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Study to explore redevelopment options for downtown Missoula property

As the new Missoula Public Library prepares to open this spring, the city will begin looking at the old library property with an eye on redevelopment. How that project unfolds will be determined this year.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency on Thursday agreed to fund up to $25,000 toward a study by Dover, Kohl and Partners to create a preferred development scenario for the lot, which encompasses an entire city block in the downtown core.

The firm recently completed the new Downtown Master Plan and will approach the planning of the old library block as an addendum to the larger vision for downtown Missoula.

“We’ve known for a while we want to go through some level of public process on how that block should be redeveloped,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “Dover-Kohl took a hard look at that block when the Downtown Master Plan was being done because the city owned it and we knew it would redevelop. But we need to go in now and figure out what’s going to go there.”

Missoula businessman and philanthropist Terry Payne entered into an agreement with the Missoula Public Library several years ago to exchange the 400 block of East Main Street, where the new $36 million library is set to open, for the 300 block, where the old library sits.

Last April, Payne then donated the 300 block to the city. The property represents a unique opportunity to achieve a number of community goals through redevelopment, including parking, housing and office space.

“It’s an entire city block, and we have an opportunity to accomplish a whole lot of things,” Buchanan said. “We know it will have to involve parking. We think it will include housing, commercial space, and involve flex space to provide incubator space for all these tech companies that are starting up here, or other businesses. The sky is the limit.”

The district is zoned to allow projects up to 125 feet in height, and anything less could equate to a wasted opportunity in the downtown core. But MRA has asked Dover-Kohl to conduct a massing study as part of the process to determine the building’s stature and its mix of uses.

The firm will begin pubic outreach this year as part of the process.

“This will include a number of public meetings, a number of public workshops,” said Buchanan. “They’ll develop a number of scenarios and test them.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen told the Missoula Current last month that a study around the process was likely, and MRA set those wheels in motion on Thursday. The Downtown Business Improvement District approved the addendum last week, and the Missoula Economic Partnership is writing an application to the state for a planning grant.

The grants are capped at $25,000 and require a one-to-one match, which MRA has agreed to provide using revenue from Front Street Urban Renewal District. While the grant isn’t a sure thing, MRA likes the odds of receiving it. It should learn by April whether the grant is approved.

“We think this is a poster child for that grant,” Buchanan said. “It’s a huge economic development opportunity.”

Exactly when Dover-Kohl conducts the public portion of the planning process will depend upon when the study is fully funded. The final product will detail the property’s redevelopment.

“The deliverable will be a recommendation as to what the components that go into that building might be, what size that building might be, how much parking might occur in that building,” said Buchanan. “It’s a master plan for that block, and it’ll be developed through a public process.”

The end result should enable the city to partner with a private developer to move the recommendations to construction and ultimate occupancy. A similar process played out on property owned by the city in the Riverfront Triangle, where construction of a new $100 million hotel, events center and parking garage is set to begin this year.

“(The study) develops the request for proposals or qualifications for a private developer to partner with,” said Buchanan. “It will no doubt involve public-private partnerships to accomplish this. It’s a pretty exciting project.”

While the project could include housing and needed office space, it will most certainly involve parking. MRA board member Melanie Brock emphasized that portion of the pending study at Thursday’s meeting.

“I’m particularly interested in the parking component of it, and if there will be that analyzation of what the parking environment is going to be with all the surrounding projects,” she said. “It seems really smart to be investing in this study and this project, but hopefully it will be all-encompassing to those few surrounding blocks.”