A plan is gaining momentum to turn Mary Avenue – a quiet, dead-end residential street – into a thoroughfare that will provide an east-west connection through that part of Missoula.
The result will increase the volume of traffic traveling past Southgate Mall, which is starting a $64 million upgrade. The mall's owners say the project will help them remain viable by providing a wider variety of services and entertainment, as well as more access. City officials say the project will result in a much-needed route between Brooks and Reserve streets, which will increase safety and property values.
A handful of residents on Mary Avenue, however, say it means the end of their quality of life, and they feel a project they've had little input in and less control over has been forced upon them.
"It's kind of like a punch to the stomach," said Chris Martin, who bought a house with his fiancee Brenda Lamb on Mary Avenue in June, before they knew about the development plans. "We bought our home to be on a quiet street with not a lot of traffic to raise our kids. We're completely out of the loop. It's for-profit companies and the city, basically, using eminent domain to take people's land for a mall."
There are no concrete plans to condemn anybody's land yet, but the city is going to begin the process of developing a redesign for the road that may involve widening it – which could mean purchasing private property through eminent domain.
City leaders now find themselves grappling with a common dilemma that is often associated with urban development: how to balance what they perceive as a benefit for the whole community against the negative impacts on a few.
The Missoula Redevelopment Agency's board recently approved an agreement between the city and Southgate Mall Associates to begin work on building a portion of Mary Avenue east of the Bitterroot Spur rail line, connecting Brooks Street to the tracks.
The mall developers' vision is to modernize it into a "town center" – there are plans for a new nine-screen, 1,000-seat movie theater and a massive lifestyle retail center. They also have been working to purchase right-of-way from Montana Rail Link to construct a railroad crossing that will connect to Mary Avenue on the west side of the tracks and Reserve Street.
According to estimates based on city traffic models by Jeremy Keene, an engineer at WGM Group hired by Southgate Mall Associates, when the Mary Avenue connector opens, traffic on the street could increase from roughly 400 cars per day to between 3,000 and 4,000.
Steve Anderson, who has lived next to the tracks where Mary Avenue dead ends, said he counts maybe two or three cars a week that don't belong to people who live there.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "The amount of traffic that's going to be down here is gonna be unreal. It's gonna change. And when it does, I'm hoping I can sell and get enough money out where I can move and go somewhere where it can be peaceful again.
Anderson also questioned the city's estimate of the traffic increase.
"They're talking 3,000 to 4,000 cars, but I think it's going to be more than that," he said. "There's 30,000 cars that go through Reserve here, because I called the Department of Transportation. This is going to be a straight shot to get to Highway 93. We've heard rumors they're going to widen the street, so we don't really know."
Anderson said he is concerned about drunk drivers on the street late at night.
Allan Tabish's house is a block west of Anderson's. He has lived and run his business, Tabish Seamless Siding, out of that location for 30 years. He is skeptical that he could ever sell for a profit.
"Well, who is going to want to buy here when they know this is happening?" he asked.
Tabish said he needs to have trucks pull up in front of his house to load heavy materials with forklifts almost every day, something that would be impossible on a high-traffic street. He said he's between a rock and a hard place because he won't be able to conduct business as usual and the entire street would have to be rezoned commercial to allow him to sell it to another company.
"I can't sell it as a business, and I can't sell it to another business," he said. "I can't sell it as a low-traffic business, which would be worth a little more money. Right now, if this were zoned residential and I pull out of here, you as a homeowner, would you want to buy this for a residential property for you, your wife and your kids to live here? I don't think so. Not with that kind of traffic going in front of your house. So they're actually devaluing my property without any compensation."
Tabish said he has been counting on selling out to another business when the time comes to retire, but that plan won't work now. He doesn't dispute that the developers and City Council members have listened to his concerns, but he doesn't think it changed anything.
"They let us talk and blow off steam, but things just keep going they way they are going," he said.
Brenda Lamb, who like her husband planned on living on Mary Avenue for 20 years to raise her kids on a quiet street, is furious about the plan.
"If we wanted to live in the middle of the city, we would have bought downtown," she said. "We wanted a quiet neighborhood. People don't want connectivity. There are still Montana people that live here, and they also want to live a quality Montana lifestyle. They said our property value is going up 10 percent. Well, I will be paying our Realtor 10 percent. I don't want to be decorating a Christmas tree in front of our picture window with 4,000 cars going by."
Lamb said she could "care less" about the mall.
"They told us the mall has a timeline, and they want us all to be quiet," she said. "The mall has a time schedule. It's pretty disgusting. So what's all this remodeling and construction going to do? It's really going to affect a lot of the families that live here. A kid can walk out here on the street now. Compare that to 4,000 to 6,000 cars. If I wanted that, I would live on Reserve. But the mall has a time schedule, so we all need to get on board. Well, I'm not going to roll over and give up. We're going to fight all the way to the end. We had all these plans to remodel this house, but now we have to hire an attorney to make sure our rights are being heard."
Lamb said any increase in her home's property value would be minimized by the loss of frontyard space that would come with a wider street.
"When people are looking to buy a house, they are looking at the square footage of the lot," she said. "It's not going to increase our property value. But I will lose my house before I let them just have it."
Despite the objections of some residents on Mary Avenue, the project is gaining momentum at City Hall.
On Jan. 25, the City Council is scheduled to vote on the development agreement, which already was approved by the Administration and Finance Committee.
Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, said that because Mary Avenue west of the tracks lacks curbs, gutters, sidewalks and shoulders in many sections, it is not equipped to handle increased traffic, and the city will eventually have to redesign that stretch.
The existing public right of way is 60 feet, but the city standard for a "collector" street is typically 80 feet – meaning some yard space may have to be sacrificed. The developers have said there is flexibility to design a road that best fits the neighborhood and minimizes the property impacts.
"In making that link from Brooks over the tracks to Reserve, that totally changes what's going to happen there," Buchanan explained. "There's never been any consideration of just opening that street without doing some improvements to it. It has to be improved. We will be issuing a request for proposals for consultant teams, and we will engage the public. MRA will pay to have the street redone or rebuilt. It may not be a complete reconstruction of the street, but there will be sidewalks and street trees and stormwater drains. None of that exists today."
City Council President Marilyn Marler said she hopes to give residents a couple of years of "breathing room" to figure out whether they want to move or not.
"When this project first came to City Council from the MRA, I and other City Council members were very excited about it," she said. "For getting a traffic flow through that part of the mall and starting to establish a proper grid –so many good things about this project. But it caught me and others by surprise when the Mary Street west residents came to our meetings and it seemed like they felt like they hadn't been involved in the process.
Marler said she is "sympathetic to the perceived insult" of being labeled a blighted neighborhood.
"That can hurt if it just comes out of the blue, even though it's a legal term," she said. "So that didn't sit too well. And they felt like their quality of life was being sacrificed for the mall or a theater or something, and not understanding that it was part of a whole transportation plan and reinvestment and the economy, etcetera."
Peter Lambros, a representative for Southgate Mall Associates, said developers and city officials held two neighborhood meetings to hear concerns from residents and businesses that would be affected by the project.
"This is not a unanimous 'everybody loves this' project," Lambros acknowledged. "This is a difficult project to find unanimity with. This developer's intent has never been to do something that just rams a development plan into the community, but wants to do something in the spirit of leveraging public and private efforts to do something for the long-range benefit of the community."
Lambros said they knocked on doors and found that two-thirds of the homes on Mary Avenue are not owner-occupied because they are investor properties.
"The majority of those have either been unresponsive or supportive," he said. "We didn't anticipate a lot of controversy within the investment properties there. Within the owner-occupied community, though, there was real angst of opening the railroad tracks."
Lambros said residents also mistakenly believe the developers want to dictate how the street west of the tracks is designed, which he said is not the case. He also said people think more traffic will bring more problems – and crime.
"Most urban opinions in this matter say if we have well-lit streets and sidewalks and the addition of traffic, if anything this might be a benefit to areas that are presently unlit," he said.
He said it will be the city's decision on how to zone the street in the future.
"There is the reality that this will substantially increase traffic," he said. "Some folks see this as good and their property value will go up over time, but there are a handful of residents – where we may be designing something for the urban future of Missoula – but their definition of quality of life is to have things exactly the way things are today. ... It certainly made us do a gut-check, even if we believe in this project, even if we believe in connectivity and the transportation plan."
Lambros said he needed the city to affirm its support for the plan to move forward.
"This is not a light matter for me personally, and not a light matter for this ownership team. And it's not our wish to dictate what's good for the long term of Missoula at the expense of the people who their quality of life will be compromised or inconvenienced," he said. "So that needs to be affirmed. Everybody is not 100 percent happy. It's a benefit to a lot of folks and I think a lot of people recognize the long-term benefits, but it will come at a cost to some of the residents. We still believe in it."
Lambros said he believes the city should "unhinge" the timeline for the western half of Mary Avenue from Southgate's plans for the eastern half, although he believes that the railroad crossing shouldn't open until both are finished.
"Southgate needs to proceed with urgency," he said. "But we can put a different timeline for the residents on the Reserve Street side."
Southgate Mall intends to begin partial construction this year and open the proposed nine-plex, dine-in theater with 1,000 seats in 2017.
Buchanan said that the city's transportation plan has recognized the need for an east-west connector in that part of town for at least two decades.
For one thing, children in that neighborhood live too close to Russell Elementary School to qualify for bus service, yet they have to walk through the mall property and cross Brooks to get to class. When this project is completed, they'll have safe sidewalks, bike lanes and street crossings.
Keene said he believes Mary Avenue will eventually be a "neighborhood collector" street like Beckwith Avenue, rather than a wide, fast street like South Avenue.
"We can mitigate a lot of issues that are caused with traffic, and there are potential rezoning processes that would add value to the properties if they add additional uses," he said.
"There are people that live on Mary Avenue that bought there because it was a dead-end street," Buchanan said. "Their lifestyle will be impacted. But in all likelihood, the property value increases, absolutely. There is definitely not a consensus out there on anything."