By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
The Missoula Redevelopment Agency’ board of directors this week approved a development agreement with Southgate Mall Associates for the construction of Mary Avenue – a three-block section extending from the Bitterroot Branch rail line east to Brooks Street.
At the same time, it also approved a separate request to hire consultants to work with the public in designing a future extension west of the tracks to Reserve Street. Until that time, the board agreed, traffic should not be permitted to flow between the projects’ two ends.
“We need to engage in the process with them (the property owners),” Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler told the board. “They have the feeling the street is going to look like South Avenue. It’s not going to look like South Avenue, but it’s scary when it’s your street.”
Putting the western portion of the Mary Avenue project on hold will allow the city to conduct more public outreach in an effort to ease the angst of several property owners.
In the meantime, Southgate Mall Associates will begin construction on Mary Avenue east of the tracks. MRA’s board of directors approved the project and is asking the City Council to issue the necessary bonds.
“There have been two different ways in the last couple years that we’ve been involved in street construction projects,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of MRA. “One was Wyoming Street, where the developer had started the design.”
In that instance, Buchanan said, the developer completed the design up to 30 percent and passed it off to the city. The city then took the project through final design, managed it and paid for construction.
Buchanan said the second instance involved the redevelopment of Dore Lane. The project was included in the South Crossing development. The Woodbury Corporation built and paid for the street improvements before it was reimbursed by the city.
MRA recommended the city fallow the model applied to Dore Lane. Buchanan said Southgate Mall has already completed much of Mary Avenue’s design east of the tracks.
“The developer is already far along in the design, and there’s some utility relocation as a result of the new street that has to take place pretty quickly,” Buchanan said. “It makes sense for them to do this project and to be reimbursed much like Woodbury was for the South Crossing project.”
The City Council has already approved the use of roughly $7.1 million in tax increment to pay for the infrastructure project. Of that, Southgate Mall Associates would receive a $6.9 million reimbursement. The city will consider approving the bonds needed to cover the cost.
While some have dubbed the effort “corporate welfare,” advocates with the city have countered, saying the new street will serve as a key piece of public infrastructure and has been identified in transportation plans dating back 20 years. The overall project could serve as a catalyst for further private investment in the city’s south and Midtown areas.
“The project was first identified in the 1996 transportation plan,” Buchanan said of Mary Avenue. “It was identified in the Midtown study this agency commissioned in 2003. It has shown up repeatedly.”
Peter Lambros, with Southgate Mall Associates, advocated for separating the east and west portions of the Mary Avenue project. Doing so, he said, would allow the city to work more closely with property owners to the west, while allowing the mall to proceed to the east.
“I hope we can allow the Southgate side to proceed and perhaps put in a different timeline to the west,” Lambros said. “Three years might be a number that feels like there’s appropriate breathing room to conduct process and to allow folks not to feel like this is such a rushed or urgent matter.”
Southgate Mall Associates announced their intention last year to launch a $64 million redevelopment of the aging property. The initial phase of the project includes a new movie theater and lifestyle retail store.
Future phases include housing, a market and other retail outlets. Lambros said the project envisions a town center. The mall has already purchased several surrounding properties to accommodate its vision, including the old Val-U Inn, Paxson Plaza and Curley’s Broiler, which was razed last month.