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Mayor adds detail to the future of Front Street corridor

Front Street in downtown Missoula will see more than $500 million in redevelopment over the next few years, according to Mayor John Engen. In this photo, the studen housing project is under development to the left, while deconstruction of the Mercantile takes place in the upper right. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

During last month’s state of the community address, Missoula Mayor John Engen hinted at the future of Front Street, suggesting several hundreds of millions of dollars in redevelopment projects were lining up to transform the downtown corridor.

This week, Engen elaborated on the corridor’s future, saying Front Street will soon join Higgins Avenue as the newest stretch of urban activity, one rooted in commerce and hospitality with opportunities for residential living and educational experiences.

“We’re going to see a renaissance in no small part,” Engen said. “There’s a renewed interest in downtown. Our planning process and our organizational strategies have all aligned, as well as a good economy and people recognizing the value of the market.”

Engen calculated roughly $518 million in redevelopment projects either under way or planned for the Front Street corridor. That extends from Providence St. Patrick Hospital east across Madison Street to Missoula College on East Broadway.

Engen included in his calculations the $38 million student housing project and parking garage already under construction on the 300 block of Front Street, along with the roughly $20 million Marriott Hotel that will rise where the Missoula Mercantile once stood.

Engen also calculated the new Missoula Public Library, with site preparation on the 400 block of Front Street expected to begin later this year. Several other projects, however, haven’t been publicly announced.

“St Pat’s has about $150 million in capital stuff planned,” Engen said. “The library block that will be vacated down the road is $20 million, and plans for the Double Tree is another $20 million.”

Earlier last month, Jim McCleod, the senior managing director of Farran Realty Partners, hinted at a large project slated for the Double Tree, though he said it was too soon to make the project public.

Farran is also behind redevelopment plans for the Riverfront Triangle, where a hotel and conference center, along with a parking garage, are likely to be the first projects to break ground in the seven-acre parcel.

Engen said that project is advancing and, once fully developed, it will likely carry a value of roughly $200 million.

“It’s not all about money, it’s about the quality that’s happening there,” Engen said of the downtown projects. “If you look at that Downtown Master Plan, you’ll find the activity going on to be consistent with that vision.”

The city also plans to convert Front and Main streets to two-way traffic, though funding to do so hasn’t been identified. A study funded by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency found that such a conversion would improve circulation and enhance economic opportunities for downtown businesses.

The two-way conversion was identified as a priority in the 2009 Downtown Master Plan. The study placed the cost of converting the streets at roughly $3.5 million.

“We get to a point where we open up the Madison Street section by virtue of a two-way street on Front and a two-way street on Main,” Engen said. “That barrier goes away and this corridor becomes very active. It’s a pretty cool east-west corridor, and it acknowledges the river.”

For the past several years, Engen has made the rounds with developers, showcasing different districts of the city ripe for redevelopment. The latest round of investment, which reached a Missoula record $245 million in building permits last year, spells good news for the city’s future.

Engen said the resurgence represents the tip of the iceberg.

“All this economic activity spurs more economic activity and redevelopment,” Engen said. “You start to look at some of the other opportunities along this corridor and any surface parking lot is subject to redevelopment. There’s probably some buildings that could grow or change, and uses can expand. I’m really bullish on this corridor downtown.”

Engen said the downtown district isn’t the only place seeing a revival. He believes the Reserve Street corridor remains healthy and renewed interest in the Brooks Street corridor is also expected to bring changes over the coming years.

“I’m glad (Reserve) is thriving, and I’m glad downtown is thriving,” Engen said. “Brooks is starting to see a real resurgence. You look at these three corridors and the activity, if I were an investor, I’d be pretty bullish on Missoula.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com