Update to downtown master plan looks to guide district’s vibe, economic growth

Retail and housing growth is extending east on Front Street, including the construction of a new hotel and retail spot (left) and a new student housing project, seen at right in the distance. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When the Downtown Master Plan was written in 2008, Mountain Line was five years away from offering zero fare service and Macy’s was still open in downtown Missoula.

Amid that pre-building boom atmosphere, the plan set a number of lofty goals in a push to transform the district into a vibrant hub. It sought retail hot spots and public transportation. It called for new hotel rooms and housing.

While times have changed over the past decade, backers believe the plan’s goals have seen success on nearly all fronts. But like any good plan, implementation and follow-through were key to success.

“We’ve had a master plan committee working on implementation since the original plan was approved,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership. “Every year you knock off different projects. Sometimes you can say they’re completed, and sometimes you can say Phase One is completed.”

While not all elements of the original plan came to fruition, such as retaining Macy’s as a retail anchor, many other aspects have been achieved. And with a new wave of investment making its way downtown, efforts to update the plan for the next decade of growth are underway.

This month, McCarthy said, backers launched a new campaign to raise $400,000 to complete the update, an effort that looks to bind both the public and private sector in a partnership to shape the city’s future.

“We think it’s valuable to have the public and private sector engage in that space,” McCarthy said. “When you have private sector buy in, it’s much easier to implement. It needs a broad base of input from across the community.”

The new plan is likely to retain several existing goals from the original plan, including the conversion of Front and Main streets into two-way traffic. Street design standards could play a role, along with workforce development and the needs of the city’s growing tech sector.

The original plan also recommended nearly a dozen parking strategies and the construction of the Park Place Garage, which opened in 2013. The new plan will explore whether parking will change with technology – think self-driving cars, ride share and public transportation.

And like the old plan, McCarthy said, the new document will look at retail hot spots and their role in the economic fabric of downtown.

“Retail hot spots were in the plan, to grow retail east and west and be more active at the street level,” said McCarthy “We’ve got a good start in that we’re seeing a little growth east and west. To really execute that, we’ll look at what we need to do to make that happen.”

The east-west retail growth envisioned in the original plan is taking shape on both Front and Main streets east of Higgins Avenue.

A new Marriott hotel and student housing complex are under construction on Front street – both with ground-floor retail. On Main Street, a new pub is under construction. The Days Inn and the old Firestone center are being eyed for redevelopment.

On the west end of town, Fox Hotel Partners are also gearing up for the initial phase of a $150 million redevelopment project. Among other things, the vision includes housing, retail, office space, and a new hotel and conference center.

Attracting “good-fit” retailers to the projects will be part of the new master plan.

“What are the retailers we can look for to locate downtown?” McCarthy said. “Part of that is the conference center. That will be a catalyst for that development to take place.”

The original Downtown Master Plan envisioned a number of different uses across the district, many of which have taken place.

Housing is also expected to be a central piece of the updated master plan. The original document envisioned five housing districts, from the Old Sawmill site to what, at the time, was deemed Railyard Housing, where the plan called for 1,300 housing units north of Higgins and the Montana Rail Link tracks.

While housing in the Old Sawmill District has come to fruition as part of a $250 million redevelopment project, the railyard vision never did. But of the 2,600 units envisioned in the downtown planning area, roughly half have been built over the last nine years, McCarthy said.

“Housing is another major component we think needs a concerted focus in the new plan,” said McCarthy. “Do we still want to do the same type of housing or a different type? Part of good planing is understanding what’s taking place in the marketplace and what the economic indicators are.”

McCarthy said the master plan committee went through each of the original plan’s action items in all five subcategories, including parking, housing, retail, employment and tourism. In doing so, she said, it found that 70 percent of the items listed had been completed.

While some items were beyond the control of the city – such as the loss of Macy’s and the construction of the Verizon store where a retail hot spot was envisioned – the original planning effort netted more results than not.

It also has brought predictability to the process, McCarthy said.

“It’s a good way to provide predictably to your private investors if there’s some assurance in what the future might look like,” McCarthy said. “They’ve see an change at City Hall and how they engage in private sector, and its showing results.”

McCarthy said funding for the new plan could be in place by March, when a request for proposals will be issued. More than 35 consulting firms applied to the last downtown planning effort, requiring several months of vetting and review for selection.

As the process picks up, she added, the city will form steering committees and a focus groups. The planning process itself could take up to nine months, resulting in a plan in early 2019. The last plan was adopted in 2009.

“If we don’t do it now we’ll be reacting and being on our heels for whatever happens down the road,” McCarthy said. “We want to continue to build on our success.”