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Norm Garrett walks down Higgins Avenue around lunch time on Thursday. “Walkability” is important, and on a scale of 1 to 100 Missoula scores a 97.

Imagine the Hip Strip with a parking facility for vehicles on the top floors and stores and restaurants on the bottom. Imagine high-rise apartments for seniors near the Senior Center. Imagine a trolley running across the Higgins Street Bridge and the current four lanes dropped to two on the south side, creating room for bike lanes separated from vehicles by parking strips.

Those were just a few of the fairly radical ideas for downtown Missoula that emerged after the first week of a year-long effort to update the core area’s 10-year master plan.

“What if?” Jason King repeatedly asked as he showed the ideas pulled together this week to about 250 people gathered late Friday at The Wilma. “We’re still just beginning, and some of these things are guaranteed to shake you and make you afraid."

Toward that end, he asked the audience to:

Imagine Front Street to the west of Higgins as a great urban plaza, closed to vehicles on weekends, where people can gather and throw parties.

Imagine a parking structure instead of the one-level lot near Caras Park, with roof-top restaurants and decks overlooking the Clark Fork River and a main floor public market, where families can relax after playing on the carousel. Imagine a small, nearby winter ice rink that turns into a splash pond in the summer.

Imagine Main Street to the east of Higgins lined with multi-story buildings that are stepped back to protect the view of the mountains. Imagine the four-lane street converted to two lanes with a bike lane on either side set off from traffic by parking spaces.

Imagine the Alder and Pattee streets area with a parking garage and additional cafes and retail spaces.

Imagine the northern side of the depot connected with downtown, with affordable housing in the old rail yard, where trains quietly pass by.

“But remember,'' King said, "we’re taking criticism and incorporating that into the design. We will keep proposing and disposing until we arrive at a plan everyone agrees on.”

He expected the potential changes to the Caras Park area would be the most controversial, and was surprised when 70 percent of audience members taking part in an immediate key pad poll at The Wilma either voted “yes” or “probably yes.” Another 20 percent said they had more questions about it, and 10 percent were opposed.

King was quick to point out that the possible changes to the Caras Park area could top $20 million. He said they understand the public feels tapped out, and instead of floating a bond or using property taxes, the city may need to partner with a developer — something he called a “deal with the devil” as a city planner.

“Usually, we say you don’t give up public space because you will never get it back, but we can’t find any other way to pay for the improvements that people are looking at now,” he said. “This is one that our team had very mixed feelings about.”

The feedback on proposed changes to the Hip Strip were less supportive than those for Caras Park, with only about half voting in favor of the suggestions.

“So a lot of people are not feeling this idea. That’s good, and we’ll give this idea short shrift,” King said. “We don’t want divisive ideas. We are searching for consensus ideas that everyone agrees upon.”

The parking garage and proposed improvements near the depot and north in the old rail yard rated high in the unscientific poll, too.

King said they’re also suggesting Missoula incorporate more “big art” overall, showing photos of Chicago’s silver bean or “Cloud Scape” sculpture in Millennial Park. Missoula is starting down the right path with the XXXXs near the depot and the Go with the Flow blue swirl near the Park Place parking structure.

“You need more big art overall,” King said, adding the city should erect walls around the downtown electrical substation and adorn them with murals. “Small art is beautiful too.”

Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership, noted the ideas King presented came from more than 1,020 people who attended four days of meetings this week. Spider McKinght added that as part of the effort, she’s been to about 130 meetings since October to gather input.

“We had a huge, robust turnout that kind of brings tears to my eyes because people love downtown and it shows,” McCarthy said. “It’s been exciting and rewarding.”

More information and updates can be found at missouladowntown.com.

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