By Martin Kidston

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency received preliminary approval to use tax increment financing to purchase 150 parking spaces in a garage planned as part of a larger project on East Front Street.

A subsequent request from MRA is expected to follow seeking approval for a $3.2 million revenue bond to help construct a portion of the new garage.

The structure is planned as part of a six-story student housing project with 488 beds, including two levels of parking. The project is planned by Farran Realty Partners.

“If downtown is going to grow, it's going to have to have more parking,” said Chris Behan, assistant director of MRA. “One, to attract more offices downtown, and two, to expand retail.”

Behan told the City Council's Administration and Finance Committee that downtown Missoula has seen little if any retail growth in the past 30 years. If the city wants to grow its downtown core by attracting new employers and visitors, parking must be addressed.

The most efficient way to do that, he added, is through public-private partnerships, such as that proposed with Farran.

“Retail growth downtown has been practically zero for the last 30 years,” Behan said. “ If we want retail in the downtown, increased parking and an increased customer base are essential.”

The student housing project is expected to be a step in that direction, Behan said. Once built, it will place 500 new residents in the downtown district. The project is just one of several planned for East Front Street, including a new Mercantile hotel and potential new library.

Growing downtown, Behan acknowledged, comes with impacts.

“Yes, there will be some negative impacts introducing 500 people into a neighborhood,” Behan said. “That's just going to happen. There will be changes to the way the neighborhood works.”

Behan said a recent demographic study of the neighborhood extending from Pattee Street to Madison Avenue and from the Clark Fork River to Broadway is comprised of 85 percent rentals. Of those, he said, 80 percent are occupied by students.

“This project expands a current use in that area,” he said.

Members of the committee praised the project for its uniqueness, saying it fits with the vision written into the city's growth plan for the downtown district.

“The city taking a proactive approach to structured parking is one of the only ways – the most sensible ways – we're going to achieve our growth policy downtown,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. “I think it will ease some of the concerns about contracted parking in Park Place. I hope we do a lot more with structured parking throughout the city.”

Rod Austin, director of the Missoula Parking Commissioner, said he expects the new garage to be an active place given other projects planned for the district.

“Both levels, I think, will be very active levels,” Austin said.

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