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Mercantile

Brian Betts, the environmental superintendent of ACM Contracting, applies a layer of lead barrier compound to the windows of the old Pharmacy portion of the Mercantile Building in July of 2018.

It wasn’t surprising that many of the questions about a new Downtown Master Plan for Missoula involved affordable housing during the monthly City Club Missoula meeting on Monday.

City officials, members of the public, private business owners and regular workers all wanted to know how to create housing that a person earning a modest paycheck can afford in the urban core of the city.

That's a thriving area that has seen several hundred million dollars' worth of new development recently, with much more on the horizon. As city officials look to update the 2009 Downtown Master Plan, which will serve to guide decisions over the next 25 years regarding the historic central business district and adjoining neighborhoods, issues like parking, crime, walkability, business hours, tourism and design standards will all play a role.

But housing in Missoula, where prices have skyrocketed since 2010 while wages have stagnated, is at the forefront.

“Affordable housing is one of our biggest challenges,” said Ellen Buchanan, who serves in many roles advocating for downtown Missoula and is the executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “The issue of affordability and attainability is a dominant theme as we go forward. We have a lot of income-qualified housing but what we don’t have is workforce housing."

She believes city leaders have to find "a balance," and said a team of consultants will help strike it.

"As we move forward with the Riverfront Triangle, we need to see a mix of demographics and housing types," she said.

The Riverfront Triangle is a $150 million project envisioned by a team of local private developers to revitalize the area just to the west of the Orange Street Bridge with a combination of hotel, conference center, housing, restaurants and other amenities. It's still in the planning stages.

There were no easy or simple answers about how to solve the housing affordability problem to be found during the question-and-answer session at the DoubleTree Hotel on Monday. However, the main goal of the City Club meeting was to let the public know how the update to the master plan is progressing and to get input on what kinds of things need to be addressed.

Nearly 60 businesses, organizations, city agencies and individuals are supporting the update to the master plan, and Buchanan said they’ve hired a respected Florida consulting firm, Dover, Kohl & Partners, to lead the charge. As of now, $400,000 has been raised, including $200,000 from the private sector.

Linda McCarthy, the executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership, said 1,200 housing units have been added in the downtown area since the last master plan was adopted. That plan called for 3,000 units, however, to keep up with demand.

She pointed out that a lot of housing, including two new student housing projects, have been added as the downtown area grows denser and higher. She also said that Missoula’s downtown is thriving economically, listing off a plethora of large and small projects that have revitalized previously forlorn parking lots and vacant buildings in recent years.

“Today we see $850 million of investment taking place in our downtown in a lot of different areas,” she said. “We’ve also seen $70 million invested in downtown infrastructure projects. And downtown is a hot real estate market right now.”

She said the Heart of Missoula won a planning excellence award from the American Planning Association last year.

“There are so many things that make our downtown distinctly different and unique,” she said.

Another big decision for city leaders will be how to get funding to convert Main and Front Streets to two-way streets, which business owners and community members want as a way to increase safety and reduce confusion for visitors. Buchanan said that project could cost as much as $6 million, but it can be done in phases. She said the main goal will be to try and get federal and state funding.

McCarthy said the goal of the new plan will be to create a “broadly accepted, community-built guiding tool that ensures the long-term health, character and vitality of downtown Missoula,” with goals such as preserving authenticity and versatility. It’s expected to be a 12-month planning process.

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