The snow crunches underfoot and the Clark Fork River slips silently past the empty parcel of real estate locked in the shadows of Hellgate Canyon.

While this barren patch of ground doesn’t look like much, a handful of University of Montana students see its potential. They’ve worked the past few months meeting with local residents and Missoula Parks and Recreation to tease out the possibilities.

“One of the things the residents wanted was a picnic area,” said Mace Wescott, a graduate student at UM. “When you begin planning a park like this, you look at ways to maximize use and safety, the visibility of the space, and how the community is going to use it.”

Wescott is one of four UM graduate students who together have worked diligently the past few months meeting with city officials and local residents in planning the future of Hellgate Park.

The students were tasked by geography professor Thomas Sullivan to find a real community planning issue they could help move forward from concept to design.

While the park is far from becoming a reality, it’s closer now than it was four months ago when the students embarked on their assignment.

“We’re taking some of the theories from the graduate level and applying them in the local community in ways that are tangible,” said UM graduate student Sophia Albov. “It’s taking our education and applying it before we get into the professional realm.”

The three-acre park sits between the Cobblestone and Creekside apartment complexes east of the city. The Clark Fork River runs the full length of the park’s southern edge and a frontage road lies to the north.

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The plot of land once was part of a farm and used for agriculture. When the area was subdivided as Gateway Gardens in the 1970s, the parcel was set aside as parkland.

But the park never came to fruition and the parcel has sat vacant for decades. Still hoping to see it developed, local residents urged the county to transfer ownership to the city.

The city is expected to unveil a proposed park design in February, incorporating the concepts brought forward during the planning process.

“With natural parkland like this, you take into consideration the features already here,” said Albov. “It has the potential to be a focal point for the community. It’s in the floodplain, so it can’t be too highly developed.”

Alex Pichacz, a member of the planning group and a Cobblestone resident, said the push to develop the park was already taking place when the students stepped in.

Over the past few months, they’ve attended planning sessions between neighbors and the city. They studied aerial photos and discussed the need for a local park, and have worked to incorporate the leading ideas into the plan.

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River access was important, so long as it wasn’t too big. A small dog park wouldn’t hurt, and parking should be minimal. Continuing the riverside trail system was key, as was a community garden.

“We were advocates for the community garden,” Pichacz said. “The folks at Cobblestone didn’t care as much. But at Creekside, there’s a push for a community garden. We think it would be a good thing and this is a great location.”

Given the park’s placement in the floodplain, the cost of development likely will be less than other park plans. To minimize costs, the students said, the project likely will be tackled in phases, though implementation is likely several years out.

Sullivan lauded his students for taking the lead in the project and for working with community leaders to solve a real need.

“I’m impressed by these students and how they have inserted their ideas and worked with community members in helping them plan out a variety of projects,” Sullivan said.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, martin.kidston@missoulian.com or @martinkidston.

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