There is only one missing segment in the 45-mile bicycle/pedestrian trail that extends from downtown Missoula to Hamilton: A four-block section along the Bitterroot Branch railroad tracks between North Avenue and South Avenue near Southgate Mall.
The Missoula Redevelopment Agency hopes to change that with a proposed $2 million purchase of 12 acres near Southgate Mall for a new public park and a completed trail network – a plan the board will take up Wednesday.
According to Ellen Buchanan, the director of the redevelopment agency, the city has been working with Montana Rail Link for a number of years to negotiate a trail easement along the Bitterroot Branch Rail Line. Then, over the last couple years, Mayor John Engen began working to find a way for the city to purchase the triangular-shaped property.
Now, the mayor and rail line have reached an agreement for the city to buy the property for below-market value and for Montana Rail Link to make a donation to the city that will provide land for a much-needed park.
The purchase price will come from the city and from the redevelopment agency, since the land is in an urban renewal district.
“The purchase price is $2 million, which represents $3.80 per square foot, considerably below market rate for land in the urban core of Missoula,” Buchanan said in a memo to the MRA board of commissioners. “The difference between $2 million and the fair market value of the land will be in the form of a donation to the City for construction of a new park.”
There is approximately $389,000 remaining in the city’s portion of the 1995 Open Space Bond Fund. The redevelopment agency is proposing to use a portion of that to help fund the purchase. Then, the agency would use Tax Increment Financing funds for the balance of the purchase price and to build a trail in that segment, which is estimated to cost just under $500,000.
“Construction of the park is a longer term project,” Buchanan wrote. “We would want public input into what form the park should take and what elements should be included. We have some very schematic concepts, but they are simply for illustrative purposes at this point. This park will have a significant positive impact on these neighborhoods and it is certain that residents in the area will be quite involved in its design.”
The southern portion of the property is vacant, and Buchanan said it is an ideal location for a 4-5 acre park that can serve a variety of needs in the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood that are sorely lacking in open space and park land.
“The other factor that is unique to this transaction is the opportunity to construct the missing trail segment,” Buchanan said. “The Bitterroot Trail will be a world class bicycle/pedestrian facility stretching some 45 miles from Missoula to Hamilton which will attract bicycle tourists from around the country, in addition to heavy use by local residents.
"This missing four-block segment has been an issue for years. And with the completion of the bicycle/pedestrian bridge over South Reserve Street, that connection becomes all the more important.”
Further down the road, Buchanan said the acreage on the northern portion of the property presents an opportunity for some much-needed mixed residential development.
There are four buildings on the property that generate approximately $109,000 in lease revenue every year. The city has been granted a Brownfields Environmental Assessment grant to conduct environmental assessments on the property.
Montana Rail Link has been granted exclusive naming rights for the new park. The city also already has an easement for the one-block portion between South Avenue and the cul-de-sac on Livingston Avenue, so the trail would be paved in that section as well.
The city council would have to authorize the mayor to execute the purchase agreement after the city conducts its due diligence. The redevelopment agency staff is recommending that its board forward a recommendation to the city council.