Work is expected to begin next week on a new bridge to city-owned conservation lands on the West Broadway Island, as part of the ongoing effort to reduce illegal drug use and homeless camps on the parcel.
The overall plan calls for the creation of a new pedestrian bridge near Broadway and Hawthorne streets; upgrades to the existing utility bridge at the south end of Burton Street; extension of a trail between the two bridges; and improvements at the Clark Fork River’s edge, which include a small paved parking area.
“This project has been out there forever; part of this is the issue the city has been having on the island,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, which has earmarked $500,000 in Tax Increment Financing for the project. “We need to get people down there so some of the unacceptable behavior stops. Getting the bridge and trail there will do that.”
The city of Missoula purchased the eastern portion of the island in 2011; a small slice to the west is owned by the state of Montana. In recent years, conservation land crews and a firm hired by the MRA removed most of the non-native large shrubs and trees to restore the natural habitat. This project is expected to enhance the natural setting with its views of the river and mountains, and the use by small wildlife and birds.
“In the 1980s, the Missoula community decided that after a century of neglect and degradation, the Clark Fork River should be its greatest natural asset in the urban area, providing opportunities to enjoy nature while protecting the water quality of the river and our aquifer,” said Chris Behan, the MRA’s assistant director. “Providing parks, trails and natural areas in the greater downtown area also attracts private investors who change the nearby deteriorating environment.”
He expects people will still try to camp on the island, but the enhanced access and trail should make that more manageable, and that the “more aggressive folks” will move on.
“We want people to go out and enjoy a little piece of nature right in the middle of town,” Behan said. “It’s a pretty area and easy to walk to. Most of the weeds have been taken out, and in the summer there’s a nice sandy beach there.”
Buchanan added that once the proposed “Max Wave” surfing area is created, even more people will be drawn to the island. She said something similar occurred when Brennan’s Wave was installed below the Higgins Street Bridge.
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“We saw a similar transformation at Caras Park when Brennan’s Wave went in, because the activity levels were up with people coming down to watch the kayakers and surfers,” Buchanan said.
Since the area floods occasionally, gravel will be put down for the new trail rather than asphalt. That flooding also led designers to add a “relatively simple crank system” to the 70-foot new bridge, which will allow it to be lifted over the water when necessary.
The island is in Urban Renewal District II, and money for the upgrades comes from property tax revenue generated within the district.
The existing utility bridge is owned by the Hellgate Valley Irrigation Company, which is contributing $10,000 to help repair the south bank of its irrigation canal. That work is expected to make the canal more functional for irrigation and for flood protection.
“It’s a nice beefy bridge in terms of the structure, but the surface isn’t good,” Behan said. “The agreement is that we’ll use it for bikes and pedestrians and maintenance, and will put a different surface on top.”
He added that having two small bridges makes the area safer and more easily accessible to both the public and emergency responders.
Contractor Frontier West is staging equipment in the area, and a small informal parking area off Burton Street will be closed to the public while the work is being completed. Behan said he’s not sure how long it will take, because the work is weather-dependent, but expects things may wrap up by the end of May.
“We’ve allowed a pretty lengthy window for construction, but both the contractor and subcontractor have done stuff like this before and they do quick work,” Behan said.