Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While opening the Johnson Street shelter for a full year remains a city priority, officials this week said long-term plans for the property still call for redevelopment.

The debate around using the shelter for a full year became heated this week amid neighborhood and City Council concerns over drug use, security and general communication surrounding the shelter.

Within that debate, city officials admitted the property's use as a shelter wasn't ideal given its proximity to a residential neighborhood. They also said they still plan to redevelop the site, though exactly when remains unknown.

“There is a higher and better use for this site. We'll go through a planning process that will involve the neighbors, the Midtown Association, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and community partners,” said Mayor Jordan Hess. “We'll go through a process to identify the long-term use for this site.”

The City Council in 2017 voted to purchase 12 acres off Johnson Street from Montana Rail Link for $2 million, a price the city described as a bargain at the time. The city dedicated around four acres to develop a neighborhood park and set the remaining 8 acres aside for future redevelopment.

Since then, however, the city has used a vacant building on the site as a winter shelter and now plans to open that shelter for a full year. But redevelopment plans are still in play.

“When we purchased the property, we knew we wanted to redevelop it, and do so in a way that's appropriate for Midtown,” said Ellen Buchanan, executive director of MRA. “There are some environmental considerations we've been dealing with that will come to a close in 2024. The environmental considerations have held us up to a certain extent, but those will come to a conclusion next year.”

Johnson Street shelter.
Johnson Street shelter.

Along with their concerns over the shelter's year-round operation, area neighbors have called upon the city to follow through with their goal of redeveloping the property. They believe the economic potential that comes with redevelopment better serves the neighborhood than a shelter.

Several members of City Council agree, including Gwen Jones and Mike Nugent. Nugent sought a pledge from the city this week that it would close the shelter next year and remove the worn-out metal building from the property.

But with elections looming this November, Hess said he couldn't commit future City Council's to such decisions, though he also wants the property to play a stronger economic role for the neighborhood and Midtown in general.

When the time comes to redevelop the property, Hess said it would follow a similar path taken for the old library block in the downtown district.

“It'll certainly include a variety of mixed uses and some civic uses,” he said. “It could very well include some mixes of housing types and social services. That needs to be a community planning process.”

Hess said he has attended several board meetings with the Midtown Association. He said the city is also working with the EPA to explore the potential of geothermal heating and cooling “on a neighborhood scale” at the Johnson Street site.

The city also has a master plan for a future police department facility, which remains an option for the property as well, Hess said.

“There is a lot of opportunity for this site, and this (shelter) use is temporary,” he said.

The newly adopted Midtown Master Plan is also in play, and it will likely inform how the city chooses to redevelop the Johnson Street property. Like the Downtown Master Plan, the Midtown plan will serve as the district's guiding document.

“In the coming year or so, we'll start a planning process that will be based on the Midtown Master Plan, and engage the neighborhood and general Midtown area to determine the highest and best use for that property,” said Buchanan. “We've got about eight acres left after developing the park. It's a substantial opportunity to look at solving a number of issues.”