The city's planning staff addressed concerns raised last week by a Missoula City Council committee regarding an expansion plan for Southgate Mall, clearing the way for the council to approve the project on Monday night.

Issues regarding bicycle parking, pedestrian access and where the initial extension of Mary Avenue West would end pending work with the neighborhood were cleared up heading into Monday night's meeting, swaying the council to support the mall's $64 million project.

The council, which passed the proposal 9-0, placed a number of conditions on Southgate Mall Associates, including future bicycle parking, pedestrian connectivity and landscaping.

“We're okay with the conditions,” project architect Jeremy Keene of WGM Group told the council.

The mall will embark on the first phase of it's expansion starting this summer with a nine-plex movie theater, a lifestyle retail center and a new connector street via Mary Avenue.

The first phase of work is expected to last through 2018. It marks the beginning of a long-term plan to transform the mall and its surrounding properties into a walkable neighborhood hub that will include additional retail, dining and housing opportunities.

It also includes a slight reduction in parking but still allows more than is permitted by modern city zoning regulations. Parking is also regulated by standing contracts with mall retailers.

“This project is kind of the evolution of the mall,” said Keene. “Back in 1978, 5 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of retail was the standard. We're recognizing over time that that amount of parking isn't necessary when you have walking, biking and transit. It's a hard mark to move, but we were able to renegotiation that ratio down to 4.5. It's our limit right now.”

The mall's long-term goal for parking is 3.5 spaces per 1,000 square feet.

City planner Drew Larson said the project gels with the city's growth policy, which calls for both commercial and community development in the area. The 2006 growth plan – as does the project – also envisions a new east-west connector at Mary Street.

Completion of the western portion of that project is still years away and is subject to neighborhood participation. But the vision for the eastern portion from Brooks Street to the Bitterroot Branch Trail is complete and ready for construction.

It includes 11-foot travel lanes, a paved pedestrian path south of Mary Avenue and sidewalks to the north.

“The rhetoric we've heard about turning the mall outward and making it more walking, pedestrian and biking friendly is actually realized by this project,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari. “We're getting there.”