Concerning California: Officials say it’s time for a street plan

Lack of sidewalks, a dangerous road configuration and a general lack of infrastructure are holding up a number of projects, though city officials say a long-anticipated street plan could change that. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

After several years of deferred action, an undeveloped stretch of California Street was approved Thursday for a study to determine the alignment of future infrastructure, enabling developers to begin projects today.

At its regular monthly meeting, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Directors gave the agency’s staff the green light to issue a request for proposals to begin the preliminary design of the north-south roadway just outside the bustling Old Sawmill District.

“We don’t have the funding capacity to take on that as a construction project right now,” said Todd Gass, a project coordinator with MRA. “But I think it would be good to have that as a tool we can apply to the south end of California Street, so we know where the public improvements are going to be made.”

In 2009, the board approved a memorandum of understanding between MRA and the city’s engineering department to provide tax increment financing to design and reconstruct California Street from River Road to Dakota Street.

WGM Group completed the design for the stretch of roadway, though reconstruction has been deferred due to lack of funding.

Gass said interest in redeveloping California Street has since expanded from Dakota to South Third Street. Several development projects have already moved in, including one commenced by the Missoula Housing Authority on property donated by the city.

Lori Davidson, director of the Missoula Housing Authority, said her latest project is nearing completion and occupancy. And while the city donated the land for affordable housing, it didn’t require the housing department to install sidewalks or curbs since the street’s future remains uncertain.

“Getting this design done would be a great thing to get moving on,” Davidson said.

Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley said the city owns several other parcels of land along the street. Members of the council have expressed interest in either donating them to affordable housing, or selling them to pay for reconstruction of California Street.

While a decision has yet to be made, Bentley said there’s widespread support for finishing the street’s design so builders have a concept of where to place infrastructure. It would also give the city a starting point on how to safely align the roadway, including a dangerous curve.

Purchasing additional right of way may also be needed, Bentley said, though such questions can’t be answered without a design.

“We need to figure it out,” Bentley said. “Redevelopment is great, and it’s nice to see affordable housing going in so we can stave off gentrification. But there’s a lot of foot traffic in the area and there aren’t any sidewalks.”

Sidewalks have become a hot topic with the Missoula City Council in recent weeks, with council members debating where to focus limited resources.

This week, the council opted to undertake a sidewalk replacement effort in the Slant Street neighborhood, which already has sidewalks.

Finishing the design of California Street could help that area attract future sidewalk spending from the city.

“There’s a few various parcels in that area and a desire on the city’s part to sell or donate to dispose of that land,” said Gass. “Not knowing what the road might be, it’s kind of holding that up. Having a preliminary design in place will position them to make a decision on those parcels, and it will help developers.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com