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Riverfront Triangle developers receive permit to clear property ahead of construction

Several dilapidated properties in the Riverfront Triangle are slated for demolition ahead of an infill project. The city will allocate roughly $640,000 in EPA Brownfields loans to rid the property of contaminants, including asbestos. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Developers looking to remove a group of old medical buildings in downtown Missoula received approval from Missoula County on Thursday, marking the first step in redeveloping the Riverfront Triangle.

The work, all listed under Phase 1 within the permit, includes the removal of three vacant buildings between the Clark Fork River and Front Street. The old parking garage is included, along with the former Western Montana Clinic, all concrete foundations and utilities.

Phase 1 work also includes grading the site ahead of future construction.

“We’re protecting the existing riparian vegetation that’s out there, especially the woody trees,” said Eric Anderson, who represents the applicants on behalf of WGM Group. “We’re planning to delineate the clearing limits during construction so there aren’t any accidents, or clearing of vegetation that’s supposed to be preserved.”

The building footprint is detailed in green while the structures slated for removal are outlined in yellow.

The county administers so-called 310 permits for work within the Clark Fork River floodplain and the 1946 city limits of Missoula. Both Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the county’s Water Quality Protection District have reviewed the application and found no significant impacts.

“This is within the city zoning district that requires a 50-foot setback from the river, which is well outside the 310 Permit jurisdiction,” said county planner Todd Cleats. “But the infrastructure that’s already there, including the structures – which are way too close – as well as the riverbank are within that jurisdiction.”

The Riverfront Triangle represents a collection of parcels west of Orange Street and south of West Broadway. The vacant lots have been eyed for redevelopment by a number of groups for years, though plans were delayed after the economic slowdown related to the pandemic.

But interest has returned to the properties, and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency in June said it was working with “multiple developers,” including one who was “particularly interested in the residential and office building part of it.”

Beginning Phase 1 work identified within the permit represents visible progress after years of delays and anticipation.

“My hunch is the landowner is just getting their ducks in a row for what comes next, which is great,” Missoula Mayor John Engen told the Missoula Current on Thursday morning. “It’s a positive sign. We have seen a variety of proposals, none of which are in the form of construction documents.”

No timeline was set to complete Phase 1 work, though it will likely take place over the next few months, as Anderson said a Phase 2 permit will be requested next year. That process includes final site improvements.

The 310 Permit applies to the Rivers Edge Tract, shown in yellow.

According to the permit request, Phase 2 site improvements will include a multi-story structure with a blend of residential and commercial spaces. It also suggests an underground parking garage and a paved pedestrian path along the river.

Final design work is expected to be finished this winter for that phase of the project.

“In Phase 2, we plan to show the final trail placement on the site, along with all the buildings and the grading, and the riparian revegetation plan,” said Anderson. “We plan to remove all the concrete on the riverbank along with Phase 2.”

While the project is the first to show signs of activity in the Riverfront Triangle, other plans may still be afoot. Plans for a hotel and conference center on city-owned property within the Riverfront Triangle have been rekindled, according to the city.

Plans presented by Wise Enterprise Group after their zoning request was approved by the Missoula City Council last year.

Also, Wise Enterprise Group has already received a zoning change for the parcel at 601 W. Broadway. Plans presented for that project suggested a multi-story building with a blend of retail and housing. The city has said that effort is still alive as well.

The buildings slated for removal were constructed in the 1960’s but have fallen into disrepair and have sat vacant for some time. In October 2019, the City Council released funding from its Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund to cover a portion of the cost of removing asbestos from the structures.

With that process already finished and the 310 permit approved, work to clear the site for redevelopment will now follow.