Members of the Missoula City Council got to bring up concerns and questions on Wednesday about a proposal for a new, multi-million-dollar development project at the Riverfront Triangle site in downtown Missoula.

A group of developers called Hotel Fox Partners is working with city officials on drafting a development agreement that would lead to a $150 million urban infill redevelopment at the seven-acre site on the northwest corner of the Orange Street Bridge.

Plans include a conference center, a new riverside park, a hotel, affordable and high-end housing, parking garages, medical office space, restaurants, large and small retail space and an expanded bike/pedestrian path.

The portion of Front Street from Owens Street to West Broadway would be converted into a non-motorized greenway, and there would be a central plaza with a new roundabout. The team expects to break ground next year and build the project in phases over several years, but city officials are still coming up with a draft development agreement – essentially a list of requirements – in exchange for exclusive development rights.

“This is our opportunity to sort of firm up the floor of what we want the built environment of the Fox Site to look like,” said Land Use and Planning committee chair Emily Bentley, referring to the site’s other name that references the old Fox Theater. “This agreement is not set in stone and is still being negotiated.”

John DiBari, a member of the city’s Land Use and Planning committee, wanted to know how the developers could guarantee that the facades of the buildings that face the public are inviting and attractive.

“Is there going to be a way to ensure people who are using the park and riverfront trail are also interacting with a building façade that isn’t essentially just a brick wall?” he asked. “What we are striving for is a place that’s inviting and you’re not walking along a brick wall.”

The draft of the development agreement so far calls for the first floor of buildings to be 25 percent window, door or other transparencies and 15 percent on upper stories.

Jeff Crouch, an architect hired by the developers, said his clients have a significant financial incentive to make the buildings interact with the riverfront as much as possible.

“My clients have the opportunity to create a very attractive site for people to spend money or to live and that is largely dependent on the river,” he said. “It’s about creating a place to work and live. That financial mandate in order for this site to be successful automatically gives us incentive to do that. If I don’t pull off a design that is dynamic and exciting and transparent, if you aren’t excited to sit there, I haven’t been successful.”

Crouch said that buildings like a big federal post office or a huge internet server building – as is the case with the Qwest building on Main Street downtown – wouldn’t work at the Riverfront Triangle.

“It can’t happen for the economic viability of the site, and a lot of times money drives projects,” he explained.

Crouch said that his design team is looking at ways to “screen” the parking garages – at least one of which would be partially underground – so that people don’t even realize they are walking by a parking structure. One option on the table for doing that is using hydroponic "grow walls" to let plants climb up a façade to disguise what’s behind it. Crouch said they are still researching that.

One of the parking garages would be underneath a proposed conference center and hotel, while the other parking structure would be located under housing. The developers have not specified what percentage of the housing on the site would be classified as affordable housing.

The new park would be “fairly highly urban” in design, Crouch explained.

“It would be more dynamic and interesting than just grass,” he said. “It would be more of an urban park than just a grass Frisbee lawn. You would have a hotel deck above your head and people eating a hamburger and drinking a beer. It would be a place for First Friday gatherings, to have a choir singing or to have a gathering after the Day of the Dead Festival. Those urban spaces have to interact really effectively with our public/private development.”

Elizabeth Erickson, the city’s open space lands acquisition attorney, said that the Parks Department is looking at creating “hardened river access points” in the area or nearby under the Orange Street Bridge. The reason is to minimize erosion from people walking down to the river wherever they please, as happens along many portions of the river near downtown.

Crouch said that hopefully, in the future, there will be a new footbridge that will give people access from the new park to the baseball stadium across the river. The details of the new bridge have yet to be worked out.

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