City Council approves guidelines for $200M downtown development, delays affordable housing decision

The Riverfront Triangle development will include open space, a riverfront trail, convention city and 200-room hotel, office and retail spaces, and a mixed-used residential development. (CTA Architects)

By Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current

Avoiding, for now, a debate over mandating lower-income housing, the Missoula City Council approved land use and development requirements for the $200 million Riverfront Triangle development on Monday night.

A series of unanimous votes, and limited discussion or public comment, gave Riverfront Development Partners the new zoning, vacated streets and development guidelines needed to move forward with more detailed plans for the seven-acre complex.

When complete, the development will include a 200-room hotel, a city-owned conference center, a blend of office and retail space, recreational trails and open space, and an as-yet undetermined mix of housing along the Clark Fork River south of West Broadway and west of Orange Street.

In doing so, the development group will give downtown Missoula an all-new western gateway.

The area has been blighted for decades.

At Monday’s council meeting, Ward 4 council member John DiBari offered the complex series of motions, first vacating small sections of Front Street, Owen Street and a 20-foot-wide alley.

In return, the developers agreed to provide continued public access in the form of greenways, a riverfront trail and small park, and a “plaza” extending from the hotel/convention center to the river.

Then came a lengthy motion to rezone the property to CBD-4 Central Business District and OP1 Open Space, again preserving access and greenways.

The one potential land mine came with the final motion, approving the Fox Triangle’s land use and development requirements.

Council members were divided during last week’s committee meeting over whether the city should require specific amounts of low-income housing on the private land within the development. (The hotel and convention center will be built on property owned by the city.)

That philosophical divide remained Monday night, but the debate and ultimate decision was avoided by an amendment drafted in recent days during a series of private discussions by individual council members and developers.

DiBari referenced the back-and-forth in offering an amended motion that delayed an agreement regarding the precise mix of housing to be provided at the development.

He praised council members, the development group and city staff members for “doing a really good job for the people of Missoula” and “taking to heart” a multitude of interests in writing guidelines for the massive development.

Of particular note, DiBari said, was the developers’ agreement to preserve public access to the riverfront acreage and to take extra steps to protect the river and the environment overall.

It is “not appropriate at this time to say what kinds of housing need to be provided” at the Riverfront Triangle, he added. “The residential portion of this development has not yet been designed.”

Instead, DiBari suggested an amendment requiring a separate agreement at some future point in time “addressing the appropriate mix of multi-income housing, including low- to moderate-income housing,” that will be provided in the residential portion of the development.”

And the developers will not be alone in working to provide that mix of income.

Language added by Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones specifically requires the city of Missoula, a nonprofit housing developer “and any other possible entities that can constructively and financially participate in creating this affordable housing component of the Fox Triangle Development” to work together in arriving at a mix of residential housing.

A defined Monday, that mix will include some undetermined amount of housing that will “serve households meeting the HUD definition of affordable housing.”

Also to be decided at that future date will be the length of time that the affordable housing units will be priced to serve households meeting the HUD definition.

“We need to have as clear of language as we can in capturing the council’s intent,” said Jones, in offering the wording that requires wide participation in providing the lower-income housing component. “This will be a collaborative process with various groups involved” and “will ake sure we get affordable housing.”

Jim McCloud, speaking on behalf of Riverfront Development Partners, gave his support to the affordable housing amendment, but said that mixed housing will require the participation of a wide range government, for-profit and nonprofit entitites.

“We don’t have a problem with it,” McCloud said. “What is best for Missoula is to have mixed-use housing.”

All agree the development will rejuvenate a large area of downtown Missoula that began its decline several decades ago when the Fox Theater closed and, later, a number of other businesses. When the new Broadway Building was constructed, Western Montana Clinic moved out of its riverside building.

In recent years, the city granted a development group originally formed as Hotel Fox Partners exclusive rights to develop a small section of city property at the corner of Orange and Front streets, where a leased parking lot now sits – and where the 200-room hotel and convention center will be built.

Over time, the developers expanded their vision and purchased surrounding properties to create a seven-acre master development that added retail and office spaces and residential housing.

But while the hotel and conference center will be built on city land, the remainder of the development will be on private property; thus, the debate over how far the city of Missoula can go in requiring low-income or affordable housing be included in the mix.