What’s your vision of downtown Missoula in 10 years?

Work began this week on a new master plan for downtown Missoula, building on the district’s 10-year-old plan. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“Don’t just listen to the leaders. Listen to people at the gas station and the grocery store.”

“How can we grow and change, but still maintain Missoula’s historic character?”

“When I come downtown, I can’t see our landmarks anymore – I can’t see Hellgate Canyon or the clock towers at the courthouse or the university. I just see banks.”

This week, hundreds of Missoula residents met the Florida-based planners who will help the city write a new downtown master plan.

It will guide growth, development and investment in the city’s center for the next 10, maybe 20 years.

And while Dover, Kohl & Partners are just getting started on what will be a 15-month process, they’ve already learned a few things about Missoula.

For starters: No one is shy about offering their opinions about downtown, and those opinions are all over the map.

At a community kickoff event in the Wilma Theatre, the consultants introduced themselves and described the process that will result in a new master plan, then opened the floor for a Q&A session.

Mostly, they got “A’s” – suggestions about what and who should be included as Missoula builds upon the master plan adopted in 2009 and implemented over the past decade.

The historic Missoula Mercantile building was dismantled to make way for a downtown Marriott. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“Missoula is a very different place than it was 10 years ago,” Mayor John Engen said. “Downtown is a very different place, and that’s because Missoulians came together and expressed our values in clear and meaningful ways – and then manifest those values in the way we built.”

The Missoula Mercantile no longer stands as a retail anchor on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street, a new Marriott hotel rising in its place.

On the riverfront, the Wilma Building stands tall, with a beautifully renovated theater that hosts a diverse menu of cultural events. Caras Park is booked to capacity weekdays and weekends.

Stockman Bank fills the block at Orange Street and Broadway. A hotel and convention center is planned just to the south and west, along the riverfront.

On Front Street east of Higgins, an apartment complex for University of Montana students is welcoming its first tenants, while nearby construction has started on a new Missoula Public Library.

There are bike lanes on Higgins Avenue and sidewalk cafes outside several restaurants. The Missoula County Courthouse has been renovated; there’s a new Garlington, Lohn and Robinson building across the street.

Change is evident on every corner.

But Missoula isn’t finished growing or changing, said Jason King, the senior director at Dover Kohl who will serve as the principal project director for the master plan update.

“Tell us your story, and we’ll help you write your plan for the future,” King said.

The plans that have guided downtown Missoula’s growth in the past aren’t being thrown out, he said. “We are building on the work that you’ve done before: On the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. On the new parks and trails. On the public spaces, streets and buildings that wouldn’t have happened without the first downtown master plan.”

But King cautioned that the second plan will be a bigger challenge than the first.

“You are a victim of your own success,” he said. “Now everyone wants to be in Missoula, and to be downtown. Now you have a problem with affordable housing. Now we are challenged to create the kind of prosperity and progress that involves everybody.”

And, in fact, inclusion was foremost in the minds of the dozen or so local residents who took advantage of the kickoff to offer their thoughts about the future of downtown Missoula and the new master plan.

Many in the audience of several hundred applauded their commentary.

City Councilwoman Heather Harp encouraged the planners to include residents and business owners who live and work outside downtown Missoula – not just downtown residents.

Missoula Art Museum director Laura Millin asked that they “invite indigenous people to the table.”

City Councilwoman Gwen Jones and city historic preservation officer Emily Scherrer asked that Missoula’s historic buildings and attributes be respected and preserved.

There were calls for the inclusion of bicyclists and non-bike riders, of UM students, of young Missoulians who will live here in the years after the master plan is adopted and implemented, of homeless and lower-income residents. Protect our local businesses, many said. Don’t price them out of downtown.

Take advantage of the Clark Fork River, one man said. We need more open space, more green downtown, said another. What about density? asked another. How many people are we going to stack into downtown high-rises?

King didn’t sugar-coat the challenges.

“Your mayor told us that he is terrified of Missoula becoming generic,” King said. “What Missoula will be in the future is an open question that you will answer. Plans don’t work. People do. People do the work to write a plan and to implement it, so we are going to involve as many people as possible.”

Don’t lose downtown Missoula’s local businesses as the district grows larger and more prosperous, citizens told planners this week. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Dover Kohl has hired Missoula businesswoman Spider McKnight, who owns the marketing company 620 Hitch, to seek out the local residents who might otherwise be left out of the planning process – and to “do some deep listening.”

“I live here and I’m very accessible,” McKnight said. “I know what it’s like to be marginalized. I am only involved with this group of people because I believe they are going to listen.”

McKnight said part of her assignment is to discover the barriers to public involvement, and to know them down.

But individuals have a responsibility as well, she said. “Reach out to your friends and to people who aren’t being heard and encourage them to get involved. And if we aren’t listening, then hold us accountable.”

Dover Kohl’s team – which includes experts in parking, infrastructure, mass transportation, retail, public opinion, public engagement, building design, landscape architecture and more – spent the past week in one-on-one and group meetings, learning about Missoula, its successes and failures, hopes and fears.

They walked downtown streets, tape measures and notebooks in hand, stopping to talk with business owners, homeowners and apartment dwellers. They ate and drank and downtown restaurants and bars, breweries and distilleries, and asked lots of questions about downtown shopping and living.

“We drank out of the fire hose,” said Meredith Bergstrom, Dover Kohl’s program manager in Missoula.

They’ll continue the investigation and begin formulating ideas over the next three months before returning to Missoula Jan. 14-18 for a weeklong charrette, meeting all day every day with diverse groups of local residents.

“That first day, we’ll do a hands-on session where we’ll ask you: What is it that you feel is most important to this plan?” Bergstrom said. “We’ll have illustrators, designers, planners, experts in all the key areas who will start building the master plan at that point.”

That night – from 7-9 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 14 – Dover Kohl will host a hands-on design session, starting with a presentation on city planning and community revitalization, then asking participants to work alongside their neighbors to draw their vision for downtown Missoula.

From 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. that Tuesday through Thursday, Jan. 15-17, Dover Kohl’s team will have an open design studio. That means residents can stop by the studio and provide their suggestions and critiques as the experts begin to draw and write a draft master plan.

A wrap-up presentation at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, will give residents a chance to see the work-in-progress. What have the planners gleaned from the week of public input? What are their initial thoughts for how downtown Missoula might look in the future? Are they on the right track, or are they out of sync with public opinion?

King gave Missoula residents a “homework assignment” to think about and complete by January.

“What is your first impression when you go into or out of Missoula?” he asked. “The national parks have thought about this. They used to put people on the train, take them up to Glacier National Park and load them into these fun little cars. Then they’d arrive at a base camp where everything was going on – music and food and the start of their own personal adventures.

“Think of Missoula as a base camp for all kinds of adventures. You are the largest city in the Rocky Mountains. You can offer visitors rugged beauty, but also the creature comforts of a city.”

If it’s successful, the new downtown master plan will tell Missoula’s story, King said, for visitors and residents alike.

Urban planners are generally feared – or worse – by citizens, he conceded. But Dover Kohl is intent on allaying, then erasing, those fears.

“Ultimately, our business is about streets and buildings and public spaces,” King said. “We are in the before and after business. We take places that are not living up to their potential and help people imagine ‘what if.’ What if public investments led to private investments? What if you commit to your urban forest and to mixed-use walkable places? What if everybody gets to call downtown home?”