With the new Missoula Public Library now fully open, the city could turn its focus toward redeveloping the old library block, which it received as a gift from a local philanthropist before the pandemic hit.
While details are sparse and the city hasn’t released any information about its plans for the property, it could begin to explore its options this summer, marking headway in a project that’s been discussed now for several years.
“We’ve been talking internally about pulling that up on the front burner,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “I’m not sure how we’re going to manage that, capacity wise, but we need to start that process.”
Missoula businessman and philanthropist Terry Payne and his family donated the 300 block of East Main Street to the city in April 2019. The property sits in the heart of downtown Missoula on the growing east side of Higgins Avenue and comes highly touted for its redevelopment potential.
Missoula Mayor John Engen coined Payne’s gift as a generous community contribution and, back in 2019, said the city would study and discuss the property’s best future use, which will likely include a mix of commercial and housing, and potential office space.
One old scenario also envisioned an arts district given the property’s proximity to MCT, the new library and the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, which is now under construction across the river.
“We’ll see what we can do with such an unexpected opportunity,” Engen said of Payne’s gift at the time.
Scoping potential uses was expected to move forward shortly after the new library opened, but the pandemic slowed construction and prompted the city to focus its attention elsewhere, such as providing safe shelter and non-congregant space for unhoused Covid patients.
One of those shelters opened at the former Sleepy Inn, which the city purchased in 2020. That property is included in the newly released West Broadway Master Plan and depicted as a prominent gateway to the corridor.
Plans for the old library block are loosely defined in the equally new Downtown Master Plan.
“The former library site is a huge asset for the city, and the design and uses for this site should be carefully considered,” the plan suggests. “Whatever the final building program becomes, it should adequately address Main and Front streets with building fronts … It should not be considered in isolation, but also how the streetscape can be enhanced as well.”
The Downtown Master Plan suggests redevelopment with an array of potential uses such as mixed-income housing, “30 to 60” affordable housing units, child care, a downtown grocery story and structured parking, among other things.
“I foresee that (process) happening maybe toward the summer, the end of summer,” Buchanan said on Thursday.