Midtown planning efforts double down on community engagement
(Missoula Current) An effort to create a master plan guiding the future and placemaking of the Midtown district will include a process backers say is new to Missoula's planning efforts, one intended to reach a wider number of voices.
The master planning effort kicked off last fall with a charrette exploring the district's issues and opportunities, and it will advance this month with a second charrette based on visioning.
Along the way, backers have hired a consultant separate from the planning effort to drum up civic engagement in hopes of reaching more Midtown residents and helping them find ways to participate in the process.
“We're doing things a little differently this time. We've hired someone outside the design contract to do our grassroots engagement,” said Emily Brock, chair of the Midtown planning board and vice president of the association. “The planning team deals with the charettes and renderings. But we felt like a separate contract was needed to be done for engagement.”
The Midtown area represents roughly 9% of Missoula's land mass and is home to an estimated 15,000 people. According to a December report, the average annual income for district residents is about $7,000 less than the rest of Missoula.
Other district demographics suggest that just 38% of Midtown residents own their home compared to 53% citywide. About 26% of Midtown households have at least one child compared to 22% citywide. The district also is more diverse with 13% of its residents identified as people of color compared to 12% citywide.
Those behind the Midtown planning process are looking to reach the district's array of voices and identities. Not all can attend the scheduled workshops, so reaching them in other ways is vital, according to Rachel Huff-Doria, the engagement consultant hired by the Midtown Association.
“There's a number of reasons an individual may not be able to attend a public workshop, and there's two ways we're going about that,” Huff-Doria said. “One is focusing on decreasing barriers to attending. We're also providing alternative forms of outreach, particularity to folks who are going to be most impacted by public design.”
In the initial effort to glean public input, participants called for a Midtown plan that creates “complete neighborhoods,” or a design where residents can access goods and services within walking distance. It also called for a range of housing options at various price points, and transportation improvements including better bus service, bike lanes and intersections that are easier to cross on foot.
Placemaking was also seen as an opportunity and it eyed a number of locations including vacant land around Southgate Mall, areas around Kent Plaza, and the length of South Avenue.
Unlike past planning efforts, and with a vision having few limits at the start, Huff-Doria said input from area children has been part of engagement.
“A lot of people don't always involve kids or young people in the conversation,” she said. “Long term changes are going to have the biggest impact on kids in our community and young people. We've done a lot of visioning activities with young folks in particular.”
Huff-Doria said the questions are formulated for youth.
“We're really trying to understand the hopes and dreams of a community, but also the challenges, so you try to ask questions they can answer,” she said. “You're not asking them about financial decision making. You're asking community members to be experts in their own lives, and engineers and designers to be experts in what they do.”
Planning both Midtown and Brooks
The Midtown planning effort is moving forward alongside plans to redevelop the Brooks Street corridor. While the two efforts are separate, both plans inform the other, as Brooks Street has been identified within the Midtown plan as a barrier both to mobility and the type of development area residents want to see.
A bus rapid-transit system has been proposed for the corridor, along with efforts to make the street easier to cross, essentially connecting are neighborhoods to services.
Huff-Doria said efforts to increase input included the formation of a 15-member “community guide committee.” While its members won't have an outsized voice in any preferred alternative that emerges at the end of the Midtown planning process, she said they will play a sizable role in drumming up engagement along the way.
“They're acting as facilitators and connectors to their own community,” said Huff-Doria. “We a have a range of folks and ages. We have a range of expertise, parents, business owners. We have people impacted by housing changes. It's the little decision making along the way that makes effective outreach.”
The next design charrette is scheduled for Jan. 26 at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. A final plan is expected this year.
“Our next step is to pull together an implementation team,” said Brock. “There's low-hanging fruit that can be done. There are also bigger aspirational projects. We'll have a to-do list and start working on it.”