As an effort to radically transform the western edge of Missoula’s downtown moves forward, the city has come up with a list of things it will require of the developers who are planning the new commercial complex.
A development agreement has been drafted for the Riverfront Triangle Project, a proposed $150 million, mixed-use development of the 3-acre chunk of land on the Clark Fork River northwest of the Orange Street bridge. It will be considered by the city council’s Land Use and Planning Committee this Wednesday.
If the developer – a group called Hotel Fox Partners – agrees to the draft as written, the project would be required to include a new public riverfront park, a conference center, a hotel, housing, office space and medical office space. There would also be retail spaces both over and under 3,000 square feet for small and large businesses, restaurants and parking.
The site is currently a mix of blighted parking structures and older buildings, and city officials have been trying to build a facility to attract regional conferences – and the visitor spending that comes with it – for years.
The agreement would require developers to extend the Riverfront Trail across the site and along the river as long as they get approval from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department on the design.
The developer will also have to provide a 30-foot greenway space for non-motorized public access and recreational use. It would run from the current intersection of West Front Street and Broadway to a new roundabout at the intersection of West Front and Owen streets.
There would also be a plaza space at that location, which would be used for events, pedestrian travel and community gatherings. There would also be a central hub, with a historic Fox Theater sign, that might include a glass conservatory connecting the buildings.
The plaza would offer unimpeded public access between West Front and the trail next to the river, and visibility from the north and south would be preserved. The developer would have to ensure that a "wide range of views through and into the site are enhanced or created."
Hotel Fox Partners would also build a parking garage either above or below-grade or both, as well as bicycle parking. To the extent possible and feasible, there will also be interpretive displays and art installations along the new Riverfront Trail portion and in the plaza and the center of the hub. The art would “incorporate and celebrate our community’s culture, history and/or unique location” according to a city memo.
There would be design standards for all the buildings facing a public or private street or trail. The first floor of every façade would have to be comprised of at least 25 percent windows, doors and other transparencies, and all other stories would have to be at least 15 percent transparent. Darkly-tinted, mirrored or highly-reflective glazing or doors would not count.
The entire site would have to contain a number of public facilities that would be managed by the Parks and Recreation staff, including new street trees and easements that would allow public access on the trail and plaza. Native riparian shrubs would be planted along the riverbank to stabilize against erosion and enhance the natural environment.
The issue of a new pedestrian bridge spanning the river is also addressed in the draft agreement. The developers would need to meet with Parks and Rec to determine the best location for a future bridge that would connect McCormick Park on the south to the new site.
The developers would need to document and define the location in their plans so the future design and construction of the bridge would be easier because the necessary infrastructure would already be in place.
It appears from the agreement that the city would eventually be on the hook for paying for the bridge. Since the project lies within an Urban Renewal District, additional property tax revenue generated by the project could be used to pay for improvements to the site that benefit the public.
Karen Knudsen, the executive director of the nonprofit Clark Fork Coalition in Missoula, said the project is “an opening for redefining how our community interacts with, and cares for, the Clark Fork River for decades to come.”
“Right now, development and land use on the Clark Fork through the heart of Missoula reflects the ‘river-as-waste receptacle’ mindset of last century,” she wrote in a memo to city staff. “Businesses still turn away from the river, or have an industrial character that doesn’t take people, wildlife, and clean water into special account.”
However, Knudsen said that the river is cleaner and healthier than it has been in decades, with the trout fishery taking off and bird and wildlife habitat improving. She said the Riverfront Triangle project could be a defining moment and a template for how riverside growth will unfold in years to come.
She recommended that the developers create river access areas that are accessible by the public, provide amenities, install educational information about the sustainable properties of the site and interpretive signs for natural areas. She also called for building facades to be designed so that they appreciate the river.
The Clark Fork Coalition is recommending that there be a protected and enhanced native riparian buffer and a landscape with diverse native species. There should also be onsite storm water retention, pollutant filtration and porous or permeable pavement.
Knudsen also said there should be a conversation about how to finance long-term care for the river. “By most standards of measure,” she said, "the Clark Fork River corridor is emerging as one of the best opportunities for enhancing quality of life for the people who live, work, and play in Missoula.''
Bruce Farling, the executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, also said that the city has an opportunity to repair the river on that stretch. He and his staff recommended that the garbage and trash be removed at the site, the cottonwood trees be preserved, and a horizontal filter strip of vegetation next to the trail be maintained.
“The downtown river corridor is not a lost cause, as some people allege, and we can and should improve its natural look and function,” he wrote to the city council.