Workforce housing, innovation want prominent role in updated Downtown Master Plan

The intersection of Broadway and Higgins Avenue lies at the heart of downtown Missoula, though other areas of the district continue to grow and will be the focus of an updated to the city’s Downtown Master Plan. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A push to update Missoula’s Downtown Master Plan for the next 25 years has netted $350,000 so far, leaving a funding gap of just $50,000, the plan’s implementation committee said Wednesday.

The Missoula City Council will consider paying the difference. But in doing so, it’s likely to bring several requests to the table, including the need for workforce housing and what one council member described as entrepreneurial density.

“We’re pretty proud of the fact that we’ve accomplished approximately 70 percent of the current master plan,” said Matt Ellis, a member of the implementation committee. “This plan was originally designed to be a 25-year plan, and we’ve done it in less than 10 years.”

In a presentation to members of the City Council, Ellis touched on the plan’s list of achievements, from the redevelopment of the Top Hat and Wilma as entertainment venues to the Roam student housing project and plans for a new downtown library.

While private and public investment has been peppered across the district, the bulk of it has centered along Front and Main streets. The original master plan hinted at that investment, though it faced several hurdles early on, including the recession and the closure of Macy’s in 2010.

But later this year, the Residence Inn by Marriott will open on the former Macy’s property and, when it does, it will include a handful of restaurants and retail spaces. The $40 million project served as both a surprise and a pleasure to those working to bring the original plan to fruition.

“One of the things that has surprised me a little bit, in the original master plan, the Front and Main corridor was identified as the retail hot spot,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “A huge amount of the development we’re seeing is along Front Street. It’s probably the most heavily invested-in street in Montana right now. The plan was pretty prophetic that way.”

Since the plan’s adoption in 2009, roughly 1,225 housing units have also been added or planned for across the downtown district. Around 700 of them were projected at the Old Sawmill District, which remains under construction, and 200 were projected for the Riverfront Triangle, which has yet to break ground.

Of the 1,225 downtown units, however, it’s estimated that only 45 are considered affordable housing, according to Lori Davidson of the Missoula Housing Authority. Increasing the availability of workforce housing is expected to play a more prominent role in the plan’s revision.

“The numbers that are presented for the Riverfront Triangle and Old Sawmill District are speculative,” said Buchanan. “I think there will probably be more units at the Riverfront Triangle and fewer units at the Old Sawmill District. One of the things we’ll work toward, in terms of public investment at the Riverfront Triangle, there will be an affordable, obtainable component to that.”

While the new plan is expected to set goals for land use, parking, business recruitment and circulation, some also are urging it to consider innovation.

Over the past month, talk of creating an “innovation ecosystem” has brought the city and the University of Montana closer together as they look to erase the boundaries that have divided the two entities.

Council member Julie Armstrong, who recently met with former Missoula residents who have grown their tech companies elsewhere, believes the downtown district must focus on innovation as it looks to the future – and as it looks to compete.

“They said we don’t have the infrastructure or culture they need to come back,” Armstrong said. “We need to be focusing on an innovation ecosystem. That needs to be at the top of your list. They want to see more entrepreneurial density and they don’t want it to be on campus. They want it to be in the middle of downtown and accessible to everybody.”

If the city opts to fund the remaining $50,000 to complete the plan’s revision, the implementation committee expects to hire a consultant by August and conduct public outreach this fall.

An updated plan is expected by the summer of 2019.