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Vision for Missoula's urban core faces scrutiny, gets support from elected officials

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In an effort to guide growth and development over the next decade and beyond, a coalition of businesses and organizations are joining taxpayer-funded entities in drafting a new Missoula Downtown Master Plan.

The most recent draft was unveiled to the public on Wednesday night and a team of consultants spent the week meeting with City Council members and other elected officials.

When Jason King of consulting firm Dover, Kohl & Partners asked a crowd at the Wilma to vote on whether they thought the draft of the plan was “on the right track” or not, 66% voted yes “with high confidence." Another 23% voted “yes” with low confidence, 7% were not sure and 4% voted “no.”

During a meeting Wednesday morning, Missoula’s city councilors were supportive of many of the ideas but challenged others.

King said everywhere downtown needs more parking, even though he and his team found during a weeklong count of public spaces that only 64% of spots are usually occupied. He suggested more parking on the south side of the river, and noted that they have suggested 17 different approaches to parking in more than 30 pages in the report.

“The first thing we’re trying to do is more multi-modal so people don’t need to drive,” he told the City Council. “The second thing is we’re trying to find places that can handle the parking.”

King is one of the lead consultants hired to draft the plan, which could be adopted this fall or winter. Missoula’s downtown is booming, with hundreds of millions of dollars of new investment in recent years and more on the way. Meanwhile, median wages in town aren’t keeping up with the median home sales price. Linda McCarthy, the director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership, said the 2009 Downtown Master Plan is out of date, although many of the goals in that document were accomplished.

“It’s an update to the Downtown Master Plan, but in a lot of ways it’s kind of modernizing it,” she told the Missoulian as the process began. “We really want to see a concerted effort on downtown housing. Of course, parking will always be a key thing. But we’re looking at business development, what kinds of retail stores we want to see, transportation infrastructure, the arts, parks, everything.”

King is a proponent of tall structures and adding density. Although nothing in the plan has concrete solutions for how to pay for anything, he proposes a tall parking/mixed-use structure at the north end of Higgins near the old railroad depot. His vision is to make the structure look different from regular parking garages by adding stores and cafes on the ground floor with signs that lead to the parking.

“Right now (Missoula's) zoning has a hard time mixing uses,” King said. “You need coding that’s more up to date when it comes to mixing new building types like live/work buildings and where you can have higher densities. You’re building urbanism at the same time.”

He is also a proponent of a streetcar, perhaps a trolley powered by electricity, that would run continuously from Providence St. Patrick hospital through downtown and to the University of Montana campus and back. King said cities need less parking if they have an electric-powered street car or a rubber-treaded trolley.

He said in 2012, it didn’t appear that Missoula had enough tax revenue to support a streetcar. Now, however, things have changed.

“When we do the math, using the same equation from 2012 for an urban streetcar, we see that it might be more feasible,” he said. Streetcars can utilize federal dollars as well, he added, pointing to cities in Arizona and Texas that have used federal funding for similar projects.

The plan has some pie-in-the-sky ideas that would hinge upon private property owners being amenable to drastic changes. One thing the plan calls for is a mixed-use residential and business development north of the California Street bridge and another one in the current railroad yards owned by Montana Rail Link north of downtown.

“By the railroad, if you work with them to try to connect it with downtown you can add three or four more blocks to the downtown,” he said. He acknowledged that it would take a long time to work with MRL to get access through the site or to purchase or lease the site.

Council member John DiBari said some communities have buried their railroad tracks while still allowing them to be used and wondered how Missoula might remove that barrier.

“I’m pretty sure MRL will not let people cross the tracks freely,” he said. “There’s opportunities if we can bury the tracks, and then there are the hazards that come through town daily on the train.”

The plan also calls for more protected bike lanes.

King talked about walkable streets at the Wednesday presentation, showing pictures of how cobbling and artwork on busy streets could slow traffic by giving drivers a physical reminder that they are entering a slow-driving zone.

Images on the screen behind him showed clear pathways in the middle of roads like Front Street and Pattee Street, with seating next to buildings, more street trees and landscaping between bike paths and vehicle lanes.

But some of the councilors noted how that scenario can be difficult for ADA access.

“Things like benches and signposts already block them when they try to get out of the car,” said council member Julie Merritt. “Just to be aware there are good places and bad places for parking.”

The plan is attached to this story online or can be found at by clicking the "Resources" tab then clicking the link for the new master plan.

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