’s board of directors approved the measure while also recommending that debt associated with the deconstruction of the old First Interstate Bank building be refinanced. Doing so would extend the terms of that bond and funnel savings to other needs in the Front Street Urban Renewal District.

Ellen Buchanan, executive director of MRA, said the move would also enable the Missoula Parking Commission to generate its own revenue and apply it toward other projects, including a future parking garage at the north end of Higgins Avenue.

“We’ve all recognized we need structured parking on the north end of downtown, so we can get away from these surface lots and put buildings there,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “Anything we can do to help the parking commission build the capacity it needs to provide that infrastructure in places where MRA can’t play is a good thing.”

Site work has begun on the Front Street Property. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

Jim McLeod, senior managing director and co-founder of Farran Realty Partners, said site work has already begun on the Front Street project. MRA granted the developers the authority to proceed in July as the bond issue works its way through local government.

McLeod also noted a 2012 pact signed by Mayor John Engen and University of Montana President Royce Engstrom to address a variety of quality-of-life issues, including the need to construct 1,000 units of student housing near campus.

Developers chose the Front Street location due to its proximity to both UM and Missoula College, as well as the downtown district. Creating modern, safe residences for student could effectively open up more affordable housing elsewhere in the city, McLeod said.

“Projects like this just don’t pencil out if you don’t have that partnership,” McLeod said. “We’re going to add almost 500 beds. It frees up other housing. Some of those homes could be converted back to primary residential. This project has a huge impact, not just for the university and downtown, but for the entire community of Missoula.”

The project meets the goals within several city plans both in terms of housing density and structured parking. Along with several other projects planned or proposed within the district, it will also add capacity to the greater downtown area, Behan said.

“There will be a fairly sizable and immediate increase in the population in that area,” he said. “Having that number of people downtown creates what’s been dreamed of by retailers who have hung on for decades.

“The addition of 500 students here, a hotel at the Mercantile and a hotel and conference center at the (Riverfront Triangle) site, really changes the dynamic of how existing and future retail businesses can thrive and grow downtown.”

A groundbreaking is planned for Friday.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com