Missoula residents with an interest in the city's growing Northside district gathered Thursday night to envision the future, one that's expected to bring changes to the large stretch of land wedged between Interstate 90 and Montana Rail Link's switching yard.

From street grids to trails, housing to employment, stakeholders are seeking common ground as they write a plan to guide growth and development over the next 20 years.

Hosted by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, the public workshop marked the second in a series of three aimed at crafting a master plan for the so-called North Reserve and Scott Street Urban Renewal District. A final plan is expected this year, though implementation could take decades to achieve.

“There are a lot of different uses going on out there, and there's a lot of vacant land,” said Chris Behan, assistant director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “There's an awful lot of pressure for a variety of development within our community – a community without a lot flat land. We need to look at these areas and try to figure out what might happen.”

While nobody holds a crystal ball, most are certain that development will take place in the Northside district with or without a plan to guide it. Fearing piecemeal development that could further fragment the area and run up public costs, stakeholders are looking to phase the changes over time.

“Unless we have an idea of what we might do if certain things happen, we won't make good on-the-spot decisions,” Behan said. “There's very little the city can do to make this vision happen without other people doing things along the way.”

Last year, MRA moved to create a guiding document for the area, responding to increased interest among developers. The city also placed the area into an urban renewal district to generate future tax increment to fund public infrastructure needs.

Consumer Direct's new $21 million office building remains under construction off North Reserve Street. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

Several projects are moving forward as a result, including Consumer Direct's new $21 million building on the district's west end. The project will serve as the company's new headquarters, and it represents the first building in what planners see as a new office district.

To the east off Scott Street, Edgell Building also plans to break ground on an entry-level housing project. The area's new master plan, which remains a work in progress, calls for additional residential infill and an expansion of the Scott Street neighborhood.

“It's important to understand that this plan is going to be development driven,” said Jeremy Keene, project engineer with WGM Group. “It's an urban renewal district, so by nature it relies on that type of investment to help fund the public infrastructure that's needed to support it. As development happens out there, infrastructure will happen at the same time.”

Current and future projects across the district will drive the need for additional infrastructure, which most agree remains one of the area's shortcomings. As the residential area grows, so too will the street grid to support it. The same goes for the office and retail district off Reserve Street, where the plan calls for new traffic signals and other public improvements.

But the plan also cites the need for new city-wide connectors. The district is large and diverse, home to commercial businesses and a residential neighborhood. Lying between the two sits a large industrial zone occupied by Roseburg Forest Products, Montana Rail Link and other industries.

As presented on Thursday night, the draft master plan envisions a new north-south connector linking Broadway with Interstate 90 and a potential new interchange. It also calls for a new east-west connector linking North Reserve with Scott Street.

Engineers and planners presented their latest maps at Thursday night's public workshop, held at Ruby's Inn in Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

Nick Kaufman, vice president and principal planner with WGM Group, said both proposals would impact existing land owners, including Roseburg and MRL. While the businesses remain reluctant to accommodate the changes, he said, change itself may influence future decisions.

“If we did everything exactly the way people asked us to do it, we wouldn't have a land-use plan that accommodates change into the future,” said Kaufman. “One of the issues for Roseburg was a potential for a trail along their northern side, and we also show a road across the property. They're not wildly excited about that at all because it tends to divide their property, but there's a connectivity issue here, so we still show it.”

While some solutions don't come easy, most of those who gathered for the second public workshop did share some common interests. Stakeholders want more trail opportunities, giving the district a sense of place.

Starting from scratch, they also have the opportunity to design new streetscapes and plan for neighborhood services. They offered solutions to buffer one zone from the next with unique living quarters and opportunities for light manufacturing.

“It's about illustrating opportunities and options for both the property owners and the public, so everyone can make informed decisions to make the best use of their land and their opportunities,” said Nore Winter, a consultant with Winter and Co. “What we don't want is an incremental piecemeal investment that paints someone into a corner, or forecloses opportunities that might have maximized other benefits.”