Higgins bridge construction opens door to future of Caras Park

Construction crews will begin renovations to the Higgins Avenue bridge this fall and when work wraps up 18 months later, it will lead to the renewal of Caras Park.

In an effort to cut costs and plan ahead, the city and its downtown partners will begin reshaping the park to repair construction damage when the bridge project ends. The reclamation work will set the stage for plans guiding the future of the city park.

“As part of that project, the Montana Department of Transportation is going to give us some money to put the parks back together,” said Nathan McLeod, development coordinator for Missoula Parks and Recreation. “If we put the parks back together, we should be putting them back together looking toward the future, not just recreating what we have. It’s an opportunity to create a new design that looks to the future.”

Over the past two years and with public input, consultants Dover, Kohl and Partners drafted a new master plan for downtown Missoula. The plan includes a chapter focused on the future of Caras Park and the city’s riverfront park system.

Bridge work, set to begin in October and run roughly 18 months, will have significant impacts on both Caras and Bess Reed parks. The later will be used to stage construction equipment while the city will install a new stormwater filtration system below Caras Park.

The filtration system will require crews to dig up “bunker hill,” the large mound next to the pavilion. Instead of rebuilding the hill post construction, it will be topped off, leaving a flatter and more usable space.

“They might be able to save some costs, and we’d get a better multi-use space in the long run,” McLeod said. “You can’t really do anything on the grass – it’s too steep to lay on. Creating a nice lawn space there is better for events because there’s more seating room.”

The park plan looks to achieve five goals that include improving gateways and circulation, and updating landscaping and utilities. It also looks to protect the Clark Fork River by improving access and limiting erosion.

Plans call for an ADA accessible approach to the river’s edge near Brennan’s Wave.

“Protecting and enhancing the Clark Fork River is really important,” McLeod said. “Creating better views and access to the river is a major component of this project.”

Reclamation work will simply set the stage for future improvements to the park, and some of the early changes will be minor. But the long-term goals will transition the park to a year-round destination.

Plans call for new public restrooms and a seamless trail system from the California Street pedestrian bridge to Missoula College. It also calls for a “ribbon” of parks along the water’s edge and hardened river access to prevent further bank erosion.

It could also create year-round market space for artists and vendors, giving the park uses beyond the summer months. An ice-skating “ribbon” would also extend the park’s seasonal uses.

“Right now, you go down there on a Saturday in January and there’s not a lot of activity there because there’s no reason to be there,” McLeod said. “We want to create amenities that will draw people into the park year round. That’s really important into the future.”

Becky Goodrich, communications specialist for Missoula Parks and Recreation, said the initial reclamation work represents a cost-saving measure, since the work must be completed regardless. The long-term plans will take more time to fund and implement.

“With the plan, they’ll remediate it in a way with an eye to the future,” said Goodrich. “That’s as much a public facility as a street, and when you’ve got two huge projects going on downtown, why not plan for the future and make it all work together.”

Future plans could also incorporate the basement of the Wilma and Front Street businesses by making them more visible with something of a restaurant promenade fronted by a sidewalk. Color and multiple uses would be added to the gloomy underside of the Higgins Bridge.

Long-term plans would also redesign Caras Drive, making it accessible to both pedestrians and traffic.

“By having this mater plan, we’d be able to implement things in a phased approach,” said McLeod. “As opportunities present themselves, we might be able to redo some of the streets down there, like Caras Drive, creating more of a pedestrian friendly street.”

Planners to explore riverfront park system, amenities through downtown Missoula