Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Plans to make further improvements to Caras Park and the downtown stretch of the Clark Fork River took a step forward on Wednesday when members of the Missoula City Council approved a contract for construction.

The $45,000 contract represents a non-traditional approach but will help streamline the $1.5 million project and plan around fluctuating water levels, said Nathan McLeod, the city's senior landscape architect.

“It provides a better value to the city and usually ends up with fewer change orders, earlier procurement of items with long lead times, and a timely construction project,” he said.

The Caras Park River Access project was included in the latest Downtown Master Plan and is one of the most sought-after improvements to the urban stretch of the river, McLeod said.

Among other things, the work will install a handicap accessible ramp to the water's edge and terraced seating along the riverbank. It will also revegetate the levy, which is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“It'll help keep the banks and water temperature lower, which is better for aquatic life,” said McLeod.

Caras Park is one of several locations where the city plans to create dedicated access to the river in hopes of reducing unauthorized trails, which have led to increased erosion.

The city documented 90 human-made trails within the project area and more than 630 feet of bank erosion. If not addressed, the problem could threaten public infrastructure.

The restoration and stabilization project has been in the works since at least 2014. Along with Caras Park, the city plans to install access points both north and south of the river, including at the Beartracks and the Van Buren Street bridges.

The Caras Park project will be the first to move forward.

“The city will amend this contract to include a guaranteed maximum price for the full completion of the project. We expect that amount to be around $1.5 million, based on bids,” McLeod said.

To fund the Caras portion of the project, the city secured a $1.2 million grant from the Economic Development Administration. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency contributed $100,000 and the Missoula Downtown Partnership gave $150,000.

An additional $155,000 will come from the city's share of the Open Space Bond.