Revamped Caras Park among plans as Higgins Bridge project picks up steam

Jason King of Dover, Kohl and Partners discusses plans for Caras Park and other riverside locations during an update of the Downtown Master Plan. The North Riverside Parks and Trails Plan is on course for final adoption. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

In a presentation of a new parks plan along the Clark Fork River in Missoula, parks and trail development specialist Nathan McLeod asked listeners to imagine an overhauled Caras Park.

“So you’re walking down Ryman Street on a winter day,” he said. “There’s twinkling lights as you walk through this improved gateway, and you can hear music playing on an updated sound system as you enter the park. There’s the sound of children laughing as they skate around the ice ribbon, and you can see a fireplace where grandparents are gathered around the fire watching their grandchildren skate. There are vendors set up in the pavilion selling locally made Missoula wares.

“It’s this whole festive atmosphere of this environment that doesn’t really happen currently.”

Caras Park is one of several parks detailed in the North Riverside Parks and Trails Plan, where improvements aim to create a “truly Missoula aesthetic.” The changes span 20 years and cover everything from improved river access to all-season spaces, like the proposed ice ribbon.

This week, the Parks and Recreation Board adopted the plans alongside 10 other organizations that also have adopted or endorsed the North Riverside Parks and Trails Plan.

“Parks and trails in a downtown environment are really what sets our downtown apart from other places. And the more residents we have living downtown, the more utilization of these parks and trails we will see taking place,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of Missoula Downtown Association, one of the groups who have adopted the plan.

The plan will now go to the Parks and Conservation Committee in the next few weeks before reaching the Missoula City Council, which will consider adopting the plan.

The plan is viewed as an extension of the existing Downtown Master Plan. It lists immediate and long-term updates covering all parks and trails on the north side of the Clark Fork River between Missoula College and Ryman Street

In May and June, the plan went through a public input phase where participants were told the “sky’s the limit” with what could be done with the parks, McLeod said.

Plans for Caras Park were created after a year-long public process where the chosen amenities received widespread support.

For Caras Park, that helped lead to the current draft including an updated amphitheater, ping pong tables, an ice ribbon that will double as a skate ribbon in warmer months, along with other changes. The plan also details a ramp that meets the standards of the American Disabilities Act near Brennan’s Wave.

“Currently, you can stand and look at the river, but we heard from a lot of people that they want to get down to the water and put their feet in. So we’re providing an ADA-accessible ramp that gets you all the way down to the water so you can do just that,” McLeod said.

Next to Caras Park is the Higgins Avenue underpass, which will see updates to remove existing parking and install better lighting. It may also include activities like climbing walls, sport courts and a parkour course which topped features desired in the parks during the public input phase.

Some of the updates underneath Higgins Bridge would likely be immediate, according to McLeod. The bridge is currently undergoing a $17 million renovation.

In East Caras Park, plans also detail an improved entryway, an art wall to screen the existing electrical substation, a rain garden that would use water runoff with native foliage and flowers, an outdoor gym and more. As the park usually hosts the summer farmers’ market, there will be updates to that as well.

It works pretty good for that for now, but as the market expands, we need to create a space that’s better for a pedestrian plaza,” McLeod said. “Updating the materials, providing better planting islands and better access into the parks through pathways is really important.”

The Higgins Avenue underpass will see updates to remove existing parking and install better lighting. It may also include activities like climbing walls, sport courts and a parkour course. (Alex Mitchell/Missoula Current)

At Kiwanis Park, plans call for the additions of a bocce court, as well as replacements of the tennis courts for pickleball courts, which according to Parks and Recreation, is growing in popularity in Missoula.

Improvements go on with each individual park planned to bring more functions to it.

Each park in the plan will connect with Ron’s River Trail, which will be widened along the river. It will be accompanied by the clearing of existing trees to provide smaller native foliage along the river and increased river accessibility.

“Providing better connection between the park and river is really important,” McLeod said. “Currently, when you’re in the parks, unless you walk up to the edge of the trail, you wouldn’t know the river is there. There’s a barrier between it. By creating a connection between the parks and the river, we’re really connecting with the river, which, to many people, is the heart of downtown.”

The plan also recommends a new community center to address the elimination of existing parking. The elimination of parking will increase park space by 25%.

“This is something that the community has been talking about for a long time. Essentially what happens is we’re relocating all of that surface parking that is in the parks and putting it into a community center that has structured parking,” he said.

McCarthy said the funding would stem from a variety of sources.

“This is a plan that will be implemented over time and will take a variety of different resources, funding resources specifically, to actually bring it to full implementation,” she said. “But our organization alongside the City of Missoula is dedicated to making that happen.”

Planners to explore riverfront park system, amenities through downtown Missoula