Vision behind the design: $80M downtown hotel, conference center strives for river views

Dieter Huckestein, a member of Hotel Fox Partners, presented the conceptual plans for seven acres of property in downtown Missoula during a Missoula Redevelopment Agency meeting earlier this year. The project continues to evolve, according to architect Jeff Crouch. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Jeff Crouch had 15 minutes this week to detail his vision for a hotel and conference center planned for downtown Missoula. It came with architectural renderings and colorful slides noting the project’s orientation on the corner of Orange and Front streets.

Then came two additional hours of legal talk and a deep dive into the various agreements that will guide the project’s partnership between Hotel Fox and the city. The deals are complex for sure and are needed for the project to move forward – and so garnered most of the press accounts following the marathon meeting.

But the project itself is worthy of a closer look.

Crouch, who serves as the project’s lead architect with CTA Architects of Missoula, has spent the past two years, if not longer, designing the $80 million facility. And while those designs remain conceptual, the end vision is becoming clear, and it all comes down to the Clark Fork River.

“Everything we have done has been an effort to pull the river into the hotel,” said Crouch.

That vision includes nearly all elements of the project, from the hotel rooms to the conference center. The bar and restaurant, and even the second-story pool with its patio consider the river. From the upper floors, the valley views will be memorable, as evidenced by photographs taken from a drone.

“I have a crew of people working on what this hotel is going to be,” said Crouch. “Just as the legal agreements have evolved over the last few months, the architecture is evolving as well. We’re in a hurry to get to the starting line because as soon as these agreements are finalized and the owners give us the go, that’s when we start our real work.”

As it stands, the project includes a seven-story, full-service hotel offering up to 198 rooms. Three additional floors built atop the hotel will include 46 private condominiums.

Below the structure, two levels of parking will provide 405 stalls, bringing the hotel lobby flush with Front Street. Attached to the hotel sits a 60,000-square-foot conference center with room for 1,000 dinner guests.

“It’s all under one roof, and they’re all part of the same architecture, but we have broken each of them down for architectural discussions,” Crouch said. “We’re pulling some of the historical brick from downtown Missoula across (Orange) street into our newly expanded downtown, and there’s lots of glass and pulling in some of our wood heritage.”

Architect Jeff Crouch

In designing the project, Crouch said, the hotel tower establishes the prevailing architecture. Steel support beams rise from the foundation below the garage and extend upward throughout the structure.

Everything else has to work around that structural grid, he said, and it all comes down to the basic design of a hotel room.

“You start with the land you have to deal with and the size of the property – where the streets are and where the river is,” said Crouch. “In this case, the river is probably the most dynamic and important element. But you go all the way back to an individual hotel room, because everything structurally has to stack around a hotel room.”

Much of the hotel and conference center, along with other projects to follow on the seven-acre property, will effectively extend downtown Missoula west along Front Street, which will end at a roundabout featuring the old Fox Theater marquee.

From the roundabout, a public plaza will run south to the river. Eventually, it could cross the water with a new footbridge connecting to McCormick Park and Osprey Stadium.

“We’ve got a large restaurant and bar with lots of outdoor seating here,” Crouch said, noting the hotel’s amenities. “Obviously, one of the opportunities here is to celebrate our river, our parks and plazas, so these bar and restaurant functions will spill out into three-season outdoor seating overlooking the river.”

The conference center also plays off the river, with walls of glass and prominent views of the surrounding area. The great hall will include around 15,000 square feet, effectively doubling the single-room capacity for large events in Missoula.

When smaller events are in order, Crouch said, the hall can be divided, allowing multiple functions to take place at once. It also offers space for vendors to sell their wares during events.

“This pre-function hallway, which happens to be 40 feet deep and runs the entire length of the hotel, also happens to be all glass looking down at our beautiful river, our park across the street and downtown Missoula,” said Crouch. “It’s a huge amenity with a visual kind of draw. People are going to remember coming to a conference just for that.”

After issuing a nationwide request for proposals, the city awarded Hotel Fox Partners exclusive rights to develop a small slice of downtown property bequeathed to the city back in 1984.

Since then, the project has grown both in vision and scale to include seven acres, which the developers have purchased over the past few years. That has led to a master development plan that includes the hotel and conference center, along with housing, retail and office space.

The latest conceptual plan for the hotel and conference center looking west down Front Street. (CTA Architects)

The overall project has been billed as a boon to the wider community, both in future job opportunities and the tax revenue it will generate. The conference center alone is projected to provide an economic impact of $14 million a year, drawing an estimated 100,000 people to Missoula for events it would not otherwise land.

The addition of housing and office space could also impact the larger economy, helping buoy other downtown businesses.

For Crouch, it’s also a chance to grow the downtown district in a way that adheres to the city’s master plan. Front Street is growing both to the east and west, and downtown Missoula is likely to appear much different in coming years.

Doing it smartly will serve as enhancement, Crouch said.

“What’s even more important than those numbers is that our community is growing, and it’s going to grow no matter what numbers you look at,” said Crouch. “We’re talking about this being a kickoff project for a multi-phase project that includes housing at all levels of income, more retail, more parking and offices. We have all that coming as well.”