Plans to extend city water mains could open the door to infill development

The Montana Department of Transportation began redeveloping the Russell Street corridor this year, and the city rearranged funding for capital improvements to install a large water main down the urban corridor. (Missoula Current file photo)

A strategic push by several city agencies could bring water utilities to underserved parts of Missoula, setting the stage for new development that’s currently hindered by a lack of basic services.

Doing so won’t come cheap, as evidenced by the $377,000 cost of extending a 12-inch water main 900 feet off Russell Street to serve Garden City Harvest and the surrounding neighborhood.

Yet the Missoula Redevelopment Agency said this week that completing the project could help develop empty city lots and realize the city’s plans for inward growth.

“Extending water lines is wildly expensive,” said Chris Behan, assistant MRA director. “It’s not something we can knock off in one year. So MRA staff, Missoula Water and the fire department are meeting to look at strategic ways to serve underserved areas of the district.”

When the city’s drinking water system was under corporate ownership, Mountain Water Co. practiced a policy in which property owners had to front the extension of water lines. The company would then pay them back over a period of 40 years.

While that worked well for larger projects and developers with deep pockets, it made it nearly impossible for small property owners, like Garden City Harvest, to front the cost. With the water system now under public ownership, bringing water mains to underserved areas is a realistic option.

“Part of that issue was Mountain Water’s policy for extending water mains,” Behan said. “But that doesn’t coincide with the way you finance a project, and it pushed many projects, unless they were very large, out of the realm of being affordable.”

The city took possession of the water system last summer after years in court, and the timing was perfect. The Montana Department of Transportation began redeveloping the Russell Street corridor this year, and the city rearranged funding for capital improvements to install a large water main down the urban corridor.

Garden City Harvest plans to tap into the new main at Russell and River Road and extend it to their property, which sits on the edge of Urban Renewal District II.

“That opens up more activity going on here, which will require more extensions,” said Behan. “It opens up the future possibility of more development at Diversified Materials, formerly MonRoc. People have taken some runs at (developing) that, but utility access is one of the reasons that hasn’t happened.”

The new water main could also set the stage for redevelopment along Russell Street and areas east and west of the corridor. But running a 12-inch main 900 feet west of Russell to the district boundary carries a $377,000 price tag.

Garden City Harvest is paying $100,000 for the extension and MRA’s board of directors agreed to contribute $229,000 to the project. Other in-kind services have been offered.

“It wasn’t a small effort to put additional money to this to make it happen,” said Garden City board member Heather McMillin. “Some programmatic pieces of the new facility are on hold right now because they’re not on city water. This is a really important connection, both for the organization and the neighborhood.”

Similar connections to other underserved neighborhoods remain out of reach financially, at least for now. But Behan said MRA, Missoula Water the city fire department are exploring their options. Other areas, including Mount Avenue and areas near the Old Sawmilll District, are also underserved.

While the lack of services has delayed projects planned by Garden City Harvest, so too has it delayed redevelopment efforts in other parts of Missoula. A new strategic plan could uncork redevelopment potential.

“We’re looking to prioritize certain kinds of things Missoula Water might be able to fund, what MRA can bring to it, and what other funding sources that could allow the consideration of development,” Behan said. “We’re working toward that, and will in the next few months bring the results of those recommendations together.”