The future of Front Street: Planning, two-way conversion remain on city’s radar

Front Street has seen a building boom over the past year, and the development isn’t likely over as downtown Missoula grows. The city looks to include Front Street in the pending update to the Downtown Master Plan. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Tucked within last week’s debate on whether to contribute funding to the Missoula Public Library sat a deeper conversation over the Front Street district and its future, particularly in regards to traffic, infrastructure and an influx of new downtown residents.

Karl Englund, a longtime MRA board member, cited neighborhood concerns that growth and its impacts on the district haven’t been properly planned. Three sizable projects, including the Roam student apartments, the Residence Inn by Marriott and the new library are either underway or planned for the area.

Other projects are likely waiting on the horizon as downtown Missoula widens its footprint.

“At least informally, I felt we made a commitment to the neighborhood that we would nonetheless help with planning for what happens as a result of the changes on Front Street,” said Englund. “I feel personally like we made a commitment to do that.”

While the board agreed to contribute $500,000 to help the library retain its four-story design, several members raised concerns that doing so would leave the Front Street district short on funds to tackle other projects.

That included planning for future infrastructure and transportation needs as the district continues to grow – a result of a robust downtown economy. But Missoula Mayor John Engen assuaged those fears, saying the new construction will fund future planning needs as the projects hit the tax rolls.

“If we’re sitting in this room a year from now and looking at revenues generated by this district, there will be funding available not only to take care of this pledge (library), but there will be funding available to take care of those planning processes,” Engen said.

Engen and Ellen Buchanan, director of the MRA, have already discussed the Front Street district’s needs. While funding in the district is tight, the mayor said, momentum shouldn’t be paused out of a temporary concern.

“We have a lot of opportunity down there, and a lot of it is project-based around other activities happening in the district and our ability to capitalize on some of that to help those planning efforts,” Engen said. “My sense is this district is going to be enormously successful and it really is a function of timing.”

While Buchanan shared concerns over traffic and egress, she said the city of Missoula and its partners have already raised $400,000 to launch an update to the Downtown Master Plan, a process that’s expected to kick off this fall.

That new plan will include Front Street.

“This is a perfect opportunity to shine a bright light on that area as one of the areas that maybe needs more consideration than some of the other areas,” Buchanan said. “We’re going to have a team of experts look at this objectively.”

Buchanan said tax revenues generated by the Roam student housing project and Residence Inn both increased in 2017, even though construction wasn’t finished. By this time next year, both developments will be fully open, and their taxable value is expected to increase, though much of that revenue will be tied up in servicing debt.

But other projects are rumored, and Terry Payne, the owner of the current library site, hasn’t yet announced his plans for that sizable downtown property after the new library opens.

Engen added that planning for the two-way conversion of Front and Main streets is already finished. A study funded by MRA several years ago 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, though that figure was estimated several years ago.

“We have identified some additional revenue, working with the Montana Department of Transportation, we think holds tremendous promise for moving the project forward,” Engen said. “It would relieve the district of a considerable burden around funding that project.”

Establishing protection zones for neighborhoods surrounding the downtown district will also play a role in the updated Downtown Master Plan, Buchanan said.