City asks county to consider traffic, parking in fairgrounds master plan

Fairgrounds

By Martin Kidston

The Missoula City Council on Wednesday asked Missoula County to consider future traffic and biking patterns as it moves forward with plans to revamp the county fairgrounds.

The county unveiled its implementation plan for the fairgrounds earlier this year and is currently seeking public comment. City Council members have generally praised the plan, though several maintained concerns over parking and the disruption of future traffic and pedestrian needs.

“It’s a good plan and I think commissioners should adopt it,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “But there are some things, some minor tweaks, that would make it function a lot better given where it is. Some of these transportation connections have been in our planning vision for a long time.”

The City Council’s Committee of the Whole held a joint session with county commissioners on Wednesday to discuss changes recommended by the city.

While minor, the requested changes included trail connectivity through the fairgrounds to area’s where the city is looking to develop and direct future traffic. The plan currently shifts traffic away from Fairview Street onto Benton Avenue.

The city would like to see that reversed, saying Fairview is the preferred east-west corridor for vehicle and bicycle travel. The city is working to improve east-west connectivity, including an extension of Mary Avenue just to the south – a project currently under construction.

The district’s long-range plan, including that for Southgate Mall, also make future use of Fairview.

“The fact of matter is, the fairgrounds are located right in the heart of the city of Missoula,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari. “While the plan needs to address all the concerns and interests associated with the fair, it also need to address the concerns and interests of being located in an urban environment.”

In May, Paul Fillicetti with A&E Architects said the Fairgrounds Advisory Committee had considered keeping Fairview as the primary entrance to the fairgrounds.

However, the city’s preservation community fought hard to integrate the footprint of the defunct horse track into future plans for the property. Fillicetti and Commissioner Cola Rowley said the plan was still in the conceptual stage.

Details recommended by the city could be implemented at a later time, they said.

“Having bike access is a fantastic idea,” said Rowley. “This concept still is a concept. The bits and pieces we can tweak, and that’s what we’re interested in hearing. There will be ongoing conversations even after adopting this plan.”

A separate group dubbed Midtown Mojo is currently working to create a master plan for Midtown Missoula, an area that includes the Brooks Street corridor. How the fairgrounds is developed could hold implications for other projects proposed for the area.

While the fairgrounds aren’t included in the city’s Urban Renewal District III, the property is currently surrounded by the district. Tax increment financing could be made available if fairgrounds improvements address connectivity.

“Once this plan is finalized and acceptable, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency is open to incorporating the fairgrounds into the URD district,” Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley said recently. “But a big part of that would be quality design and quality connections.”

Council members have also asked the county to make the fairgrounds more open and inviting beyond the annual fair. Given the property’s central location, they also asked the county to consider a possible Mountain Line transfer center.

Commissioner Jean Curtiss said the city’s concerns would be considered as the plan progresses.

“It’s good to have these things in the back of our minds, though those details won’t be included in this plan,” Curtiss said.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com