The Missoula City Council signed off on plans Monday to build erosion-resistant river access points along the river trail, overhaul the Waterworks Hill trailhead and plant more than 450 trees in city parks and greenways. The council also moved to adopt the updated Downtown Master Plan, an aspirational vision for continued development in the downtown core.
The trails, river and parks projects are all funded in part by the 2018 Open Space Bond, in addition to Conservation Mill Levy funds and various other private and public sources.
Waterworks Hill trailhead, the most used trailhead in the city’s open space holdings, has suffered from heavy erosion and inadequate parking, with cars carving out the shoulders of the road over time for improvised parking.
But a planned 30-spot parking lot near the dome structure, acquired by the city when it took ownership of the water utility, will shift parking farther up an improved access road. The parking lot and access road includes improved access to the water utility, so some of the funding for the overhaul is budgeted to come from Missoula Water Company. The Open Space bond request was $135,000.
In addition to the Waterworks Hill trailhead overhaul, each of the 63 trailheads in the city’s open space holdings will be assessed and scheduled for any needed upgrades including signage, bear-resistant trash cans, dog waste bags and parking. The amount requested from the Open Space bond was $165,000.
Morgan Valliant, the Parks and Recreation conservation lands manager, said the bond was being used differently than previous Open Space bonds, as asked for by Missoulians.
“We’re not just using the bond to purchase more open space,” Valliant said. “But we’re actually going to reinvest in the land we’ve purchased and been purchasing since the ‘80s, to improve them and reduce maintenance costs and make them better and safer for our citizens.”
River traffic has steadily increased since the Milltown Dam was removed in 2008, causing erosion problems as people forge small trails to the Clark Fork throughout town.
Between two studies performed in 2015 and 2018, the amount of river traffic on the Madison Street to Orange Street corridor increased by 72%, according to Missoula Parks and Recreation department.
As early as 2015, Parks and Recreation volunteers documented 34 separate river access points along a two-thirds of a mile stretch of the south bank, significantly contributing to erosion of the river banks. The access points are places where people have repeatedly walked down the bank to the river, causing an improvised trail, and killing off vegetation that helps hold the soil in place.
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Seven of those sites had spurred so much erosion that the adjacent trail is at risk of being damaged. A more recent count, this time including the north bank on the same stretch of river, had nearly tripled to 90 eroded access points.
The solution Parks and Recreation came up with over years of study is to build structurally sound access sites. The largely stone structures in the department’s mockups are made up of stone steps, as well as terraced concrete benches down to the river.
Beyond a handful of major river access points, the plan includes a higher number of smaller access sites. Preliminary estimates on how many access sites were at four major sites, and 10 smaller sites, though at an October Open Space Advisory Committee, Valliant stressed that could change as further studies examine the needs and ways people currently use the river.
While most of the studies have focused on the core of the river trail between the University and downtown, the proposed restoration effort’s scope is far broader. The project area now encompasses the river corridor from Ben Hughes Park in East Missoula to Riverside Park, just past Russell Street Bridge. The request from the Open Space bond for the project was $225,000 for further study and planning, but will eventually be a multimillion dollar project.
There is also a proposed project to plant between 450 and 650 trees across city parks, particularly along the Bitterroot Branch trail, which is nearly treeless for long stretches through the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood.
The reforestation project will also increase the diversity of species, helping to mitigate the spread of diseases and prevent large swaths of trees ageing and dying at the same time, as is likely to soon happen with the monoculture of Norwegian maples in the University District. About 65 trees are planned to be taken out during the project. The project requested up to $250,000 from the Open Space Bond.
The Downtown Master Plan, a more than 300-page document outlining a host of aspirational goals for public and private developments in Missoula’s urban core, was also approved and adopted by the council.
The plan consists of various strategies to address parking, traffic and private development, almost none of it is guaranteed to happen. It is created to provide a road map for development of Missoula, and involved community input from a variety of stakeholders and the general public. Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership, said over 4,000 Missoulians had provided input on the plan.
A range of public commenters called on the plan as being too focused on tourists, and not enough on local people, veterans and people in need of mental health services.
Council member Julie Merritt said she was impressed by the way the planners had brought a group of people with disabilities to do a walking tour of downtown to help identify places that needed the most work to be better developed for people of all mobility levels.