City to build policies from new Brooks corridor report

Construction crews work on the new AMC theater under construction at Southgate Mall. The project, along with other plans at the mall, is expected to catalyze future development within the Brooks Street corridor, and a new report could help guide that growth. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Opportunities to redevelop the Brooks Street corridor with housing and commerce could go far in helping the city realize the inward focus of its growth policy, so long as the City Council puts teeth into the recommendations of a new report guiding the district’s future, a planner said this week.

The council’s Land Use and Planning Committee on Wednesday placed its support behind the new Brooks Street Corridor Report, a long-anticipated document that suggests policy changes that will help realize the city’s vision for the busy Midtown district.

Whether those recommendations become policies may remain a work in progress, though there’s interest among council members to move in that direction.

“This is a great first step,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari. “I know there have been other planning efforts along Brooks, but I think this will help catalyze moving forward to look at zoning in some way to help inform what we do with commercial design standards and a variety of other things.”

The authors of the new report spent the week in Missoula, showcasing their findings with members of the council and again during an evening presentation with interested stakeholders.

John Levey of Community Builders said the potential to redevelop the corridor is vast, ranging from vertical construction that offers a variety of uses, to greater density that will support future plans for enhanced public transit.

“Current land uses in the area in some cases are challenged,” Lavey said. “You’ve got really interesting parcel configurations. There’s a lot of triangular lots that don’t lend themselves to anything. It’s not much of a buildable space, and there’s a lack of affordable housing in the area.”

Lavey said the impediments to development include the district’s infamous triangular lots. Commercial zoning standards also create barriers to redevelopment, including setbacks, building design and maintenance.

To address the lot configuration, Lavey said, the report contemplates vacating certain parcels, and doing it strategically. It also considers vacating certain streets, several of which create random triangular intersections. Vacated streets could be applied as a public amenity or offered as an incentive to private developers.

But it’s the district’s larger nodes, including Southgate Mall, the Hastings location and the Holiday Village Shopping Center that offer the greatest opportunity for redevelopment. How that unfolds will likely influence the district’s future.

“People in general are in support of increased housing and density in the area,” said Lavey. “You can obtain higher densities, 40 to 50 units per acre, in a four-story building. Those kinds of densities are useful to support transit, and a variety of housing types and price points is something you ought to consider.”

A market assessment found that 16,000 people live in the Midtown district, and roughly 22 percent of them are millennials between the ages of 22 and 35. The median household income sits at $38,000.

Roughly 53 percent of the housing units are rented and 43 percent are owned, while 5 percent are vacant. It’s also a major employment center, second only to downtown in terms of the commerce it generates. Around 17,000 workers are employed at 2,000 individual businesses.

Office space is considered affordable, Lavey said, with rents ranging from $8 per square foot to $20.

“There is a bit of opportunity for retail, dining and entertainment,” said Lavey. “There’s a lack of neighborhood-facing retail. In the short term, we think there’s some opportunity there for that. The Southgate Mall redevelopment is going to be a significant catalyst in the area as that turns into more of an urban environment.”

To achieve the vision, the report recommends a number of changes, including amendments to the city’s current zoning ordinance. Those include setbacks, allowing greater building heights to achieve the necessary density, and new design guidelines.

“Specifically for Brooks, we’d encourage you to think about vertical mixed use,” said Lavey. “We’d also encourage development at full intensity. If the development code encourages 50 units per acre, we’d encourage you to encourage developers to build at that intensity.”

Members of the council, along with the Missoula Midtown Association, have placed their support behind the report’s findings and recommendations. Development interest in the corridor is high and several private developers have already launched new projects that fulfill the report’s vision.

The new Brooks Street Corridor Report calls for a number of changes within the Midtown district, including better connectivity, vertical construction and higher densities. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“This is coming at the exact right time,” said Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong. “It’s changing rapidly. I know the Chamber of Commerce is concerned about maintaining the amount of traffic coming up from the Bitterroot, and this plan does that.”

Yet several recent projects proposed or underway in the Brooks Street corridor detract from the plan’s recommendations, including the new gas station at Brooks and Orange, and a single car wash approved as a conditional use for the large lot currently occupied by the Howard Johnson Inn.

While passing a resolution to support the report doesn’t serve as policy, it does set the tone, and the council is likely to explore ways to set the recommendations in motion and avoid future conditional uses.

“This plan sets the stage for us to adopt zoning that makes the corridor less auto reliant and gives us the teeth and the tools so we don’t have to go through this conditional use process,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. “It gives predictability to the developers. The point of adopting this is to give the nod to staff to start working on the zoning and using the design review process to do that.”

Lavey said the Missoula Redevelopment Agency could also play a significant role in realizing the corridor’s vision through the use of tax increment financing. The agency has used the method in the past to help a number of projects move toward reality, so long as they adhered to plans for the district.

“There’s a significant amount of private development happening, so supporting those private developers, we think, is going to be a positive catalyst for this area,” Lavey said. “We’d also encourage you to explore and create a business improvement district, which would allow private business owners to ban together to provide services in the area that aren’t supported necessarily by their taxes.”