Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Several years of dreaming and a deep pool of public comments have been condensed into a final draft of the Midtown Master Plan, which is marching its way toward adoption in early July.

Praised for its community vision and input, the plan looks to reinvent the Midtown district through better branding and place making. It also sets the stage for new commercial development, housing, greenways and connectivity.

“The community said yes, it wants a cohesive vision to guide the growth of Midtown,” said Mel Brock, the executive director of the Missoula Midtown Association. “We are at the end of this process. We feel very confident this plan had a very far reach, and there is a solid, cohesive community vision throughout this plan.”

The Missoula Midtown Association hired EcoNorthwest two years ago to lead the process, which included a number of community visioning sessions, workshops and meetings with stakeholders. A community guide committee also worked to drum up engagement.

Throughout the planning process, consultants included an analysis of displacement risk – an effort to help ensure that those who live and work in the district can remain as changes unfold. They also considered equity and sought ways to expand housing opportunities across a range of price points.

“Only 38% of Midtown residents own their own homes. We want to see more types of housing at all levels,” said Brock. “EcoNorthwest put together some speck housing to show what kind of development Midtown is ripe for, and to create more home ownership opportunities.”

Housing and commercial growth

According to the final plan, low multifamily vacancy rates in the Midtown district indicate unmet demand for additional rental housing. Without it, the limited supply could drive prices higher given current demand.

An early rendering of the proposed project.
An early rendering of the proposed 406 Commons project, which is expected to begin construction this year at Bow and Kent streets in the Midtown district.

The plan also looks to promote home ownership by creating a variety of housing types, including missing middle housing and housing near transit stops. It suggests removing regulatory barriers to create high-density housing and making code changes to support such thing as townhomes.

“It's apparent that streamlining zoning code in Midtown would help create more infill development and increase density,” Brock said. “There are a quite a few land-use recommendations that our technical team of advisors have looked closely at, and we're excited to see them implemented.”

Also, incentives such as height bonuses and waving impact fees could be offered in exchange for more affordability, the plan suggests.

Emily Brock, a Midtown Association board member and director of Economic and Land Development for Missoula County, said the plan includes a range of pro-formas that small developers can use to launch a Midtown project.

“A smaller developer could take that and put it into action,” Brock said. “The economists were able to look at it from the development standpoint, so this plan really can be put into action.”

If Midtown housing is facing upward pressure due to limited supply, so too are retail opportunities. The plan calls for mixed-use development with ground floor retail and housing above.

Reduced parking requirements could play a role in sparking new growth, along with a streamlined regulatory process to encourage large-scale development. The plan's vision sees Midtown as home to small businesses and entrepreneurs.

“We hear of a lot of businesses that want to start in Midtown, but it's very hard to find a place right now,” said Melanie. “We're fortunate in having an Urban Renewal District running along that Brooks Street spine. Being able to utilize that for commercial development will be a big piece of this.”

Rebranding and place making

Along with housing and economic development, the plan also considers mobility. Throughout the planning process, crossing Brooks Street emerged as a constant theme, along with the district's lack of east-west connectivity.

To address it, the plan details a vision for trails and new non-motorized corridors, ways to soften Brooks Street with more pedestrian access, and converting the corridor into a bus rapid-transit system.

The Midtown area in Carmel, California has become the newest "place to hand out."
The Midtown area in Carmel, California, has become the newest "place to hand out." The Midtown Master Plan envisions similar public gathering places and more outdoor dining opportunities.

“Quite a bit of the plan talks about crossing Brooks, and building out the greenway areas is key,” said Melanie. “We want to make sure we're moving along the opportunities for better transit services in Midtown and looking at parking management so we can increase density.”

The plan also looks at place-making and ways to enhance the district's amenities. It envisions a “Central Park” by making improvements to Playfair, and transforming portions of South Avenue into a “festival” street.

Gateways to the Midtown district include enhancements to “Rose Park Center” and rebranding the area currently known as Malfunction Junction. The plan identifies the latter for it's ability to serve as the heart of midtown with redevelopment, festival streets, plazas and public amenities.

“We're hoping as part of this effort that we can all now call it Midtown Junction,” said Melanie. “There is no longer any malfunction in the core area of Midtown.”

The City Council is expected to consider the Midtown Master Plan for adoption on July 10.