Midtown Master Plan set to begin vision, final recommendations
(Missoula Current) Words like disconnected, disjointed, massive parking lots and no sense of place have been used to describe Missoula's Midtown district in a planning effort that began late last year. But a new vision is beginning to take shape, one that would create a sense of place in the end.
Designers with ECONorthwest – a consultant hired by the city to create a Midtown Master Plan – are set to begin work on a final draft later this year, setting a vision for the poorly planned and car-dependent district.
Through online surveys and public engagement, they've already identified a number of challenges and opportunities including better use of what's now an ocean of parking lots, a lack of connectivity, a tight retail and housing market, few transportation options, and barriers around new development.
They detailed their findings before the Missoula City Council on Wednesday.
“One of the key challenges is that community members want Midtown to feel more like a true destination with a true sense of identity,” said Tyler Bump with ECONorthwest. “When people get there, there's no definition of place.”
Bump said other challenges have been identified as well, and some of them aren't new. Residents who live and work in Midtown have noted the challenge of getting around on foot or bike, given the barrier that is Brooks Street and the massive parking lots that separate buildings.
Bump said an overabundance of parking is an issue that has surfaced a number of times early in the process, along with the district's lack of paths and multi-modal transportation options.
“Bike and pedestrian networks are disconnected and, in some places, non-existent. This is a consistent theme we've heard across the board for public engagement,” said Bump. “Folks want to feel like they can get across Midtown and do so safely, and they don't feel they can do so right now. It influences how people chose to travel around Midtown.”
Those who live in and work in the area are also seeking a sense of place, something they hope the plan will recommend and the city will work to implement, as it has done in other areas of Missoula.
“There's this sense of identity that people are longing for that Midtown is lacking but has the potential to achieve,” said Martin Glastra van Loom of SERA Architects. “Community place-making is closely related to that. Forces could be harnessed to create a real place that's identifiable for Midtown.”
Bump added that tax increment from Urban Renewal District III will be key in fulfilling the plan's recommendations. The availability of such funding could fuel needed infrastructure and other public improvements to entice private development.
“Urban renewal funding is extremely important for Midtown and extremely important for infrastructure investments that need to be made,” he said. “Urban renewal funding is a critical piece for implementing this plan.”
Transportation and connectivity are key
The Midtown planning effort is playing out alongside a separate effort to redevelop the Brooks Street corridor. The outcome of that plan will influence opportunities in the Midtown Master Plan and the ease in which they're implemented.
On the transit front, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency last week settled on a planning contract with HDR in Missoula. The contract is expected to be finalized within the coming weeks and design work will begin shortly after.
ECONorthwest is watching the Brooks Street plan evolve as they advance their work on the Midtown plan.
“Our near-term thinking needs to be aligned with the preliminary work on the Brooks corridor, just in terms of immediate federal funding around transportation infrastructure,” said Bump. “It's not driving what we're doing, but we want those opportunities to be in the back of our mind as we work on it.”
HDR last year determined that while the Brooks Street corridor is capable of moving traffic, it will soon reach capacity. In seeking solutions, transportation officials settled upon a Bus Rapid Transit system that would use a center-running lane.
That would enable Mountain Line to launch 15-minute service without disrupting traffic. Other multi-model transportation efforts will also be included. Transportation decisions and development opportunities could result from the vision.
“This has been a forgotten part of town in all the planning we've done,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “It's past time that we do it.”
Outreach effort praise and concern
The master planning effort kicked off last fall with a charrette exploring the district's issues and opportunities, and it will advance this Thursday with a second charrette based on visioning.
Backers also hired a consultant to take an experimental approach at drumming up civic engagement, which resulted in the appointment of a 15-member “community guide committee.”
While the approach has been praised by some, others have wondered if those who live in Midtown have had an equal opportunity to weigh in on the plan outside of an online survey and workshop conducted last year.
Council member Mirtha Becerra raised the question on Wednesday, saying that while she visits the area to shop, she doesn't live there. As a result, her vision for the area might differ from Midtown residents and business owners.
“What I would like to see there might be different from what people who live there want to see,” Becerra said. “It's important we balance that out. While this is part of a community, it's also someone's back yard, someone's neighborhood.”
Backers of the plan said they're working to identify comments submitted by Midtown residents.
“As part of our outreach efforts, we always ask if you live, work or visit Midtown,” said Bump. “We're able to break apart the survey results.”