Downtown Missoula plan looks to the future with art, streets and urban infill

A rendering of what could be the future of Higgins Avenue in the new Downtown Master Plan. A return of the electric trolley proved to be a fan favorite during Wednesday night’s unveiling.

A return of the electric trolley to the streets of downtown Missoula proved to be a crowd pleaser on Wednesday, along with “bigger” public art, more structured parking, taller buildings and the creation of an historic preservation district.

Despite the heckling of a few critics sipping Pabst Blue Ribbon beer during the evening’s unveiling of Missoula’s new Downtown Master Plan, public feedback told consultants with Dover, Kohl and Partners they were on the right track in designing the city’s next decade of growth.

But however the future takes shape as investment comes in, most agree that downtown Missoula must remain “a place for everyone.” It’s a concept tucked into the very heart of the new plan.

“It means less expensive homes and it means commercial spaces you can actually afford to rent,” said consultant Jason King. “It means economic opportunity and social enhancement.”

King walked roughly 300 attendees at the Wilma through the 400-page draft of the new master plan, detailing its vision for complete streets, parking, infill, public art and housing.

In doing so, he summarized Missoula’s growth as a reawakening and shared the writing of a traveler around 1900. On the back of a postcard depicting downtown Missoula, the visitor quipped, “The town is building up fast.”

“A lot of those buildings in that picture are still there and others are not,” King said. “In a lot of ways, the city building we’re doing here today is a rebuilding of a downtown that had seen better days, went through a period of neglect, a lot of fires, desolation and blight. We’re working to rebuild it back.”

The city adopted its first Downtown Master Plan in 2009 and has achieved a number of goals envisioned in the document, including lodging, parking and housing. Targeted public funding has leveraged more than $800 million in private investment over the past decade.

In the last few years alone, additions included the Mercantile Hotel, a new parking garage, a bank and student housing. A new public library is under construction and a hotel with restaurants is planned on Pattee Street.

While such investments punctuate the city’s growing status, King said, it’s the spaces between the buildings that need attention.

“What this area is lacking is something to tie it all together,” King said. “What if the streetscape became for Missoula like a park, a shared street with bikes, pedestrians and parks? What if we use the streets like a canvas to do great things and make a statement about public spaces people can share?”

The plan envisions a new way of thinking about the city’s downtown streets, creating an opportunity to use them for more than cars.

The plan calls for bike tracks throughout the downtown district and turning bland alleys into public spaces. It envisions public parking on the Hip Strip, near the rail depot and in Caras Park.

The latter could include a public-private venture that would see the city trade a portion of the parking lot for a privately built structure with ground floor retail, stacked parking and housing. The revenue could be reinvested into improving Caras Park with “big art” and the addition of an ice-skating rink and splash park, not unlike those in Denver or New York.

Most expressed support for the concept, along with a garage at North Higgins.

“North Higgins is an emerging center with some of the best restaurants and places to hang out. Yet it’s still a spot where it’s hard to find a parking spot, it’s hard to get to and it’s a little darker at night,” King said.

“Land is too valuable in downtown Missoula right now for surface parking. When parking garages come into spaces like that, they come in a way that actually builds a high-quality frontage the same or as good as Higgins.”

Downtown advocates also have big expectations for the current library site. The Payne family dedicated the property to the city earlier this year and once the new library opens, the city will look to redevelop the old library.

Such a project could house nonprofits and parking, retail, offices and restaurants. And “at the same time, 30 to 60 affordable housing units,” King said.

“What this plan has to do that the last one didn’t do is talk more about affordability,” he said. “Affordability for valued business and affordability for places for people to live.”

The plan looks to transform Missoula’s bleak alleys into a place to wine, dine and gather.

According to the plan, successful main streets have no more than 30 percent chain stores and restaurants, something Missoula currently doesn’t struggle with. Of the seven retail spots produced by the new Mercantile, all are locally owned.

At the same time, additional chain stores can serve to attract shoppers, boosting other nearby retail stores. Other additions, such as public art, streets as art, and even a long-sought art museum to house the University of Montana’s world class collection, are explored in the plan.

“There’s something happening in all our designs,” King said. “It isn’t just a parking garage. It isn’t just housing. It isn’t just retail and it isn’t just a park. We’re mixing all these things together, just like they did in the classic period of building Missoula.”

The plan is slated for adoption later this summer. To find out more, visit the Downtown Missoula Partnership by following this link.