New park for central Missoula neighborhood; mixed-used development could follow

The new park will see the completion of the Bitterroot Trail, which will run uninterrupted through Missoula south to Hamilton. (Missoula Current)

A 12-acre parcel in a central Missoula neighborhood will transform into a model urban park next year, enabling the city to complete a long-eyed stretch of the Bitterroot Branch Trail by spring.

Within the next few years, a portion of the property may also serve as a showpiece for the city’s new housing policy, including residential opportunities offered at a variety of incomes.

The property, bounded by North and South avenues along the Bitterroot Branch rail line just north of Southgate Mall, was purchased by the city from Montana Rail Link last year for $2 million. The railroad offered the former industrial lot at a discounted rate, hoping it would be put to better use.

“We’ll be able to construct the final remaining segment of the Bitterroot Branch Trail and create a needed neighborhood park,” said Annette Marchesseault with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “It’s a park desert and a sorely needed project. We’ve got a good design.”

The park will cover 4.5 acres of the 12-acre lot and include a number of amenities not found within the neighborhood, including an off-leash dog park, a basketball court and a picnic pavilion, among other things.

While a final budget has not been established, the park will likely cost around $1.5 million.

“What this does per park acre, per capita, with trail connectivity in a low-income neighborhood as it relates to social equity, health and wellness, is such a win-win,” said Donna Gaukler, director the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “This is one of those things that’s been on the list since 1991. It’s one of those 25-year projects.”

The park will undergo construction next year while the city explores its options for the remaining eight acres. That portion of the property is currently home to a number of tenants, including Camp Make-A-Dream, a church and a drywall company.

Ellen Buchanan, director of MRA, said the city is looking for partners to transform the site into a model development with both housing and commercial opportunities.

“We’d like to find partners and do model housing, mixed-use development that mixes housing types, incomes, along with some commercial,” said Buchanan. “We’ve had conversations with Camp Make-A-Dream about incorporating them into the mixed-use commercial portion of it. That would be pretty easy to do.”

Buchanan said the drywall company plans to relocate by the end of the year, and efforts to find the church a new home are taking place. Until that home is found, Buchanan said, the city will honor the church’s lease.

While plans for redevelopment are long term, Buchanan said the project would likely happen sooner rather than later.

“As we work toward a policy for housing with the city of Missoula, this becomes a real opportunity to demonstrate how you employ that policy,” Buchanan said. “I’d like to keep that opportunity available so we can go out and put our money where our mouth is when it comes to housing in the city.”